Finding balance in the second half of life

Ghosts in the Machine

In Community, Family on February 20, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Tidying up my iTunes library, I find a string of untitled tracks that turn out to be voice mail messages from 2007. I go down the list, listening and deleting, until I hear:

Hi, Deb! It’s Dad.

Why would a dead man sound so alive? Has there been some mistake? Could the cardiovascular system that produced the breath that set those sound waves vibrating in my direction just now still exist somewhere, heart pumping, lungs pushing air through the windpipe and over the vocal chords that generate the precise combination of pitch, timbre, tone, and resonance that is my father’s voice?

I contemplate the physical mechanics of crawling into my hard drive.

Anyone who has experienced the unexpected death of someone she loves will recognize this kind of “magical thinking” in which the grieving mind simultaneously knows with absolute certainty that the beloved is dead and knows with absolute certainty that he is not. Joan Didion describes the phenomenon vividly in her memoir documenting the year after her husband died of a sudden heart attack: the need to stay in the city where her husband would know to find her; the inability to give away a certain pair of shoes that he would want when he returns; the undeleted email message that surely signified his continued existence.

I think that the sensual immediacy of digital media and the relentless present tense of the internet have prolonged my own year of magical thinking (currently 23 months and counting).

Facebook still periodically flashes his profile picture in the upper right-hand corner of my screen, asking me to “help Don find new friends.” The last message I posted on his wall before he died — Hey, Dad, you ever coming back to Michigan? — is still there, dripping unintended irony. And since his death I have suggested friends, asked him to join charitable causes, sent him digital hearts and glasses of Chardonnay. I kept posting on his wall, too — pictures of my son wearing his grandpa’s sport coat, birthday wishes, Thanksgiving greetings — until it dawned on me that my other Facebook friends were notified every time I did this and might start worrying about me. Or worse.

But while my dad had just barely tested the waters of online social networking, he was an early adopter in other areas of digital communication. He designed and maintained a blog that reported on his travels and a website that includes this message to the cosmos:

The internet has made it possible for a tiny speck in this universe – — me — to tell you a bit of my story. It’s been molded by many people, most significantly my family and relatives, whom I suspect may be here by intent. If, however, you happened to stumble upon this page and if I have aroused a particle of interest, I would love to hear from you.

If you click on the link, you can still send him a message. I have.

Beyond this web-based legacy, my dad left behind a laptop computer that archives thousands of photos, detailed genealogy charts, slide shows complete with background music and “Ken Burns Effect” transitions, video clips that analyze my sons’ golf swings. All this and more on an iBook he’d owned only two months. I have yet to venture into the hard drive that contains the data from his desktop computer, a tangerine iMac G3.

In a recent feature in The New York Times Magazine, Rob Walker takes a hard look at the implications of (digital) life after (physical) death. He tells the story of Mac Tonnies, a writer and active user on online media who died unexpectedly at the age of 34. Many of the many expressions of grief logged onto the comments section of Tonnies’s last blog post are addressed directly to the author of the (eerily titled) Posthuman Blues, telling him how he is missed, wishing him a “happy Afterlife,” wishing that he would “keep posting from the other side.” A poignant example:

Mac, perhaps somehow, somewhere, you are reading your comments here.

Know that your friends love you and miss you terribly, though we will meet again some “day”.

Wishing you joy on your new journey,

One mourner, who had never met Tonnies in person, posted a sonnet that includes an homage to his Twitter feed: “. . . Your ev’ry tweet/Brought strange new wonders. . .”

Toonies’s virtual community stepped in to preserve his digital oeuvre, backing up his blog (“about 10 gigabytes of material”) and setting up new blogs that feature his writing and links to interviews he gave. Walker writes:

. . . the idea that Tonnies’s friends would revisit and preserve such digital artifacts isn’t so different from keeping postcards or other physical ephemera of a deceased friend or loved one. In both instances, the value doesn’t come from the material itself but rather from those who extract meaning from, and give meaning to, all we leave behind: our survivors.

One big difference, of course, between “physical ephemera,” like photo albums and ribbon-bound packets of letters, and their digital equivalents (Flikr and email accounts) is that the former are more likely to be curated with “our survivors” in mind. What meaning should I extract or give to the sequence of photos documenting a spring break wet-T-shirt contest that is preserved in my my dad’s online photo albums? (Sorry, no link.) None that I care to think too much about, or that he would want me to, I’m quite certain.

Not surprisingly, services designed to help one leave a tidy posthumous digital legacy are springing up all over the internet. Legacy Locker offers “a safe, secure repository for your vital digital property” that lets you decide whom you want to have access to what after your “passing.” The more forthright Deathswitch (“Bridging Mortality”) emails you regularly to make sure you’re still alive and, if you don’t respond for a given period of time, “deduces you are dead” and sends out emails you have written to specified recipients. If you really want to script your digital legacy in fine detail, Virtual Eternity (“Forever Made Possible”) lets you create and train an avatar or “intellitar” of yourself that will be able to converse with generations to come. (This will cost you, though.)  1000 Memories, a free online service designed to help people create virtual memorials of photos and video clips and written remembrances, will also allow you to craft your own memorial, prehumously, if you wish.

At, my sister created a site for my dad that people could add their comments and memories to. The funeral home that coordinated his memorial service in Michigan provided a similar service. These sites and the stories people contributed to them were a great comfort to me for a while, but no one has added to them since May 2009. These days, I prefer to hang out on his Facebook profile, where he is still surrounded by living, if virtual, friends and family.

Elaine Kasket, a British psychologist who conducted a study of “posthumous communication on a social networking site,” found that most such messages to deceased Facebook friends are written in the second person, as if they are still present and “logging on from some internet cafe in heaven.” She calls the practice a compelling example of “continuing bonds after death.”

And if the existence of an online presence after death prolongs the grieving process along with the unsettling comfort of “magical thinking,” it may be all to the good. Psychotherapist Mark Dunn believes that most of us in Western society don’t permit ourselves to mourn for as long as is good for us and that the internet “may allow us to learn the mechanics of grieving again.”

–Debra Wierenga

  1. This reminded me of a segment on “This American Life” called “The Apology Line.” Years ago, a man set up a phone line that people could call and leave anonymous messages apologizing for things they’d done. Fascinating and heart-wrenching.

  2. […] way to say Happy Father’s Day to a dad who is no longer around to open cards or presents or check out his Facebook wall, I decided to give this a try. I found myself writing about how my dad used to play “Barbie […]

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