The Medium Is the Message

I found myself wondering whether it was proper to respond to a text message about death with a text message expressing sorrow and an apology for not being able to be at the funeral. And if it's proper, what would a message like that include?

A year ago, I found myself pondering at length in front of the computer keyboard, writing, deleting, rewriting and so forth, until at last I arrived at the text I wanted. The reason for all the trial-and-error was not a creative block, or an attempt to refine some text ad infinitum, or to ensure that it was perfectly calibrated in terms of longing and lightness. The question, rather, was whether the means were appropriate to the end.

That morning I had learned of the death of a person whom I held in very high regard, with whom I had maintained a modicum of friendly relations, and whose son I also knew fleetingly. In ordinary circumstances, I would have gone to the funeral or paid a condolence call to the family. However, I had missed the funeral, and the death notice requested explicitly: Please refrain from paying condolence visits.

Thus I found myself looking at what I thought was the perfect condolence letter, but wondering whether to click on "Send." Choosing the other option - to ignore the request in the newspaper notice, if only by making a phone call - would, I thought, mean inflicting a hardship on the mourners. The only way left to express my feelings, then, was by sending an e-mail.

In a world in which the bulk of the correspondence between people has long since been via e-mail, there is ostensibly nothing wrong with sending a message of condolence by that means, just as no one is offended by receiving electronic birthday felicitations. Still, to use the same medium that usually plies me with offers to lengthen the penis, in order to convey intimate feelings such as are entailed by loss and grief, seemed - in a way that I find difficult to explain - to be wrong. In the end, I did not send that e-mail, but time did its thing, and since then I have sent no few e-messages of condolence.

Subsequently, during a trip abroad, I received a text message in which a girlfriend informed me of the death of a mutual acquaintance. Since my friend knew I would be abroad for at least three more weeks, the purpose of the message was not to prompt me to take action, but only to update me and allow us both to express our feelings by means of a brief exchange of messages relating to the passage of time and our approaching "turn."

Last week, though, I received a text message informing me of the death of a woman I loved very much. The message was sent by the woman's daughter, who was once my close friend, before years and distance cut us off from each other. I was stunned. I had expected something ordinary in my in-box - an announcement of a five-minute delay in reaching a meeting place, or a commercial offer to buy two bras for the price of one - but what arrived was a touching letter, couched in truly intimate language, yet one that was probably sent to most of the numbers stored in the memory of my friend's cellular phone.

The announcement included details about the time and place of the funeral, but I knew I would not be able to attend, because I was scheduled to be far away at that time. I tried to call my friend, but was immediately transferred to the voice mail. So I found myself wondering whether it was proper to respond to a text message about death with a text message expressing sorrow and an apology for not being able to be at the funeral. And if it's proper, what, if anything, would a message like that include?

All of a sudden, the cliches I had heard when sitting shiva and mourning for my parents came to mind. They were ancient cliches, but had seemingly been formulated especially for text messages, almost worth saving as a template: "With you in your grief"; "At least she didn't suffer"; "Be strong"; "Did she have cancer?"; "She had a full life"; "It's lucky your father died first - he would never have been able to handle it"; "She had such a happy marriage"; "Remember that you were a wonderful daughter"; "May you know no more sorrow"; "Are you sleeping okay? You have to eat something"; "We'll meet at the shiva."

In the end, I thought, I had already sent a text message of "Wow. Terrific. Mazal tov!" in response to the text message: "We have a daughter. 4.150 kilos." And I had already replied "Mazal tov! You pulled it off, pal!" to the text message: "We're getting married!" But a condolence text message on the death of a close friend's mother seemed to me completely inappropriate.

The proof, perhaps, is that I have not yet visited the new mother and did not, in the end, attend the wedding, whereas I went twice to the shiva, because you still can't send a hug by text message.