Grief in the Digital Age
Humans have used technology to record and remember the past since the advent of hieroglyphs, cuneiform, and the earliest symbols/scripts laid out on stone, clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, and vellum. Even further back, cave paintings predated writing by tens of thousands of years and illustrated some of humanity’s oldest stories.
Is it any wonder that humans today continue to harness their contemporary technologies to do the same? Modern digital technologies supported by vast infrastructures that provide 4G and 5G internet, cellular and cloud service, GPS signals and electrical current wherever we dwell or roam on portable, resilient devices connect us through talk, text, and video, while also serving as audiovisual recording and storage equipment. The warp and weft of these technologies allow us to document the tapestry of our experiences, our relationships, and our lives like no other time in history.
My grandparents’ generation would watch 8 mm reel-to-reel or VHS home videos; leaf through troves of old love letters; trace the tendrils of births, deaths, and marriages neatly handwritten in family bibles; shuffle through envelopes of dog-eared Polaroids, black-and-white photos, and sepia-toned daguerreotypes. Now in the 21st century, we can carry these memories, trunks full of them, compressed into digital files accessible anywhere with cellular or Wi-Fi internet connection to a phone or tablet that rests in palm of our hand as lightly as a slice of pumpernickel. Digital memories aren’t often tucked away in cigar boxes, cedar hope chests, milk crates, lacquered armoires or linty sock drawers like the post cards, cassette mixtapes, lithographs, napkins with lipstick notes, undeveloped rolls of 35 mm film and canvases of the previous centuries; but we stumble across them all the same, and perhaps more frequently than ever before.
When someone you love dies, they will likely leave behind a garden of digital memories. Depending on how we grieve, and our progression through bereavement, these digital reminders can surprise you across an emotional spectrum. Some may snag and scratch like unexpected thorns—that random pop-up Facebook memory “on this date 5 years ago” photo of you and the person together on your birthday, or 9 months after the funeral when WhatsApp notifies you that the person “has left the group”. Others, like a patch of wild strawberries, can surprise and delight upon discovery: a sibling shares a video you’ve never seen of the person, an aunt posts a fond memory accompanied by a tinted wedding photograph. These digital shoots and buds have the potential to reignite the slings and arrows of grief, or conversely, fill the heart with gratitude and warmth.
Unexpected and sometimes intrusive reminders are nothing new, though. A passing whiff of Chanel N°5 on a busy city sidewalk will always remind me of my paternal grandmother; Nick Drake’s lilting “Pink Moon” will forever elicit my cousin (it was on the last mixtape he sent me before his untimely death); that cool, oversweet clumpiness of apple butter on a biscuit conjures my maternal grandmother in her apron; and whenever I’m uncertain about buying into modern fashion, I think of my mother-in-law and how I’d love her advice. Long before the digital age, humans cultivated metaphorical gardens of grief; some were lovingly tended, others neglected. We may regard these digital memories as making the gardens greener and more abundant, or increasingly tangled with burrs and brambles that keep us away from visiting, from remembering.
Grief can be elicited by triggers in all 5 senses. This is the human condition. Grieving in the digital age means adapting to life with an additional layer, a virtual one, where we can bump into memories when we least expect them. While digital technologies are designed (like all technologies) by humans to serve some perceived unmet need, the speed at which new technology develops often leaves our cultures and spirits stumbling a few steps behind, struggling to assimilate the “bleeding edge” into our warm pulsing nebula of human experience. Somehow though, society always manages to catch this fleeing wolf and domesticate it into something useful; our cultures will expand to normalize grief in this new digital world, just as we have adapted to it in the physical world around us. Until then, we would do well to walk with care, gratitude and mindfulness in our digital domains, aware that in this new, virtual territory grow the same strawberries and thorns as the one outside our window.