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Short Film on Plainwhite Tom's Suicide Examines Grief in Digital Age

 Street performer Tom Loconti, known professionally as Plainwhite Tom, died of an apparent suicide at Navy Pier.  
Street performer Tom Loconti, known professionally as Plainwhite Tom, died of an apparent suicide at Navy Pier.  
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Facebook/Plainwhite Tom

CHICAGO — Mary Mendralla didn't check her Facebook before heading to bed on New Year's Day 2014, making her one of the last to hear about her son Tom Loconti's death.

She was one of several family members and friends to receive personalized posts on their Facebook walls hours before the street performer known as "Plainwhite Tom" took his own life.

"I'm sorry. I couldn't even begin to explain but this is for a greater good and I'm finally rid of all this suffering. I'm so happy we finally got to share an equal love and respect for one another. I didn't think it possible all those years ago," the message posted on his mother's Facebook page read.

Loconti's story is featured in a short film by 72U called "In Memory," which examines death and grieving in the digital age. According to its website, 72U is a creative residency that aims to open people up to new ways of thinking, collaborating and tackling modern communication problems.

The short film features interviews with Mendralla, Loconti's brother Scott Loconti, and other friends who detail how the Internet brought Plainwhite Tom's network together before his death and continues to keep them connected now.

"I think Tom chose to end his life in such a public way by announcing it on Facebook because he lived his life in a very public way. He posted his last words, and I wish he had stayed around for a couple more minutes just to see the thousands of messages that were trying to get him to not do it," said Izidora Angel, one of the friends featured in the film.

View "In Memory" below.

"The film explores our collective grieving process in the days and months following Laconti’s death, as seen through the prism of Facebook, and the integral role it played in bringing us together.

"I have to say, it has surprised even me how much we have all come together over this virtual, imagined space," Angel said. "We have used it to organize events, plan trips, raise money for Tom’s family and legacy, and yes, even become friends offline."

Angel and Mendralla weren't the only ones deeply affected by the Facebook posts. Loconti's brother said he couldn't sleep after receiving his farewell message; he joined a search party of friends that combed Chicago's streets in hopes of finding Laconti before it was too late.

Around 3:45 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2014, police found Loconti unresponsive after he jumped from a parking garage in the 600 block of East Grand Avenue. He was pronounced dead at 4:45 a.m., and his death was ruled a suicide by the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office.

Friends said the skilled dancer, who had been profiled in the Reader, had been going through personal issues before his death.

The film begins with Mendralla reliving the messages Loconti posted before his death, then cycles through the wealth of knowledge Mendralla uncovers about the self-professed "biggest mama's boy" through his friends and their posts on his page.

"I went into the film thinking it was just a way to understand what our connection was," said Mendralla, adding that she was "dreading" the interview beforehand, but afterward "found it almost healing because I got to get that out, and my son got his emotions out. It was painful, but really an interesting part of closing that circle of anguish. We've all gotten much closer."

The advertising agency, 72U, heard about Loconti's story through mutual friends and came to Chicago to interview family and friends as part of a bigger project. After watching hours of dance footage and interviews, the crew decided to focus strictly on Loconti, friends said.

"We went to L.A. to view the film, and we had no idea the film was about us. To see the project was written about Tom and us — it was really overwhelming," Mendralla said, remembering the flood of emotions when she walked in to watch the film and saw a giant picture of her 20-year-old self and 2-year-old Loconti during "really hard times" on the screen.

"It was pretty awe-inspiring — one of the most special events I've had since Tom's passing because it was seen through someone else's eyes," Mendralla said.

The film has thousands of views and was picked as a "top short film" by Vimeo staff. It also opened Mendralla's eyes about social media, she said.

"For once in my life, I believe social media is actually a good thing," she said. "In a society where social media is wonderful or distracting, it's great to see social media can bring people together whether it's good times or bad. Not everyone can mourn as a community, but Facebook is allowing that."

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