Grief Journal: Haunted by Digital Ghosts

I’m old enough to remember how, if someone died, all you had left were a few printed pictures and maybe a letter or two. Now, you likely have hundreds of photos and texts, emails, and even videos. 

It’s as if we’re creating digital ghosts who are haunting us across space and time. 

I’ve lost several loved ones in the last six years. My sister died in 2013. We’ve never deactivated her Facebook page or changed it to memorialized status. Every year on her birthday and death day, people post memories and pictures, or tag her in remembrance posts. It was really jarring and shocking the first year, seeing my dead sister popping up in my live feed. Now, it’s comforting to know people still remember her and that she touched so many lives.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is my mother-in-law. She was in her 90s when she died, and never had a social media presence. I do have emails and even texts from her, and plenty of pictures we took when we visited. But the bulk of memories for my husband are the printed pictures from his childhood. It’s not that we don’t remember her, but there are fewer unexpected reminders.

The situation with my own mother is different. She never had a Facebook page, although my dad does. She pops up frequently in my Facebook memories and in my camera roll, although she long ago disappeared from my photo stream. Nearly four years after her death, unexpectedly finding a picture of her (nearly always with one of her children or grandchildren), can still move me to tears. Her dates—birth and death—fall near Mother’s Day. As always, this year my family will repost some of those pictures on Facebook, and remind each other that although there is always a hole at the center of our family, we have and love each other. 

But my son. Oh, my darling boy. 

I’ve been on Facebook since 2009, and my posts have always included information about my children. I use Facebook as a way to share cute and funny stories and pictures with far-away friends and family. It functions almost as a diary, in way—a quick and easy way to capture a moment in time, because although you think you’ll always remember the adorable things your kids say and do, the reality is so many of the daily details from the past get lost in the parenting present. 

There are a lot of pictures and stories about my son. I post about all three of my children, but he had a knack for saying and doing things that made for great, quick anecdotes. He was a genuinely funny child, and had a unique perspective on life. Even before he died, Charlie posts were always a favorite with my tight circle.

Any time I choose, I can access hundreds of images of my dead son. My phone and iPad are full of pictures and video of him—and by him. He loved technology, and had a YouTube channel of his own where he posted a cappella versions of his favorite game’s theme songs, stop-motion movies, his latest LEGO builds, and musings on life. All of those videos are available for me to watch at a moment’s notice. Any time I want, I can open my phone and look at the Charlie album. 

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One of my favorite pictures of my favorite ghost.

Most of the time, it’s comforting. Some times, it’s unbearably sad because there will never, ever be a new picture. It’s like that with my Facebook Memories. I find that as I get closer to July 16 and the anniversary of his death, I’m keenly aware that what pops up after that will be memories I’ve already seen at least once. Nothing new, not ever. 

His entire life is captured online, in bits and pieces and slices of memory. But the real memory of him lives in my heart, and the hearts of those who loved him. That’s how I believe he lives on, in all of the lives he touched during his short 10 years with us. The pictures and video are just ones and zeros, but they are a way for me to remind the rest of the world that Charlie was here. He mattered. And I miss him. 

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