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When a Facebook friend dies

Jim Sutherland used this photo of himself on his Facebook page.

Story highlights

  • Frida Ghitis was shocked by the death of a friend on Facebook
  • She says the news pointed up that Facebook friends can be real friends
  • Online, people express themselves with a special openness, she says

I was half asleep when I first read the news, so I was sure I must have misunderstood. The words on the small screen in my hand said, "Rest in Peace, Jim." I sat up and looked at the phone again, trying to make sense of it. I couldn't.

My friend Jim had died suddenly, unexpectedly at the age of 56.

Soon, an avalanche of grief rolled across Facebook, carrying a mix of shock, sorrow, disbelief -- and genuine love.

I had met Jim Sutherland many years before when we were both on staff at CNN. But we never really worked together, and we did not become friends back then. In fact, I'm not sure we ever spoke. Friendship came much later, when we connected on Facebook, and Jim became an unlikely part of my everyday life. I learned about his family, his interests, his intensity. And I discovered his many talents and strong political beliefs.

Frida Ghitis

Social media had come along and created a new way to have a friend.

He had continued working in media production, but his passion -- I should say one of his many passions -- was playing the trumpet, which he did brilliantly. I went to hear him play, in person, but our friendship was almost completely online.

I have often used quotation marks in the past when referring to a Facebook "friend" with more than a touch of sarcasm. Are Facebook connections really friends?

I have absolutely no hesitation in using the word to describe my relationship with my dear friend Jim, whose absence from my daily life has left a palpable emptiness. I miss him. Something has truly changed in my life because he's gone.

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And I'm not alone. Hundreds and hundreds of people have poured out their emotions in that electronic community. At times, it feels as real, as close, as if we were standing in the same room. In some respects, we are closer.

Online, people express themselves with a special openness. They don't have to wait their turn to speak, and the ones with small voices or introverted personalities can convey big, profound, touching emotions. Online we can develop a kind of intimacy that eluded us in the nonvirtual world. On social media, we can share -- as Jim so often did -- big and small parts of our life, without worrying that others are too busy or simply not interested in hearing it.

Facebook allows us to renew contacts with people thousands of miles away, an extraordinary resource for those of us who have lived and worked around the world, and have cherished friends thousands of miles away.

Messages for Jim came from distant lands. Many wrote as if he were still there; as if he were reading all our comments, surely about to answer, or at least click "like."

His sister Holly told me the family has drawn comfort from the outpouring of love, including from people he never met in person.

"Rest in peace my friend," so many have said, adding their personal touch, "Enjoy that great jazz gig in the sky." "May your soul fly free." People commented on his intensity and his compassion. Friends posted poems and pictures' and urged Jim to "shake things up" in his new digs. Some asked him to say hello for them to others who have moved on.

Several said they had never met Jim in person, but their online friendship had developed into something truly meaningful. Among them was another man called Jim Sutherland, whose connection was based on their shared name. I had already heard that story years ago from Jim on his Facebook page

For a time, Jim was posting a picture of his morning cappuccino, displaying his flowery foam designs. He frequently changed his profile image. Some were playful, others serious. He posted his father's or his mother's photograph in honor of Veterans Day or some other special occasion. He spoke of his childhood as a military brat, of his father's heroism in wartime and his mother's own heroics while Dad was away. He linked videos of his recording sessions, praised other musicians and argued for social justice.

In occasional conversations, some on his page, some in private messages, he taught me about cinematography, he jovially explained the meaning of the military expression "Hua!" -- "Heard, understood, acknowledged" he said. "Hua?" he asked? "Hua!" I dutifully replied.

Jim was one of those guys with an opinion about everything. Facebook was perfect for him, and he was perfect for us, the ones who wonder around the edges and jump in for a quick dip every once in a while.

Mostly, he shared his views and his ideas, and he supportively commented on what the rest of us did and said and showed about our lives.

During my first few months on Facebook, I occasionally posted some of my articles on world politics, and Jim was quick to comment and debate. He loved politics and almost always took a strong leftist position, always displaying a steady social conscience. Whether you agreed or not, there was no denying that he came to it from concern for other human beings.

Eventually, I decided to leave politics out of my Facebook life -- although I occasionally slip -- and to try to make it more casual, about friends, leaving other social media, Twitter and LinkedIn, for more controversial matters.

Jim, on the other hand, put it all out for the world to see, or at least for all his friends to see. He had a modern version of integrity that went well with his intensity. I stayed out of his political battles but often enjoyed reading them, watching him fearlessly take on the world on every topic.

Since the morning I learned of Jim's death, I've started hesitating a bit before reaching for the phone in search of the latest updates. Facebook, I have discovered, can sometimes bring very sad news. That's because, as I have learned, it brings news about very real friends.

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