When I went to my grandmother's funeral, in Rockaway, in 1977, I was surprised at how people were laughing and exchanging gossip. It was a family event. She died young, at 66, so the family was still pretty large. My grandfather was there, even though they were divorced. I knew her pretty well, and I don't think she would have approved all the laughter. But dead people are dead. A funeral can be the place where that fact sinks in for the first time, and people are entitled to express themselves however they want. As long as it doesn't interfere with others expressing themselves, in their own ways.
When my uncle died, her son, many years later, I waited a day before writing about his passing. He had been a character on Scripting News, my blog. My uncle, along with Dan Gillmor and Jamis MacNiven, were the first people to use my Manila blogging software while it was in development in 1999. I often pointed to his site, and wrote about his adventures in Jamaica. But when he died, I didn't feel I was ready to write about it publicly for a bit of time. Probably because he was so close in age to me, just ten years older. A role model for me. And someone whose death hit me hard. I wanted to learn something from it before writing about it. At first I was just dazed. Stunned. Speechless.
Then, when my father died, a number of years after that, I wrote about it the day it happened. It was one of the pieces I am most proud of. Short and simple, and deeply truthful. I don't read it very often but when I do, I am reminded of the sadness, of the letting-go, of feelings that had been long held inside, becoming part of the past. In an instant. No longer issues. My father loomed large in my life. But I was ready to write about it because his death was a long time coming. We got a chance to talk about it, me and him. It still haunts me. But I didn't need a lot of time to process it, before I could say what I had to say.
In family, and online, I've come to respect the way people grieve is different for everyone, as it was for people at my grandmother's funeral, so many years ago. Everyone has a different process, and it could be different every time depending on who-knows-what. Death is something that I find impossible to understand. That's why it's so damned frightening. Maybe it's no more unpleasant than taking a trip. Maybe god is merciful and death is a pleasurable release full of spritual oxytocin. There are reasons to believe this might be so. Maybe death is something that's impossible to experience, much as we have no memory of existence from before conception? Death is a mystery, a horrifying one, if you love life. All the more horrifying if someone reaches a place where death is a choice they make. I find it especially hard to reach any conclusions about that.
When I was young, the father of the kids across the street, one winter day, killed himself in the basement of the house, with a gun. His son discovered the body. I've had a whole lifetime to process that event, and you know what -- I still don't have any wisdom from it. I don't understand, and my guess is that I never will. And it's hard to find anything meaningful to say about something you have no appreciation for.
I knew Aaron Swartz, not very well, but I did know him. I spent a fair amount of time yesterday reading his blog. Aaron was a voracious reader. And he really could write. And his ideas were good. I don't think enough people read his blog. Maybe more will do so now. And to repeat an oft-repeated theme here, maybe we can do something to make sure that his blog remains online as long as there is a web, which hopefully is quite a long time.
What good can come from his death? I think we have to set more reasonable expectations for our brilliant young people. It's true that Aaron was smart, and had a great capacity to learn. But he was just 26. And for many of the years we knew him, he was much younger. He was very much his age, emotionally, even if he had knowledge beyond his years. To expect so much of such a young person probably puts too big a weight on shoulders that aren't prepared for it. I feel that there's a connection between Aaron's suicide and the suicide of Ilya Zhitomirskiy, one of the founders of Diaspora, and Gene Kan, who was one of the developers of Gnutella.
I've had to deal with my share of death in my life, and one message I get from every one of them, approached from any direction, is that the dead are dead. Expressing love for their memory, support for the person, doesn't have much value, because they are not here to receive it. If you want to do something to honor a loved one's memory, be loving and kind to people who are still alive. That's the best thing you can do, always, every day.
PS: The shortened URL for this post is http://2ea.r2.ly/. A message?
This is part of what I mean about not judging people's way of expressing grief.
In some cultures funerals are drunken celebrations with songs and sex. Life-affirming parties to honor a friendly soul who liked to have a little fun every once in a while.
But the Internet that has gravitated around Aaron's soul is a very stern and gray one. Even puritan.
No matter. If I feel a sentence needs a smiley, then I'm putting a fucking smiley on it and if you don't like it fuck you. :-)
While I mourn Aaron, I'm not sure my post about his death is a form of grieving. Or maybe it is. Not sure. I just want it to be a service to people who knew him and cared about him and what he lived for. The private correspondence that accompanies the post is also important more important than I expected when I first put up the post. Lots of processing, together, much of it involving people who hardly know each other.
I wonder if what drives talented and promising young people like Aaron to suicide is a crisis of identity. Gene Kan considered himself a failure. I don't know aobut Ilya Zhitomirskiy, but I do know that Diaspora didn't live up to any optimist's expectations. I've been told that Aaron didn't want to be considered a felon, or a burden to others.
Self-definition is so huge for young people. And yet, it's not so important as it seems. I was fifty before I realized that I was none of the labels I carried, but simply my self. One result of that realization is that nearly everything I'm known for is stuff I've done since then. It's good to be liberated from the burden of expectations.
We'll never know exactly what drove Aaron to do what he did. He left no note. But I respect his family's claim that Aaron was hounded by a Javert-esque proscecutor who refused a plea bargain and wanted to make an example of Aaron by sending him to prison for a long time. This Wall Street Journal piece (alas behind a paywall) says pretty much the same thing.
I agree that the dead are dead. Their absoluteness of their absence is undeniable. We have no proof of life after death, and yet the dead remain present with us in many ways.
I remember one time, after my mother died, thinking of something I wanted to share with her. Immediately I sensed her presence, and heard her voice, telling me death is life's way of making sure we pass love along. "It's important that you can't give it to me," she said. "I gave my love to you. Now you pass some along to people who can use it."