How technology is changing the way we grieve
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In the early hours of one New Year’s morning, still intoxicated from the previous night’s celebrations, I texted my dad: “I love you.” When I woke up and glanced at my phone, there had been no response. Perhaps no surprise; my father had been dead for 10 months.
Yet in my alcohol-fuelled giddiness, I had been certain I’d stumbled across a discovery: I knew how to talk to dead people. Why had no one told me it was as easy as texting? In the cold light of day, I didn’t feel sober stupidity. Quite the opposite. My conviction just grew stronger: I was an SMS spiritualist.
It didn’t strike me as odd that I had discovered this technological channel to the dead, despite being an atheist. Grief feels like madness. Fifteen years ago, after I discovered my father dead in his flat from a heart attack, I might have appeared normal. I put on tights, typed words, ate sandwiches, humdrum everyday stuff. But I was always a bit, sometimes a lot, deranged. Looking back, I see it as The Fly period. Like in the horror film, I felt as if my whole being had been split into tiny fragments and reassembled. Unlike the film, my disfigurement was internal, and not by an insect but by sorrow.
In the days after my New Year text to my father, I continued to send secret missives: I miss you, I love you. I worried that if I told anyone, I might expose this secret passageway to the dead, so I kept the good news to myself. Only a few days later did it strike me as odd that he had not texted back. But that didn’t matter: he could read in death what I had forgotten to tell him when he was alive.
After a week, while on a bus, I summoned the courage to give dad a call. A young girl answered the phone and I realised what would have been obvious to any rational person: my father’s phone number had been passed on to a new customer. My dad was not sitting on some celestial cloud. He was, after all, dead. Absolutely dead. Completely dead. Extremely dead. To this day, however, I am grateful that I never received a text from my dad’s number asking me to stop contacting them or, worse, wondering who I was. Or maybe even a joke? Like the woman who received a text from one wag pretending to be her dead grandmother, reading: “I’m watching over you and it’s all going to get better. Just push through.”
Grief is a shape-shifter and as the months and years progressed, the memory of my dad morphed into something more akin to a foot — part of me, but not something to feverishly obsess over. If I had been less twisted by grief, I would have realised I was hardly the first to text the dead or try to communicate by any form of electronic medium. Technology, like grief, encourages imaginative thinking. You send a message and, by some wizardry, one returns.
The memory of those texts is awakened whenever I read of developments in grief tech. Today, there are digital services, such as Afternote, which will send your prewritten messages to loved ones after your death. Facebook accounts can be memorialised. There are virtual graves where families can pay their respects and chatbots that converse with the living, based on texts and social media posts left by the dead. The virtual cloud is an afterlife of sorts, hosting the dead’s photographs, documents and memories.
In each generation, technology has created a new medium, so to speak, to memorialise and communicate with the dead. As John Troyer, the son of an undertaker who is now the director of the Centre for Death and Society at Bath University, puts it: nothing is certain except death and human invention. “We humans use technology to try to transform bereavement.”
In the past, the telegraph, photography and radio were all used to demonstrate the dead’s continued presence. Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes’ creator, championed spirit photography, in which portraits were taken with ghostly figures (or doctored images) in the background. Spiritualists often described their services as a kind of celestial telegraph. In her 2010 book The Sympathetic Medium, Jill Galvan wrote: “If there was one note sounded most frequently in 19th-century discussions of the electric telegraph, it was ebullience at its promise of far-flung community . . . the telegraph often became spiritualised (and spirits became telegraphic) within the intertwining discourses of occultism and technological speculation.”
Even some scientists, such as the physicist Oliver Lodge, had a fierce psychic interest. The devastating losses of the first world war sparked a huge enthusiasm for spirit communication and Lodge visited mediums to make contact with his dead son Raymond. In his book Raymond or Life and Death (1916), he wrote: “I have made no secret of my conviction, not merely that personality persists, but that its continued existence is more entwined with the life of every day than has been generally imagined; that there is no real breach of continuity between the dead and the living; and that methods of intercommunion across what has been deemed a gulf can be set going in response to the urgent demand of affection.”
Are the bereaved deluded to hang their grief on technology? Troyer says that while such things are typically deemed “creepy” at first, they can be of enormous comfort. It is not a sign of a pathology, simply grief.
