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This has been the year of digital grieving

For many, this past year has been a time of unprecedented pain and loss. Those already acquainted with these experiences now find them amplified everywhere they turn. Both in-person and online, the world hangs heavy with grief.

By Lindsay Wallace , written on March 22, 2021

From The Culture Desk

When we die, most of us alive today will be survived by the echo of our online platforms. For those we leave behind, it will be a semi-indelible comfort, an aching reminder, and at times an ever-unfolding chore. Often, it will be all of these things at once.

For many, this past year has been a time of unprecedented pain and loss. Those already acquainted with these experiences now find them amplified everywhere they turn. Both in-person and online, the world hangs heavy with grief.

Subha, a writer and editor in Mangalore, India, lost her aunt to a cardiac arrest during May of 2020. In a devastation that is by now all-too-familiar, she said what she could of her goodbyes through a palm-sized screen. “I begged a cousin to make a video call so I could see her body one last time. Else, I would have fought to accept her demise.”

The grieving process that Subha and her family would ordinarily have undertaken was impossible. “It made me reel in guilt. […] The pandemic and resultant ban on travel has left us all dealing with loss in a fast-forward mode,” Subha says. In the last year, she has also lost another aunt, two uncles, and a friend.

And yet, the steady passage of time has been marked in other ways. Subha, whose aunt was, “super prompt on [Facebook],” receives regular notifications that a year has passed without her aunt from the app’s “On This Day” function. “During the Tamil month of Margazhi, […] all her kolams, [flour art], popped up.”

The reminders can bring sorrow, but Subha wouldn’t trade them. “There’s digital mourning happening,” she says, “And I am grateful I can mourn her, even if it’s thanks to an algorithm.”

Digital grief, whether it’s channeled through social media or other virtual conduits, has been with us for years. Christopher, a writer in London, England, contended with it about three years ago, after his uncle passed away. “I was quite close to him [and] after he passed away [it] ended up falling to me to sort through the entirety of his digital presence, which was a lot of work.” 

For Christopher, the experience demonstrated how, “There’s a lot of cracks and crevices in a digital presence. You can stumble across new bits that you hadn’t considered […] You can think you’re done and then find something else. Especially because my uncle was a tech nerd, he had a lot of devices.”

Sorting through stacks of CDs, floppy disks, memory cards, seven computers and hard drives, as well as social media and other online accounts, Christopher found that, “There’s large chunks of it which are incredibly tedious, and then the occasional sucker punch, and you don’t know when they’re coming.”

Dealing with the sheer volume of information that can be contained in the square inch of even one memory card is enough to numb an already loss-exhausted mind. Not having a fair chance to sort through it at all can be even more distressing.

The family of a man who was killed in a mechanical accident found themselves in contention with local police over their family member’s cell phone, after the police declared the site of his death a crime scene.  

“The police had his body and all his possessions. [...] I'm not certain [if they] wanted access inside his phone or accounts [or if they] just wanted to keep [them] as part of the evidence. [It] was very complicated,” says Dave, the deceased’s cousin, whose name has been changed. “Getting the phone from the police was very hard.”

Dave describes how the stress of trying to put his cousin’s affairs in order by accessing his accounts, voicemails, pictures, and even banking information was compounded by pressure from the police to adhere to certain procedures that prioritized their investigation. “I think [my family] only had the phone for [a] week and then it had to go back to the police,” says Dave. “There wasn’t a lot about respect. […] Having to deal with the technology aspect on top of everything else, obviously it wasn’t easy.”

 

Failure to carry out digital estate planning can add extra stress to grieving families

Erin McCune, CEO and founder of the digital estate planning service Easeenet.com, says, “People are only just now starting to realize how critical digital estate planning is, and how much of a mess gets left for their family,” when they pass away.

Digital estate planning is the process of setting your online affairs in order, in much the same way you do your physical estate. Both the United States and Canada now have digital estate laws allowing for the appointment of a digital executor, among other governance. These laws, along with rulings like Sandvig v. Barr, which says that violating a website’s terms of service (by, for example, sharing your password with loved ones) is not a crime, show that legislation is slowly catching up to where technology has been for at least a decade. 

