When my father was killed in a car accident in late 2012, I wasn’t exactly the last to know. But I was hardly the first.
My grandma called me three hours after my father was killed on an icy highway; his car jumped the median and was hit by an oncoming semi-truck. I was in a 50s-themed diner, eating grilled cheese with my husband, son, and our friend Anna. The police had informed my father’s wife of two months of his death in person. She, in turn, went to tell my grandma in person.
It’s only fitting I was in a public space when I finally received such devastating news on my cell. By the time I heard about it, chatter about his death was everywhere.
My father spent 22 years as a high school principal in my hometown of St. Peter, Minn. Everyone in our small town of 11,000 knew him. In those three hours between the accident and the phone call, word spread rapidly, primarily thanks to Facebook and text messages. But I didn’t know that. I’d been out of the house all day and offline.
After carrying out the agonizing task of calling my brother and mother to deliver the news, I called my best friend, Jenny. She was crying when she picked up. “Tell me it’s not true,” she said. “Tell me they’re wrong!” I was baffled. How could she know already? I had just found out. Turns out someone from high school had texted her about the accident. Anger and disgust bubbled up inside me, as well as the panicked need to call my closest friends immediately.
I opened my laptop and checked email before making more phone calls, wondering who else might know the news. My inbox was a parade of distressed emails expressing condolences. Some were sent so early in the evening that had I been online earlier, I likely would have seen them before my grandma’s call. Many people had found out on Facebook (for which I did not yet have an account; if I had, I almost surely would have read about it there). Someone wrote they’d seen the news online. Lo and behold, a Google search yielded a local news site story showing a picture of the crash and my dad’s name. The time stamp on the story was an hour before my grandma’s call.
I had a sleepless night fielding calls, texts, and emails from people learning the news through one (or more) of myriad digital networks. No matter how quickly I dialed or typed, odds were I wasn’t the first to deliver this news — my news — to my select list of people. The next day I was flooded with sympathy emails, when, hardly 12 hours after the accident, the newspaper ran a picture of my father’s obliterated car on the front page and included his name (yet never reached out to us for comment).
I spent the next few days holed up in my bedroom closet; the isolation provided a private space for crying and a CentCom for receiving messages from nearly everyone I knew. I wanted to stop repeating myself — saying that he was killed, saying that he was dead. But I couldn’t ignore the incessant alerts of new messages on every device I owned.
Time to privately mourn, or even just take a breath before deciding how to announce a death, seems like a quaint thing of the past. The realization didn’t hit me until this whole mess went down that the actual news and what happens in the immediate aftermath are now tweet-worthy tidbits, Facebook posts, or quick texts arriving with a cheeky ping. Or nasty comments, such as one person posting on my personal blog that I hadn’t cried enough at my father’s funeral, as though I should have been publicly grieving for the nearly 1,000 attendees at the visitation and funeral instead of doing what I was doing — robotically moving in shock, crying in the small bits of privacy I could carve out.
I now watch in revulsion as people jump to post about deaths on Facebook or share a news story link or publicly speculate about the circumstances. I can’t help but think: You vultures. Back away. Someone has died; someone’s family is grieving.
Just because we can find and share news at any given second doesn’t mean we should.
Amanda MacGregor lives in Minnesota with her husband and son. When she’s not reading or reviewing young adult literature, she’s talking to teenagers about it or writing it. She tweets @CiteSomething and blogs at citesomething.com.