More recently, an entrepreneur called Eugenia Kuyda created a digital monument to her friend Roman Mazurenko, who died in a hit-and-run accident in 2015. She put his text messages into a neural network — a pattern matching system — to create a chatbot. Using artificial intelligence, the chatbot learnt from past conversations to mimic Mazurenko.
Kuyda told me that she hadn’t initially known what the Mazurenko AI would be like. “I was reading our text messages a lot at that time and it was the best way for me to feel his presence again. I was freaking out about it — scared that it wouldn’t work well or it would come across as creepy and upset his close friends and family. But it ended up being a tribute to him.” She occasionally talks to the bot now.
In a Facebook post, Mazurenko’s mother wrote in Russian that she understood the chatbot was a piece of tech, not her son, but that it still felt reassuring to her. “I feel his voice through the lines of his texts.” She added: “I really need you. You are much more than a technological project. You are memory and love. You give me strength and teach me how to live on.”
Given that we hold so many of our conversations at a distance, why would you not use the same technology to work through your grief? In the year after her brother died, Candi Cann, author of Virtual Afterlives (2014), would regularly call his mobile phone to listen to his voice. It was not just that she wanted to hear him speak but also that she was so used to talking to him by phone that in her grief it made sense that they would continue the conversation (albeit one-sided) that way. “If you communicate with a person through technology, that might be where your loss is communicated,” she told me.
As I tried to understand how my vibrant dad could just vanish, I consumed poems and books about death and grief. One in particular has stuck in my mind — Justine Picardie’s If the Spirit Moves You (2001). It told of her bereavement after the death of her sister Ruth in 1997. Ruth had written about her life with breast cancer in a series of articles entitled, “Before I Say Goodbye”, for The Observer newspaper.
The book tells of Justine’s anguish and about her adventures in spiritualism and electronic voice phenomena (sounds on recordings that are said to be spirit communications). “What I can’t hear is her voice in my head, and that silence is driving me crazy,” she writes. Picardie chronicles her excitement before trying to tape-record her dead sister: “My sister is going to talk to me. She is going to leave me a message. I know this to be true. I do. I switch the tape off. I rewind it. I play it back. I hear my voice on the tape . . . and nothing else. There is nothing. But there must be something.”
She rewinds and plays it again. Silence. She consults the book. “ ‘Play your tape back. Listen very carefully.’ At first it’s hard to distinguish anything other than the background hiss of the tape recorder, which you can never completely eliminate, and the sound of your own voice.” And in another session, success of sorts. She thinks she hears a rasping voice say: “Ruth.”
I call Picardie to talk about that period of tech spiritualism. Her foray into EVP, she thinks now, was important. Together with her writing, it was a way to process grief. By the time she finished her book, “I felt I didn’t need a medium of any form, either of tech or [spiritualist], to talk to Ruth. My relationship with her continues. I am defined by her relationship in many ways but not through EVP or a psychic.” Today, Picardie feels closest to her sister when she looks at a letter, or a garden, not via a technological device. “She is everywhere and nowhere.”
So too for Kuyda. Building the chatbot made her “go through all the feelings that I had been pushing away and trying to avoid. It was my way of grieving and it helped me get through something that you think you’ll never be able to live through. Avoiding your feelings and trying to move on as fast as you can — this is not accepting death. Instead, looking at our relationship as closely as I could, and putting it in a form of my own tribute to my friend — that for me was finally accepting he is gone, but also realising that he will always be part of me.”
With so much anguish about technology ruining people’s ability to forge human connections, grief tech feels, perversely, rather cathartic to me. In a secular world, today’s technologists do not pretend to provide a channel to the dead. Future inventions may prove dystopian, but we are not there yet. What we have now are imperfect, almost rudimentary, impressions of the deceased rather than computer copies. Strip out the exuberance of tech inventors and what you find is nothing new — just the latest machine through which to process grief.
In my own case, I would have figured out that my dad was not reading my plaintive texts even if I hadn’t spoken to the young girl. But what remains is love, of course, and a memory of a bit of magic.
Emma Jacobs is a features writer for FT Work & Careers
Illustrations by James Joyce
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