Dear Dr Mark.
Recently, I have had the misfortune of having someone from an internet community I frequent pass away. I seem to be taking this news with quite a lot of difficulty and I'm honestly not sure why. This is a person I did not know personally but the news of their passing seems to have taken quite a toll on me and from what I understand, I'm not the only one having difficulty with their death or the death of a person in a community like ours. Why is this?
I'm very sorry for your loss. Whether you knew the person in real life or not, I'm guessing you felt a meaningful connection, which is not surprising. The internet provides an opportunity to get to know people without knowing them "personally." We feel a sense of community with fellow travelers and come to really care about them. Gaming communities can be particularly intense this way because we not only socialize with fellow gamers, we participate in a meaningful, evocative, and intense shared experience. This creates a cultural history of progress, failures, inside jokes, and silly language that amounts to some very strong bonding.
If you participated in this kind of gaming community with the person, I can understand that his or her death would hit hard. While our gaming avatars may die and be resurrected endlessly, our flesh and blood existences are finite, and the reality of this is even jarring for people who don't enjoy the shared fantasy of gaming.
Lacking ties to your friend's real life, and perhaps living far away from the deceased, you likely have had no way to participate in rituals of mourning that can make dealing with a death more tolerable. I'm not a big fan of funerals, but having attended more than my fair share recently (I'm at any age where many of my friends' parents are passing on), I can see the comfort they offer--a way to fully honor and remember the person, a chance to share pain and grief with others who also cared, and for some, a religious conception of death that makes it easier to tolerate. Funerals are truly for the living--they provide an opportunity to come together and help each other through a very difficult passage.
There may be other reasons this person's death has taken "quite a toll" on you. Many gamers are young adults who may have not had the occasion to cope with a death. Of course, others are exposed to this unpleasant reality quite early in life. Without a framework for responding to death based in your real-life community, it can be very hard to know how to deal with it.