Content warning: this post is about grief and contains references to suicide.
I am always haunted at Hallowe’en.
Not by ghosts in white sheets or creepy faces at the window. Just the kind of ghosts that live inside your head, half-forgotten until something draws them back to the surface and then all of a sudden you’re haunted again.
I’m not good at letting go of ghosts, in general. I’m not good at death, and I’m worse at mourning. Maybe this is a sign of privilege – that I’ve not had enough practice with it. So small griefs become bigger, burdens I should never have been carrying weighing me down because I never learned how to relinquish them.
And one of my ghosts comes out – appropriately enough – at Hallowe’en.
You know, one of the things I love about the internet is that no matter how niche or specific your interest, somebody out there has a blog about it, runs a website dedicated to it, spends their life researching it. You might be idly googling some lyrics to a traditional ballad and the next thing you know you’re on Tam Lin Balladry, scrolling through dozens and dozens of different versions.
That’s how I found Abigail.
Well, I know, now, that her name was Abigail, but actually, I primarily knew her as ‘tam-nonlinear’, her Tumblr username. She was the author of Tam Lin Balladry, collecting versions and recordings and retellings and compiling them into one site, but she also used to post about it on her blog, along with jokes and memes that referenced the ballad. We crossed paths because I posted something about one of her descriptions and the fact that it had made me laugh, and she reached out to me.
It would be wrong, probably, to say that we were friends – ‘acquaintances’ is a better word, or ‘occasional passers-by on the weird street that is Tumblr’. Different generations, different backgrounds, we fit into that weird in-between space of online coexistence, united by a common interest though we’d never have crossed paths in real life. Still, I’m easy with my online friendship, and tend to refer to anyone I’ve ever talked to as a friend, so that’s how I think of her. Maybe that’s wrong, and I don’t really have a right to that word. That’s one of the things I often wonder about.
Every year, around Hallowe’en, her Tam Lin posts would intensify – the story told in the ballad takes place at Hallowe’en. Every year, I’d reblog them, with the quiet delight that comes from understanding a niche joke. It’s not a holiday I’ve ever celebrated (growing up, my family actively ignored Hallowe’en), but I came to enjoy that particular nerdy celebration.
Almost four years ago, immediately after Trump’s election, Abigail died.
As someone with a lot of internet friends, of course I’ve thought about it – how I’d find out if something bad had happened to them, whether anyone would think to tell us, or whether they’d just disappear from my life and I’d never know what had happened. In this instance, I found out because she’d scheduled two blog posts. The first asked for somebody to take over Tam Lin Balladry, so that it could continue to exist as a living resource and not merely an archive. The second was looking for homes for her cats.
It was the cats that got me, at the time. I didn’t know how to process the idea that she was gone, and I had absolutely no idea – still don’t – what was an acceptable level of grief to feel for someone whose real name I hadn’t known until they died, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the cats. How they wouldn’t understand that she wasn’t coming back.
Would like to sleep by your side, she wrote about one. Will sneak up on you for a cuddle, about another. And for the rest of the day, the week, the month – even now – I keep coming back to those cats, and how they would be waiting for her, but she wasn’t coming back.
I suspect that some of that initial grief was guilt. Her last post, a few days earlier, had not been a happy one, and there was a part of me that felt I should have seen that something was wrong and done… what? Something. Anything. An ocean away, as a random 20-year-old, I still felt like I should have helped.
Perhaps, considering how little we knew each other, I should have let go of the grief by now. It’s been four years. But I can’t. Because if I think too long about how she wanted Tam Lin Balladry to survive, to outlive her, I have to think about the fact that the site’s last news update was from 2016. Yes, it’s still there on the internet, but it isn’t the active project it used to be. Of course it isn’t. Abigail thought she was replaceable – swap out the parts and the world continues. She wasn’t. The site’s stagnation is a reminder that the world needed her in it.
Instead she has a strange kind of immortality in the form of her Tumblr posts.
That’s the thing about Tumblr, far more than any other social media site – nothing is ever really gone. No matter the fate of the original blog, as long as somebody, somewhere, reblogged a post, it will continue to exist. Posts from eight years ago readily recirculate, accumulating new comments and discourse, and since the dashboard has no timestamps (unless added by a third-party plugin), they might as well have been posted yesterday.
Every Hallowe’en, I see posts from tam-nonlinear circulating again. Jokes, mostly. Snappy references that people familiar with Tam Lin can smile at and move on. Probably, 99% of the notes on those posts come from people who have absolutely no idea that the person who made those jokes is dead.
(Sometimes, I wonder how many ghosts there are on Tumblr. How many conversations are living on like echoes.)
But I know. And we may have hardly know each other, and yes, it’s been four years, but every time I see those posts I think of her. And I’m not the only one, because I’ve seen the way others start posting Tam Lin jokes and references at this time of year, trying to fill a hole we shouldn’t have to fill. Is it how she’d have wanted to be remembered? I don’t know. Maybe. It’s the best I’ve got.
An odd immortality. But her memory survives nonetheless.
I think about her every Hallowe’en, but this year I’m thinking about her more, with the election looming. I have so many political keywords muted on Twitter for the sake of my own mental health, and still it’s impossible not to feel the weight of it bearing down on me, even an ocean away. I think about the last four years, and wonder what would have happened if she’d lived. If her worst fears have come to pass or if maybe she could have held out long enough to see things get better.
Perhaps I shouldn’t still miss her – perhaps my grief is presumptuous and unjustified and those who knew her better look on me and wonder how I dare to say that I lost someone. (I went back and forth for days on whether to even post this; was it an act of commemoration or just weird and inappropriate? I hope I made the right call. Maybe I didn’t.) Perhaps it’s strange to grieve for someone with whom my connection was so fleeting. But it was a connection that meant something. In however niche and specific a way our lives overlapped, they did overlap.
Perhaps all of us underestimate how much those connections mean, how much meaning we ascribe to casual interactions, how many people would miss us if we were gone and how long our legacy – even if our legacy is Tumblr posts about Tam Lin – will outlive us.
And that reminds me of the tweets I saw following the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a reminder that Jewish communities don’t use “Rest In Peace” when somebody dies, but “May their memory be a blessing”. I’ve thought about that a lot this year – it has been a year full of loss for so many people. It makes sense to me, brings comfort where rest in peace doesn’t. What does rest in peace even mean? How would we know? What comfort does that bring to those left behind? It seems to me the phrase does little to acknowledge that mourning is the part of the living, not the lost.
But may her memory be a blessing means something, brings some comfort. When faced with grief, all we have is memories – may they bring comfort. May they remind us of the good in the world, may they be a little piece of the departed that stays with us, may their legacy ensure that they’re never really gone.
I will probably never not think about Abigail when I hear or read something about Tam Lin. Probably, this abstract sadness and sense of displaced grief will keep recurring, every Hallowe’en. But what she left with me – us – was not only the loss. It was the information, the enthusiasm, the jokes, the passion, and that legacy survives.
May it be a blessing.