“There is this recognition,” says Erin, “[that] you have to be able to stand in people’s shoes online. […] It becomes even more critical as you look at the younger generation because we’re using so many accounts.”

Had Christopher’s uncle used a service like Easeenet to sort some of his affairs ahead of time, some of the labor that Christopher dealt with, such as “contact[ing] a customer service line [to] explain what’s happened again and again and again” may have been mitigated.  He also might not have received a notification, just last month, informing him that his uncle who has been gone for three years had joined Instagram. 

Dave says that if his cousin had happened to have his digital estate planned, it would have helped in that, “it would pass everything to [our] family, and then they [wouldn’t have had] to jump through all the hoops.”

“It would’ve solved a lot of it,” he says, “but not all of it, truthfully.”

Nobody is surprised to hear that grief cannot be planned away, but the ability to manage the logistical nightmares it creates is a blessing. As concerned as we are with our own mortality, we are intimately familiar with mourning. The ways it can shake the body and mind are well-documented—and in many cases, can be made even more jarring when they manifest in the unassuming arenas we’ve learned to turn for entertainment.

 

For Subha, seeing memories of her aunt on Facebook was a comfort. For many others, the disconnect between medium and message can be unsettling.

Heather, a writer in New York City, is familiar with this tension. “When [my mom] died I first found out through my dad texting me, saying, “Your mom died.” So that was weird.”

Heather and her mother hadn’t had contact since her childhood. She describes how her mother, “found [her] on Facebook for the first time, and messaged [her],” about seven months before her death. 

The message, “freaked me out,” she says. “I didn’t respond because it was overwhelming.” 

She decided that she would reach out to her mother, and possibly her half-sisters, after she graduated from college. By the time she graduated, her mother had passed away. Much of what she found out about her mother, therefore, came from the internet.

“I did a lot of research [to figure] out what happened, by looking up my half-siblings on Facebook,” she says, and watching them discuss—and often publicly disagree about—the circumstances of their mother’s death.

Heather also found her mother’s memorial page, covered with unfamiliar photos. “Because I wasn’t her friend on Facebook I hadn’t seen that many recent pictures of her […] but I went through all the pictures […] I had literally never seen before. They weren’t the best pictures of her.” 

Still, she ended up saving some of them. “I did think [that] they’re probably gonna disappear, and I saved a couple just in case. It was also for writing, if I ever want to write about it I want that source to not be gone.”

 

Losses are being jammed between cat videos and quarantine updates, in a space that was simply never made for this.

Duncan is a Masters of Social Work candidate at NYU. “I feel like I’ve grown up on the internet,” she says. “When I was a kid, Facebook groups were really a gathering space for […] trans and non-binary people to get together and share knowledge, medical advice, therapy advice, or just post a cute selfie.” 

Now, though, she describes “see[ing] the ghosts of our friends and our fellow trans people pile up around us in digital space. […] Navigating digital grief [is] something I struggle with because of the amount of trans friends I have who’ve committed suicide [whose] Facebooks remain up [and] every so often," on birthdays and anniversaries, "light up like a lighthouse.”

Duncan remembers when a friend from a camp program she attended for trans youth passed away by suicide. “We had our own little Facebook group where we just reacted to what was going on. It was just such a surreal experience to be 15 and to know somebody who was the same age as you [who’s] gone. […] It’s halfway between a loss and a kind of fear.” 

 She says it is often a reminder of the danger facing “trans people, or really any marginalized group that sees a lot of death by suicide,  substances, or murder,” particularly during a year that has already seen more anti-transgender legislation introduced than ever before, much of it targeting transgender children. Thinking about it today, she says, makes her “want to [give] trans youth solidarity, [give] them hope.”

When she lost another friend more recently, though, the experience was much the same. “I [can] watch this cat video for five minutes, but then when I scroll down and I see that my friend who I’ve sort of drifted apart from […] has passed away […] I can’t consume that the way that I consume anything else on the platform. So it’s like trying to swallow a whole loaf of bread.”

This “loaf of bread” feeling is only growing more ubiquitous as we live more of our lives online. The logistics of a deceased person’s virtual footprint form knots that digital estate planning services and “memorialize” functions are dutifully unravelling even as innovation seems to spin them tighter—but digital grief, just like its analog counterpart, demands to be felt.

 

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