Thanks to Facebook, I played Tom Sawyer at my own internet funeral.
On November 11, 2016, thanks to a Facebook bug, a banner appeared at the top of many people’s profiles announcing to the world that they had died. “We hope people who love [name] will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate their life,” the banner read. Though the bug didn’t affect my account, this wasn’t my first brush with Facebook death. My first encounter came two years before, almost to the day, when I was on the brink of death in real life.
I had been in a diabetic coma since October 22, 2014, and from what I now know about the weeks following my hospitalization from the stories I’ve been told, those weeks were a surreal and grueling period of confusion and grief for my family, friends and my comedy community in Chicago. Once word spread that I was in the hospital, comatose and unresponsive, my friends started a daily vigil in a Facebook group. There, they posted memories, prayers and well-wishes for me, my family and each other at the same time every morning. It was the most they could do in an absence of change to my condition and a lack of direct actions to effect it.
While my friends gathered on Facebook, my family was in turmoil. I was connected to a mess of tubes and machines that regulated my bodily functions and put on heavy sedative meds to keep my body from thrashing about and rejecting those life-saving measures. The staff at the Chicago hospital where I lay unconscious periodically attempted to shock my system awake by lowering my dosage of sedatives, but after three weeks, there was no substantial change in my condition.
At that point, my dad says, the “fog of war” settled in. My family held onto hope for a miracle, but they were distraught and beaten down, both mentally and physically, from the strain of decision-making and traveling back and forth between Chicago and Cincinnati, where they lived. Unsure how to proceed and misinformed by the director of the hospital ICU, they faced the possibility of taking me off life support.
Thus, on November 12, 2014, they invited all those friends of mine who had gathered on Facebook to come to my hospital room and say their good-byes. Some time during the night, people assumed my family had pulled the plug. On November 13, 2014, I was pronounced dead?—?on Facebook.
Statuses from across the country and numbering in the high dozens, if not the hundreds, appeared on my wall, eulogizing me. Perhaps I’m narcissistic, but I believe Timehop was created specifically for me to remind me of this exact date in perpetuity.
In fact, I had not died (surprise!). Thanks to some legal sleuthing, a nurse found that I failed to meet all the requirements of the Illinois Surrogate Act for taking someone off life support. So I was transferred to a hospital in Cincinnati better equipped to deal with cases like mine and where I could be closer to my family. Three days after being transferred, I woke up.
How that happened is part-mystery, part-story-for-a-different-installment-of-this-series. However, when I woke up, I received an outpouring of love from my friends expressing shock and gratitude at this miraculous ending to a story they thought was over. I was Lazarus. I was Jesus. I was Andy Kaufman. A majority of these interactions happened on Facebook, and for the first time in my life since my initial awe at its inception, I was grateful for Facebook because it was actually connecting me with the people I loved and who loved me.
Before, my feelings toward Facebook were a fairly typical mixture of contempt for the blows to my self-esteem it inflicted by allowing me to constantly compare my life and comedy career to others’ combined with a begrudging acceptance of its necessity as a tool for raising my public profile and keeping me in touch with distant friends. Post-coma, I saw Facebook in its purest and most benevolently utilitarian form. I saw that people cared about me and were following my progress, and I felt a part of my community while still in the hospital.
Despite my newfound perspective on Facebook, I didn’t discover the extent of the eulogies until I got out of the hospital. I spent three to four hours on the cusp of that New Year’s Eve into New Year’s Day reading them all. As I read, I was aware of being on the receiving end of a never-in-a-lifetime gift. I felt like Tom Sawyer at my own internet funeral.
The eulogies ranged from sweet memories of goofy things I had done to stories that touched on the thornier aspects of my personality in ways that redeemed them. It seemed that people understood my interpersonal intensity, my combativeness and my contrarianism in ways I never thought they could. Even a fellow comedian I had once come close to fist-fighting saw our altercation, in hindsight, as representative of my loyalty to my friends.
I couldn’t believe this. As a lifelong contrarian, I actually prided myself on being misunderstood, yet here I had concrete, digital evidence that I was understood to the core of my personality. I found myself thinking, I’m actually a pretty good dude. I did life right. I still sometimes have an overriding feeling of greedy giddiness. All of these eulogies are mine to keep now. I can go swimming in them whenever I want, like an emotional Scrooge McDuck.
Getting to read my own eulogies finally gave me the gravitas I always felt I deserved, but with that gravitas came an unexpected weight. I felt I had to live up to all of the positive things everyone said about me, which did not jibe with my view of myself. I confused their love for expectations.
Even now, two years post-coma, I am sober; fully recovered physically; in a healthy, adult relationship with a woman I love; and a more responsible person and productive comedian than ever before. By all accounts, I’m thriving. Yet the voice of my anxiety, which unfortunately did not get short-circuited by the acidity of my blood during ketoacidosis, is still present. It tells me I’m not good enough and that I’ve made no progress. Two years ago, my anxiety made it a real struggle to feel like I deserved as much love as I had received.
I wrote about this struggle in a post about my health and recovery on Facebook, and my best friend posted a comment that shed some light on my unique situation.
Knowing that I didn’t have to change myself to become worthy of my friends’ and family’s love freed me a bit. As hard as it still can be to accept, they love me for me?—?insecurities, aggressiveness and all.
At the same time, there is a difference between real love and displays of affection online. I realize that is obvious, but I found it surprisingly easy to confuse the two. Some of my best friends didn’t post eulogies at all. One of them later told me the pressure to sum up my life and our relationship in a few tidy paragraphs was just too much. On the flip side, not everyone who posted a eulogy showed up to the hospital, and I believe that’s one fairly reliable way to tell who your friends are. When shit goes down, real friends show up.
When I confused online affection for real love, I began noticing the weight of my own expectations. I became so used to all the attention I received that I expected it to continue forever. Rather than seeing this outpouring of support as a community’s response to a crisis, I felt it should be the status quo. Of course, that was unrealistic. I couldn’t just do nothing and expect eulogy-level attention to roll in constantly. That weight lessened as I learned to value the maintenance of my real-life relationships over the attention of my every acquaintance on Facebook.
What I learned from reading my own eulogies on Facebook is contained right in the text of the banner from that Facebook bug: “We hope people who love Dave will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate his life.” My eulogies were not for me. They were comfort for people who love Dave, not Dave. Eulogies are about the dead, but they are for the living. It just so happens that now I’m back among them.