Virtues of Virtual Relationships: Shiva and Social Media

'in memoriam' photo (c) 2009, SpecialKRB - license:
I was sitting with my friend, T. at the shiva for her father. “I want you to write about this,” she says suddenly. “I don’t know how to write. I know you’ll write something poignant, with humor, like you always do.” We’ve taken care of the humor, at least. Here is the story.

T. made aliyah as a child with her family. After she married, she and her Israeli husband went to the US for schooling,   and ended up staying for 16 years. They returned to Israel 8+ years ago. Every so often T., who is very careful with money, would lament that they never made it back to the US for a fun visit — it just never worked out (her DH went twice for business).
Then one day a co-worker mentioned a good deal for a week in Las Vegas, hotel included.  Now, T. and her husband don’t gamble, but there is lots to see and they wanted to replace their laptops that had been stolen recently in a burglary. So they took the deal.

T. spent a lot of time planning, including buying a slow-cooker to cook Shabbat meals in the hotel room. They arrived, did their shopping, and spent Shabbat in the hotel as planned. On Sunday night, they went out to see Cirque du Soliel. When they came back to the hotel, they found a message from T.’s brother.  Their father had died in Israel, where it was already Monday morning.

Although the father had been sick for many years, they had no warning that the end was so close. T.’s brother and sister offered to delay the funeral until T.’s return, but she didn’t feel right about it. A person needs to be buried as soon as possible, and what kind of honor would it be to have her father waiting for her to arrive? What if the flight didn’t come in on time? And how could she leave her mother and siblings in limbo? In the end the funeral was held the day of his death, on Monday afternoon.  From the few options available, T. arranged for a flight that arrived on Wednesday morning.

At this point T. turned to her large social network on Facebook. For instance, she asked me to look over the short obituary that her son would be reading on her behalf. A rebbetzin from Raanana explained to her how to do kriah, to make a rip in her shirt symbolic of the beginning of the mourning period, and cover the mirrors. Another Rebbitzin in Ireland gave more advice. It was important for her to do these things at the same time her family was doing them in Israel.

At the funeral in Israel, her son used an iPhone’s camera so that T. could watch in real time, and listen to the eulogies from her hotel room.  This made her feel as if she were physically attending the funeral.But what T. was most grateful for was the extended comfort she received from her virtual friends beginning with the wait in her hotel room until it was time to depart for the  flight from Las Vegas to Tel Aviv, which included  an 8-hour layover in Heathrow. Friends from different time zones “sat” with her throughout this time,” listening” to T.’s memories of her father and keeping her from sinking into dark thoughts.
Eventually she got back to Israel and joined her family for the rest of the non-virtual shiva, where I (among many others) was able to comfort her in person. (MiI: T. added that in review).

Unless you have sat shiva yourself, it’s difficult to fully appreciate the sense of rawness and vulnerability. Like T., I found the death of my father to be a time in my life that investment in virtual friendships paid off.  Just like it does in real life relationships.

When I looked back over the post I wrote summing up the shiva for my father, I am surprised at how much more personal it was than other posts here. The period of shiva fills you with tremendous appreciation for even the smallest gesture of kindness.  The sense of being part of a community, the notion that people are caring for you, and the simple act of human contact and communication, whether physical, verbal or virtual, hit straight to the heart.

May your father’s memory be for a blessing.

Related posts:

Hijacking Victim Recalls: I Wanted to Go to Entebbe (another unusual long-distance shiva story)

Birth, Death, Illness and Breastfeeding

A Stranger in the House


  1. I am really sorry to read this (I think I know who T. is, not that that is the important part), but I am pleased that she had so much support at a difficult time.

    Even when someone is very sick, especially if it has been for a while, one doesn’t know what the timing will be.

    You are a good friend, Hannah.

  2. As some one who went through the process recently & has friends around the world, I want to say how much this post means to me. I’m still sort of choked up so I can’t say much.
    Just 2 things I want to say:
    shortly before my mother died, the online etiquette column on Slate dealt with the question of announcing deaths on facebook. They thought it was tacky. I thought they had no idea what it is like for some of us who have lived our lives on 2 continents. One of the 1st things we did was post on fb and included shiva arrangements 1st in Israel and then in the States. We had such an incredible outpouring of support and memories of my mother, of blessed memory.
    And of course, it meant so much to me to have an in-person visit from MiL who until that point had been a virtual friend.

    • Hi Miriam, I would tell immediate relatives before sharing on Facebook, but I can’t see how it’s tackier than any other public announcement. I once got an event invitation to a shiva.
      I’m so glad the post spoke to you. I hope next time we meet it will be for a happy occasion. {{hugs}}

  3. Unfortunately, I had the similar horrible moment with my grandma. She was sick for years, but it came so out of the blue when she passed away…There is no proper moment for that…

  4. You have certainly written beautifully about a painful episode. T. is lucky to have had the support she needed and to have you as a friend.

  5. It’s amazing how much support the online world offers. Yesterday I had a very minor setback (l’havdil from something serious like a death) that upset me, and friends from around the world were right there to cheer me up. It’s simply wonderful how friends can be close so much more easily!

  6. When my father passed away 18 months ago, my husband posted information on his facebook page, but it didn’t occur to him to post it on mine, and some people missed information because of that.
    So I would caution people not to overlook that thing.

    And yes, my Facebook and blogging worlds were very comforting to me when I was sitting shiva and in the days and weeks following…