The internet is changing how we converse with the dead. While the bereaved have traditionally visited graves or burial sites to talk to deceased loved ones, some are now turning to digital spaces to continue their bonds with the dead.
Research has highlighted how some bereaved people use Facebook to talk to the dead, keeping them updated with family news by logging on and leaving messages with some expectation that their dead loved ones may read them.
The dead are no longer hidden away, they are carried with us on our digital devices in the form of voicemails, WhatsApp messages, texts and photographs. But these social networks and messaging services were designed for people to stay in touch with the living.
Using them to talk with the dead is blurring the distinction between the social lives of the living and those of the “socially active dead”.
As a sociologist I became interested in how everyday memories and messages received from loved ones take on new significance following the death of the sender. My research explores how these treasured digital possessions, available at a keystroke on everyday portable devices, affect how people grieve.
I interviewed 15 people who had inherited online digital memories and messages and found many took real comfort from the messages stored on social networking sites.
It wasn’t the profound or purposeful WhatsApp and text messages the people I interviewed found most comforting, but rather the every day messages – such as “I’m ringing the doorbell”, “speak later” and “I’m with you in spirit”.
One woman, Sarah* explained how she found comfort in the LinkedIn page of her dead aunt. Her aunt didn’t upload a photograph on the professional networking site, so there is standard grey outline instead, and the woman explained she found this “little shadow thing” poignant.
Issues around access and retrieval were of paramount importance to the bereaved people I spoke to – and any sense of comfort was always inextricably linked to securing and having control of the messages.
Many of my participants explained their fear of losing the data by either the obsolescence of the hardware or software. One woman, Emma*, described how she felt following the death of her best friend, when his Facebook page disappeared from the platform:
“Then one day I hadn’t visited his page for a while, and when I searched for it, it was gone. My heart dropped. I felt panicky, I went to pictures other people had posted of him, thinking I could follow the tags to find him, but they were gone. The pictures were just his face, with no way to get to him. It was like losing him all over again.”
The fear of second loss
Amy* whose sister had died, had taken great comfort in reading old messages and listening to answerphone messages her sister had left her. Amy told me how she’d purchased software to take the voicemails off her mobile and transferred onto her laptop:
“I bought some software … because I just couldn’t get the audio messages. I couldn’t save them. I wanted them on my laptop … they are my most treasured thing.”
Some people told me they were reluctant to upgrade their telephones, deeply concerned that the precious messages would be lost if they did.
Pam*, whose daughter had died, explained that she hadn’t upgraded her telephone for five years. She said losing the text messages and voicemails would be like “losing her again”.
There are some third-party tools that can assist with the transfer of these precious messages, but still many of those I interviewed told me they were reluctant to use them in case the messages are lost in the process. Pam explained that by transferring the data she felt that she would somehow lose part of the “essence” of her daughter.
This fear of second loss is a new phenomenon for those grieving in our digital society. While images of the dead stowed away in boxes of photos in attics may well fade or perish over time, they don’t form part of people’s everyday lives in such a socially active way as digital memories do.
The digital data of the dead is far more than code – it contains the digital souls of the deceased. While, for some, the internet provides comfort by enabling a continuing relationship with the departed, for others it is causing a new anxiety – the fear of second loss.
* Names have been changed throughout the piece to protect the anonymity of interviewees.