Wednesday, 14 April 2010

A serious post - friends, bereavement and Facebook.

And probably off-piste slightly although the people I'm about to write about were part of my life for a while and so, to me, they are family.

In the late nineties when I was in my early 30s, I worked for a company that was a UK owned with a US office in Atlanta. I was their customer services manager and their IT manager. (I know, I wish I got double salary... ;-) ). As we had a US office, I didn't have much to do with support to US customers but I did have dealings with the support team there sharing information and tips, us helping them to chase fixes that were in development, and so on. In the course of my work, I came into contact with a lady called Ellen. Now, Ellen was the first person I ever met who used the phrase "y'all" without the slightest hint of irony. She was a Southern belle about 10 years older than me. Born in Savannah, she now lived in Atlanta and had worked for the company for years. We reached the stage where we were in touch daily, via the internal phone network about work problems, but we got on so well, our conversations inevitably spilled over into work gossip and talking about other stuff.

That "other stuff" was quite a lot actually - we were both in our personal lives going through a lot of difficulties and coming to the point of making some very tough decisions about our respective lives. Ellen helped me through and I helped Ellen. We laughed and we cried - often in the same phone call -  and oh God, were we on the phone to each other a lot, timezones permitting. All I can say is it is a damned good job that the phone calls were going along a dedicated line and weren't charged by the minute because I suspect we would have both been in big trouble, though I hasten to add, we never let work go totally by the wayside. She had a brilliant sense of humour and was full of stories, about work colleagues, our boss (we could've written a book), her life, anything really. She was warm and caring, and you couldn't fail to like her. Unless you got on the wrong side of her and then you knew about it. Thankfully, I never did.

Ellen loved Europe, largely because, at the time, attitudes to smoking were a lot more relaxed than in the US. She visited a few times for work, so we did at least meet for real then and she came to a sales event that the company held in Dublin and we must have spent four days catching up in person.

I probably would have worked at the company a lot longer had I not decided to make the move to Lancashire, because that was the major change to my life I decided to make for various reasons that don't concern this blog. But leave I did, and some time after, Ellen moved to the UK to take part of my job. We kept in touch reasonably well. I remember calling her after midnight at the Millennium - and she asked me if any planes had fallen out of the sky or the lights had gone off (we worked in IT and neither of us ever believed that would happen).

As she moved to the UK, she got involved with one of the other staff at the UK office. Jim was someone I had previously worked with and a true gentleman. Older than Ellen, he clearly adored her. Eventually, they married. Ellen loved the UK and happily lived with him in London. She really was living her dream, after a difficult time in previous relationships.

Although we kept in touch, the contact inevitably waned a little as life got in the way. Chiefly, for me, that was having children. However, not long after I had my second child, she got made redundant and they decided to move back to the US. She was from a Irish Catholic background and ultimately, she missed her mom and her huge extended family. They moved back to Savannah, where she was born, and was close to her mom again.

During the late noughties, I started to get in touch again with lots of former colleagues from this company, first through Linked In and then via Facebook. Inevitably, someone set up a group for former employees on Facebook. I remember thinking "I wonder if Ellen is on here" but never quite got round to searching for her, despite finding others through chance or design. I nearly searched for her one day but something distracted me and I never did.

And then, a month or so ago, I logged onto Facebook and for some reason, visited the group. On the wall was a post that day from another former colleague who'd worked with her in Atlanta for many years announcing that she had died suddenly at the weekend. I went numb; I was in total and utter shock. How could this woman, who was so totally full of life with a huge love of life, now be dead? She was only 55. What made it worse for me was the fact that I couldn't attend her funeral mass and also that the funeral fell on Monkey's birthday.

I heard about the funeral second-hand from those still living out there who went to say goodbye to Ellen. They passed on a message from Jim, obviously also our former work colleague, saying that he planned to return to the UK after he'd sold their place in Savannah. I heard that he'd been ill too but was bearing up. I couldn't imagine how he must have been feeling.

Then, about a week ago, Jim's name popped up on Facebook as a friend suggestion so I added him, thinking it would be nice to get in touch and send my sympathies about Ellen to him directly. I was not prepared for what happened next.

On Monday night, I was online and busy so not really checking my emails as they were coming in. Close to midnight, I looked down the list of emails to see that I had a message from him on Facebook. Unfortunately, it was not from him at all. It was from his daughter, informing me that he'd died too. I've since found out that he spent Easter Sunday with Ellen's family, having dinner with them all. On Monday, he couldn't be reached so they went to his place, whereupon Ellen's mum found him and in the words of my former work colleague who relayed the news to us, "he died of an apparent heart attack - or most likely a broken heart". For the second time in a month, I was bereaved courtesy of Facebook. Jim died almost a month to the day after Ellen.

To be honest, I am still in shock. It is all so terrible that I can't quite get my head round it at the moment. It is so desperately sad. The only comfort for all of us left behind that they are probably reunited now wherever their souls are now. Knowing Ellen, they'll be having a blast. They'll both be happy. At least I hope they are.

For me, this has been an odd time. I've heard of the deaths of people I've known online before now and yes, it has been shocking. But these people were very real to me and a big part of my life - and I found out about their deaths via my computer. I even had to compose a sympathy email to Jim's daughter who'd sent me the Facebook message as she gave me her email address. I couldn't not email her but at first I struggled what to say but eventually words flowed and I shared my memories of her dad as a work colleague.

These people were part of my life once, even if it was some time ago and we worked together for less than two years. It was an important time. I made some big decisions around then, largely with Ellen's help. They turned out to be the right ones, because more than ten years later, I am living in the same place in the same house. The thing I am finding hardest is the way we didn't make contact again before she died - and the same goes for Jim. It is too late to regret not finding them, but I am upset I didn't make more of an effort. I'd rather not have found out via Facebook with all the social networking that goes on there, but really, it was the only way I would've found out.

Next time I am thinking of someone and wondering what ever happened to them, I will go search for them straight away - even if I can't find them, I will at least feel I've tried. Life is full of missed opportunities sometimes. These feel like two of the biggest that have happened in mine.

RIP Ellen and Jim. May you be reunited in love forever.


  1. That's so sad. You often hear of spouses dying quite quickly after, as you say, from a broken heart.

    Sadly, without facebook you might not have got to find out about their deaths at all.


  2. There are some things the heart simply cannot withstand...

    It's a bittersweet story and a heartfelt post, Kate. I agree we realise the bonds are tenuous only when it's too late, but as VBC says, better to have learned via Facebook than not at all.

  3. You are so right, we all need to realise that life is a precious gift and that not a minute should be wasted. I hope you are ok x


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