In ancient Israel mourners displayed their grief by smiting their chests and tearing their clothes. For seven days, at least, they wouldn’t dress themselves, make their bed, take a bath, or do any work at all.
I understand that. Today we mourn the loss of a young man in our church. And no one feels like doing anything. It is the morning after death that Emily Dickinson describes, writ large across an entire congregation.
Daniel, 23, was involved in a bicycle accident Friday evening, and never recovered consciousness until he died Sunday night. He was a strong, friendly and godly young man who served others faithfully and cheerfully. Active in almost every program in our church, he had given himself completely to God.
His family will miss him the most, of course. It’s a large family, and he was the oldest of seven sons. His brothers, his sister and his parents were very close to him and to each other. Their grief is so very great.
But I was also moved by the huge outpouring of love and prayer online by the many young people who knew him. The web became a way of keeping up and reaching out.
There were blog posts, of course. Kim Hoyt, whose children grew up with him, posted from Argentina. She writes:
We just aren’t able to see the big picture. Sometimes we are left heartbroken and confused by circumstances beyond our control. But we have the express, written promise of God that we will be overwhelmed by what He has prepared for those who love Him.
But she pointed to his bio for a software program he just built and pulled photos off Facebook. Facebook itself became a powerful way for his friends to process their grief, sharing prayers and memories constantly throughout the weekend.
What is clear is that suddenly many people were praying and asking others to pray. Linnea Svensson, who only knew him for a short time in Chicago, wrote “I’m mobilizing Sweden, my friend.” Someone else assured him that churches all over Oklahoma were praying.
Certainly more traditional connections were involved. At 3 in the morning college students who didn’t go to our church or even know him were on their knees in my living room praying. And the church prayer chain emails sent out, even to former college student who had attended our church. There were phone calls in the night.
But Facebook provided an ever-expanding web of compassion and care. The Jackson Citizen Patriot picked up the story based on Facebook chatter, as friends of friends of friends joined in. When I posted a link about the funeral arrangements, it was reposted on 12 other networks in 20 minutes. My son collected over 120 photos in a few hours.
The stream flowed online just as it did offline, as dozens of young people who had known him as a teacher, mentor, coach or friend passed through the hospital room, often speaking directly to him in their posts, telling them they were coming or had been there, even thought they knew he was completely unaware.
His Facebook profile became a resource, as the family posted updates. During an impromptu worship service in a hospital waiting room, a slide show from his profile pictures played while friends and family prayed and sang. And then, when Daniel passed on Sunday evening, his page became a way for his peers to sort things out.
Dr. Heidi Horsley, an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work, says “The younger generation is setting the stage for a new model of grieving,” which includes, among other things an archive of ones life that remains long after the funeral. According to a column in the New York Times, Facebook already hosts thousands of memorialized accounts of deceased users so their friends and family can continue to post photos and comments.
This is no shrine. It’s an ongoing conversation. Someone quoted the last thing he said on Facebook. But someone also reposted a poem from a note Daniel wrote four years ago:
How long must I be on this earth
to serve mankind?
to bear the pain of life?
to bear the pain of others?
Give me Your love strongly enough
to love the world with Your love;
Lord, please let me love others enough
to live for them.
Oh, that I can feel Your hand even now,
while in betrothal,
before You complete Your vows.
Friends search this archive of his life, searching for hidden meaning that seems almost prescient. They quote the Scriptures he liked and remember the songs he sang.
They are not looking for the hidden meaning of his life, however, but of their own.
It will take more than seven days.