Icrontic has been around for twelve years. With thousands of people coming and going, variously circling in and out of the group as lives and times and interests change, old online communities like ours become a magnifying glass into the ebb and flow of the human experience.
Of course, death is a natural part of that experience, and we’ve had our fair share over the years. From natural causes to tragic accidents, our community has been through a lot of down moments. Thankfully, we’ve also experienced the joyous news of families, new children, marriages, and career successes that far outnumber the sad times.
This past week, however, hit us harder than we’ve ever been hit. One of our core community members lost his father suddenly and unexpectedly, right before our annual Oktoberfest gathering. The community reeled; we didn’t know how to help our dear friend cope with his shocking loss. For a man who has done so much for Icrontic over the years, we wanted to turn the tables and be there for him, but we didn’t know how. All we could do is take up a collection for his family to help with the funeral costs, and to make a small donation to a local charity in his father’s name. People sitting behind keyboards thousands of miles away, some in other countries, some on other continents, had only this one mechanism by which to extend their condolences. They can’t hug their friend while he weeps, so they do the only thing they can do. They write some words, maybe they call, maybe they email, maybe they open up Paypal. What can they do? None of it seems sufficient, especially when you cannot get there. This is the only true downside of online community—when your friends need you, physically, distance can be an insurmountable obstacle.
Soon after, those who could began gathering together for Oktoberfest, here in Detroit. This is an event that’s been going on for five years, and is our second largest annual community gathering. We anticipated over 50 people coming in from all over the country for this event. This was going to be an especially poignant gathering because it’s the first in our new headquarters.
The Icrontic gatherings have been going on since 2004. From small and humble beginnings, we have blossomed into a full-blown convention organization, culminating in Expo Icrontic every summer. Many community members save up their vacation days and travel accounts to come up, over, or down to Detroit to be with their online family. This event was going to be incredible.
On the first day, tragedy struck—again. What was supposed to be a fantastic party and community gathering has turned into a memorial service and an extended wake. For days now, a group of Icrontians has been together in a large house in Detroit coming to terms with the sudden loss of our friend.
It’s still abstract for me to type those words out. They happened just days ago. Spencer was in my living room, fifteen feet from where I’m sitting. I hugged him hello, told him I was glad he was here, and we struck up a normal nerdy conversation. He looked around the house, proud of the work he had done to help the progress of ICHQ Detroit (he did a ton of work sanding our front entrance ceiling, helping with wall repairs, and helping scrub grout stains off our new tile in the bathroom), and marveled at how far it had come in such a short time. He was just here.
I am extremely fortunate. I was here. I have extremely recent memories of Spence. I was part of the small group that last saw him alive. I feel guilty that people who were closer to him did not get that same treasure. I saw him moments before he died, and he was laughing. I have that memory and so many others don’t. I feel terrible about that.
What do we do?
I returned from the hospital after a long and horrible night, and came up to the front door. There was a group of people standing on the porch, crying. I grabbed the first person I saw and didn’t let go. We wept.
People milling around. From every corner of the house, you could hear either laughter or tears. Spencer was a tremendously comical person. He laughed loud and hard and often. When we tell stories of him, it’s almost impossible not to laugh. You can only cry so much.
Stories. Speculation. Rumors. Whispers. Weeping. Shouting.
Should the party go on? Should I cancel my trip? Should we do the beer tasting? What should we do?
The group came to the consensus that the costume party and gaming would carry on. Spencer would definitely not have wanted us to cancel the event on his behalf, and he most certainly wouldn’t want us to not game. Gaming was his greatest joy.
Fuck it, we said, we’re carrying on. For Spencer.
I had guilt about this new sudden tragedy overshadowing the other recent tragedy, the loss of one of my best friends’ dad. I sent him a text message. “I’m thinking about you.” Here is a person who is suffering alone, hundreds of miles from his Icrontic family, who has just lost his father, and now he has to deal with finding out one of his good friends died in a senseless car accident, before his father’s memorial service is even complete. Why can I not have a magic wand? I am the community manager for this group, and more than ever I felt completely and utterly powerless. I wanted to be able to get everybody into a room together for a group hug.
Being thousands of miles away when your friend dies, without enough money to get an emergency plane ticket. What can you do? You need information, you want to talk to people. The group is there—away—inaccessible. They are healing, talking, laughing, hugging, crying. You need to be a part of that, yet you cannot.
The Icrontic community is the most generous online community in the world—I am convinced of that. In this past week, thousands of dollars have been raised to help with funeral expenses and plane tickets. People made discreet arrangements. People flew in. Friends arrived, and got the laughter, tears, screams, and hugs out that they so desperately needed. If only it could have been everyone. If only.
There is a lot of survivor’s guilt going on. Two cars left for the restaurant that night. My son was in one, and I am so, so glad he wasn’t in the other. My other son decided not to come that night because he was having a party with his friends. If he had come, he almost certainly would have been in that car. I am so, so glad he wasn’t. I feel terrible about that, and I am struggling with my guilt for thinking those thoughts, while at the same time understanding that it’s completely rational and normal for me to have them. Group therapy has been helpful. We’re all starting to share our feelings and dark thoughts. If I had chosen a different restaurant, Spencer would be alive. If Spencer had gotten in the other side, it may have been Nick instead. If Spencer came with me. If I hadn’t stopped to pee on the way out of the house. If we had left ten seconds later or sooner. If, if, if.
There was a lot of speculation about the driver of the other vehicle. Violent, angry rants about revenge. Calm, rational discourse. Drunk, not drunk. Male, female. We were looking for a focus. We needed a bad guy to pin this on. We needed to make sense of this. Of course it was a loud, obnoxious, easy-to-hate drunk driver. What else could it be? Or a mother. Or a grandfather. Or a brother or cherished son with a promising career ahead of him. Maybe a teacher. Maybe a volunteer. Maybe a social worker. Maybe a drug addict or a thug. Maybe a dealer or a criminal. We don’t know, so we create characters.
Today we say goodbye. Today is the funeral, and today is the end of the gathering. After people grieve again, they will scatter and disperse back to their homes around the country.
Icrontic is forever changed by this. We have had a unique opportunity to really come to terms with the death of a dear friend, in a group setting full of open communication, no barriers, and true companionship. We are very, very lucky for that. This is not the first tragedy in our community, nor will it be the last… It was, however, one of the most educational.
Icrontic will carry on. For Bart, for Keith, for Angel Heather, for Eric’s dad, for all the others who we have lost along the way. For Spencer.