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Dear Dr Mark.

Recently, I have had the misfortune of having someone from an internet community I frequent pass away. I seem to be taking this news with quite a lot of difficulty and I’m honestly not sure why. This is a person I did not know personally but the news of their passing seems to have taken quite a toll on me and from what I understand, I’m not the only one having difficulty with their death or the death of a person in a community like ours. Why is this?

I’m very sorry for your loss. Whether you knew the person in real life or not, I’m guessing you felt a meaningful connection, which is not surprising. The internet provides an opportunity to get to know people without knowing them “personally.” We feel a sense of community with fellow travelers and come to really care about them. Gaming communities can be particularly intense this way because we not only socialize with fellow gamers, we participate in a meaningful, evocative, and intense shared experience. This creates a cultural history of progress, failures, inside jokes, and silly language that amounts to some very strong bonding.

If you participated in this kind of gaming community with the person, I can understand that his or her death would hit hard. While our gaming avatars may die and be resurrected endlessly, our flesh and blood existences are finite, and the reality of this is even jarring for people who don’t enjoy the shared fantasy of gaming.

Lacking ties to your friend’s real life, and perhaps living far away from the deceased, you likely have had no way to participate in rituals of mourning that can make dealing with a death more tolerable. I’m not a big fan of funerals, but having attended more than my fair share recently (I’m at any age where many of my friends’ parents are passing on), I can see the comfort they offer–a way to fully honor and remember the person, a chance to share pain and grief with others who also cared, and for some, a religious conception of death that makes it easier to tolerate. Funerals are truly for the living–they provide an opportunity to come together and help each other through a very difficult passage.

There may be other reasons this person’s death has taken “quite a toll” on you. Many gamers are young adults who may have not had the occasion to cope with a death. Of course, others are exposed to this unpleasant reality quite early in life. Without a framework for responding to death based in your real-life community, it can be very hard to know how to deal with it.

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Many young adults have an unrealistic sense of immortality based on more infrequent contact with death and illness, and the excellent health and good functioning that a younger body can usually provide. This can certainly add to the shock of confronting death. It’s hard to believe that our bodies can age and even fail when yours works so well. Of course, I don’t know if you are indeed a young adult, but I’m responding to this question as if you fall into this most likely demographic for readers of The Escapist.

This event may be affecting you on some deeper level as well. If you’ve had a loss, a new one can reopen the old wound and remind you of past hurt. This would be especially germane if the person who died bore some resemblance to someone you lost, or filled a similar role. If the loss were of a more traumatic variety, this effect could be even more powerful.

So what is there to do about all this? If internet communities can elicit these feelings, then it’s appropriate to ask what they could do to help members deal with them. You say others in your community are also having difficulty with this death. It sounds like a great opportunity to mobilize the strength of this group so you can all help each other out. Why not some sort of online gathering where you can talk about the person you’ve lost and how it’s affecting you all? Maybe you’ll be pioneers in creating a 21st century ritual: the online wake.

If this loss continues to take a toll, perhaps it’s worth the effort to contact or visit family members and loved ones of this person. This might afford the chance to pay your respects and let them know he or she affected people they didn’t even know about, and you might feel better in return.

You might also find comfort in some kind of gesture to honor this person’s memory. While this often means a donation to a cause or charity that meant something to them, it could also mean carrying on some aspect of their work through volunteering your time.

Readers of The Escapist may have other ideas about how you could mourn this loss. It’s often a matter of time to process such a thing, and the amount of time it takes varies widely from person to person. While it can be helpful to think of stages of grieving as part of the process, my experience is that many of us go through this in our own unique way, so it becomes more difficult to define a clear path that applies to everyone.

If a considerable amount of time has passed and you still find yourself pre-occupied, seek counseling. To do so doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t going through a normal mourning process, just that you could benefit from some assistance in putting this loss in perspective.

Good luck with all of this, and thanks for your very interesting question.

Dr. Mark Kline thinks his iPhone would be better if it had an electric razor built in. Have a question for Dr. Mark? Send it to [email protected]. Your identity will remain confidential.

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