It happened to me a couple years ago. Max and I had become friends; we talked daily via E-mail, ICQ, IRC, or all three. He introduced me to online gaming. We wrote a small add-on for a game that we both played. Then we had a falling-out, it was an argument that was stupid in retrospect, but both of us were being stubborn. Eventually I came to realize it was silly and wanted to apologize, but didn’t think he’d want to talk to me. I found out from a friend of his that he was very ill, he had very advanced liver disease. I asked him to pass on my good wishes to Max.
About a week or so later, I found out while talking to another friend in an online game that he’d died that day. I broke down crying on the keyboard at how foolish I’d been. His death took a long while to get over, because of the argument and possibly because he was so far away and so I didn’t get to have the closure of a funeral, etc. A mutual friend of ours later told me that she knew he did still care about me around the time of his death, which helped in some way.
I’ve tried since then to at least tell friends how I feel about them, and to not let arguments fester. And even if I think the other person won’t care or will reject me, I’ll try to speak my piece, because then at least I will know I’ve done what I can.
I know a guy who is in his early 70’s. For about three years we have exchanged emails almost daily. He only lives about two hours away from me, so we have met in person on a few occasions. It’s been close to two months since I last heard from him, though, and he had told me that his health was in question and expected to be going into the hospital for treatment. I’m really beginning to wonder what happened to him. His wife doesn’t know how to use a computer, and I don’t think any of his sons have access to his email account.
As for me suddenly dying and disappearing, I have established a big enough network of friends online that some of them would find out soon enough, and this message, as sad as it would likely be to others, would be passed around through the grapevine.