I wake up, roll over and grab my phone so I can log into Instagram.
"I want to make sure he's still alive," I think to myself as I type in the username for Harlow's owner, Taylor Wolfe. Harlow is a Colorado-based Viszla who I've been following on Instagram for nearly a decade. He was recently diagnosed with cancer and I wasn't emotionally prepared for him to die.
Wolfe's stories are the first that populate on my timeline, and I have a pit in my stomach.
"Har passed away in our arms at home yesterday," she wrote. "Chris and I held him the entire time and told him what a good boy he is and how much we love him and that we're so grateful we got to be his."
Immediately, I'm in a puddle of tears, but I can't pull myself away from the ensuing slideshow to the tune of Chloe George's "Ghost Town" featuring video snippets of Harlow's life.
In 2021, it's entirely possible to be following someone on the internet that you've never met. Whether you like their fashion advice, cute pets or cooking tips, the emotional investment was enough to click "follow."
For me, it's dogs, many of which I've been keeping tabs on for years via Instagram, but have (obviously) never had the pleasure of greeting in real life. I've seen them go through major celebratory milestones alongside their owners — like weddings and new babies — and now, I am faced with saying a virtual goodbye.
"Har has been with me on Instagram since day one," Wolfe told TMRW, adding that her 10.5-year-old dog was diagnosed with sarcoma in December 2020. "They predicted we’d get a month or two. We got about six."
Admittedly, this isn't the first time I've experienced this heartbreak. But considering I've never met these animals I've grown to love, why do I feel so emotional?
Dr. Francesa Parker, psychologist at the Curry Psychology Group in Orange County, California, told TMRW that feeling emotionally attached, even to someone you have never met, is normal.
"Humans are wired to connect and we don’t need to be in the same physical place to do it," she said, adding that empathy is one form of connection. "When we 'feel with' another person, we are connecting our experience to someone else’s, and joining in a shared experience, whether it’s joy or grief."
Parker explained that online, we gravitate toward people who share our same general values, beliefs or aspirations, just as we choose friends in “the real world.”
"Whether we build a friendship with someone online, or even if it is someone we never interact with directly, but come to know through a blog (or) Instagram, we experience a sense of connection," she said, adding that sometimes we may connect to someone because of a shared experience, especially if it’s something significant and potentially isolating. "Hearing that another person has had a similar experience or reaction can be really validating and normalize our experience."
The California-based psychologist also said that online connection can provide a degree of emotional safety, because it makes us feel less vulnerable and eliminates any face-to-face contact, which can be a source of stress.
"We can gaze for as long as we like at an adorable pet or a beautiful face, we can take as much time as we need to process the information being shared, and there’s no pressure to respond," she said. "We can regulate the intensity of our interaction, too — we can engage as much as we want, and if it gets to be too much, we can retreat."
For animals in particular, the attachment can feel so strong.
"Our love for animals and their love for us is so simple and pure. Human relationships are complicated and messy," she explained. "It’s normal to grieve the loss of a pet and can sometimes feel harder than losing a person, because it’s so unambiguous."
"Humans are wired to connect and we don’t need to be in the same physical place to do it."
Dr. Francesa Parker
Through the Covid-19 pandemic, people around the world used the internet more than ever to connect.
"During the last year, the isolation of quarantine was definitely part of what made it feel so stressful. We need face-to-face contact and human touch and there’s no question that the internet provided a valuable way to feel connected: both to the people we know 'in real life' and to people online," Parker said. "At some point we’ll have an answer to the question of whether quarantine made people more feel more connected to 'strangers' on the internet than we would have otherwise, but we don’t have the perspective right now to draw any firm conclusions."
For anyone like me, who might be experiencing grief from someone they have connected with online, know that these feelings are normal.
"It’s going to take awhile for all these feelings to settle down," Parker explained. "But letting yourself have your feelings, talking to people who love and support you, and finding other healthy ways to cope with everything will help you feel better sooner."