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We are writers. We have embarked on a new phase in our lives: one where exploration, discovery, learning, adventure and
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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Facing The Third Phase Online

When I was a girl, I remember my parents reading the obit pages of The Hamilton Spectator to see if anyone they knew had died. I found the activity not only morbid but incomprehensible. Now, of course, I have friends who do the same thing. I don't read newspapers - in paper form - any more and don't go hunting on line for obits so I've lost the tradition of the generations before me who checked the mortality of their acquaintance and reaffirmed their own each day by scanning those pages.

In the past eighteen months, two women I have admired greatly have died - one quite suddenly. Emails circulated with the news but before that I'd learned the raw emotional details from family members who used their Facebook accounts.

One grieving husband announced his wife's death by messaging her friends on her account, and then responding to those who responded back with details of the funeral as they came together. It was an eerie feeling to log into Facebook and learn I had a message from my dead colleague.

I first joined Facebook for my work; I needed to keep up with the subjects of a book I was writing and they were all on Facebook. But when I left my place of employment after more than 20 years I came to learn its value on a personal level. Facebook became a way of checking in with people still working there or people, like me, who had left.

There's been debate about the term "friends," as it applies to Facebook. Do some people really have 332 "friends?" But for me, Facebook replaced the kind of friendly conversations I had in the workplace about where people were going on holidays, what movies they were seeing, how their children were doing. Those conversations made me feel that I belonged to a community. I might not dine or even go out for coffee with all I encountered in a day. But we shared a telling of our stories that made the workplace human. And I missed that terribly when I became a sessional instructor and a freelance writer. Facebook helped a lot.

I'm not alone in that feeling. As more of more of my former colleagues retire they suddenly become Facebook aficionados. That's perhaps why in late 2013,  Forbes magazine reported that seniors were the fastest growing group on Facebook. Any why there are Facebook for dummy books for seniors.

Grandparents love Facebook. Their photo status can command a much larger audience than the photo book stuffed in a purse.

Travels, new homes, second careers are all the stuff of Facebook postings by people in The Third Phase. For some, Facebook, becomes the promotional vehicle for their latest projects (guilty); for others it's a place to share an observation, a good article, a moment of joy in a good meal, a new garden flower (guilty) or a hack that's worked for them.

One thing I really came to appreciate about Facebook was how I was able to reconnect to people I'd lost over the years, often through my own neglect. In Toronto, a few years back I finally went to a reunion of women from my university residence and, after the event, linked to a few on Facebook. I came to exchange lively messages with a woman in B.C. whom I'd known well in my twenties. Pat Hibbits had become the vice-president of Simon Fraser University. And her Facebook posts were impressive; she gathered photos her friends had taken around the world and linked them to an album called "your views this morning." She reported on the long illness and death of her husband. She posted on sports, on politics, her children, food deals in Vancouver and the good or bad behavior of that city's citizens. And her private messages always showed an interest in my endeavours and the blogs Peter and I wrote. I felt I was rediscovering her vast intelligence and her caustic, grew-up-on-a-farm earthy wit.

So I was shocked to open Facebook one morning and discover a message posted by Pat's son. One of her children had found her collapsed and disoriented; doctors at the hospital discovered a brain tumor and operated the next day. Two days later her son posted that she had died.

I felt the same emptiness I felt when colleagues from work suddenly disappeared. Turning down a hallway where I might run into them, I'd feel the loss each time. Now when I sign into Facebook, I miss Pat's vivacious presence on the newsfeed.

Facebook has it critics and privacy is a concern. And, of course, it can never replace the pleasure of sitting and talking to flesh and blood friends. But I feel grateful that I came to know my old college friend again after all those years. It's fitting that her Facebook page is now a place for friends to remember her. I have her last message for that. A month before she died, she wrote to say she had read Peter's book on his mobility issues and to send her compliments; she described the pain of her own debilitating arthritis. She ended by saying: " I hope aging is very good to you and Peter."  D

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