How Should I Feel About My Loved One's "Digital Remains?"
There is no right or wrong in grief, online or off.
Posted Jun 30, 2020
COVID-19 deaths have now exceeded half a million worldwide, leaving so many of us mourning. The grief itself can be terrible, but an additional dimension of suffering often comes with loss. We worry that our grief is abnormal, or that we're not progressing appropriately through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' famous stages.
But now, more than ever, we need to respect the contextual and idiosyncratic nature of grief.
Practitioners of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy distinguish between "clean pain" and "dirty pain". Grief is an example of "clean pain," which cannot be controlled or avoided. It's a force of emotional nature that can rise like an unanticipated tide, hit you like a wave, or unexpectedly recede.
You self-impose "dirty pain" when you judge, evaluate, and try to control the clean pain. Internet searches are an inexhaustible source of dirty pain, and bereaved people often seek advice from the hive mind of the web about whether they should be experiencing this much or that kind of pain after such-and-such a period of time.
But isn't there a right and wrong way to grieve?
Our algorithmic environment, unfortunately, perpetuates existing misconceptions about grief. Try entering "stages of" into a search engine, and see if auto-complete suggests "grief." Now do the reverse: Tap in "grief" and watch auto-complete serve up "stages of." You would be forgiven for thinking that the stages of grief are carved in stone.
The research of people like George Bonanno, however, has transformed our understanding of grief by showing that most of us are resilient grievers, but that our individual processes vary spectacularly.
Over your lifetime, you may experience many different grief trajectories. And if you ever become concerned that you haven't "moved on," know that across cultures and millennia, humans have continued bonds with the dead rather than cutting emotional ties.
So when someone dies, your experience and your needs will be different than another mourner's, and it's normal to continue bonds. Judging yourself for your grief process will only create "dirty pain."
The digital world has caused more issues than the algorithms directing mourners to expect five stages of grief, however. Problems also occur in modern bereavement because of the collision of individual grief needs and the existence of digital afterlives.
What is a digital afterlife?
The dust of your digital life is scattered far and wide, and it has likely expanded exponentially during coronavirus lockdown. It includes social media posts, emails, documents, photos — things you intended to create or share — and also information passively captured by your devices, or posted about you by others. You might not be into family history, but everyone's got a relative with a genealogy habit. Even children often have substantial digital footprints through the "sharenting" of others.
All those data don't just disappear when your digital life becomes your digital legacy, and that can be consequential for people left behind. Because so much practical and sentimental material is stored digitally — and managed by big tech companies — the landscape of modern grief is littered with issues related to access and control.
How can digital afterlives be problematic?
In terms of access, bereaved people may suffer because they have too little access to digital remains. For example, family may assume that they're automatically legally entitled to access a deceased person's cloud account, phone, or email, and they're often surprised and upset when their request is denied.
On the other hand, people can suffer because they can access so much. Digital remains can be comprehensive and intensely personal, and seeking comfort in them may instead unearth surprises and secrets. Accessing more does not always equate to feeling better.
In terms of control, we have come to task technology companies — particularly social media — with looking after our digital dead. Memorialised accounts have become commonplace, comforting for some mourners, painful for others. Settings that allow individual grievers to calibrate their interaction with the digital dead are typically not very finely grained.
Perhaps expecting social media to not just preserve the dead, but also to care for the bereaved, is an expectation too far.
Some of us feel the pain of second loss acutely when a set of digital remains disappears. But perhaps we're upset for a different reason too. Perhaps, at these moments of data loss, we realise what else we've lost: control and ownership, not just over our memories, but over our own digital selves and their eventual fate.
Even calling it "digital legacy" can lull you into overestimating how much control you have over your digital information. A legacy usually refers to something that is yours to bequeath, but "your" digital material often doesn't legally belong to you. You can't pass on what you don't own.
Is control of digital afterlives possible?
You may have more control than you think. Almost all states in America have now passed laws making it easier to manage your digital estate. If you assume that password-protected devices and accounts will prove tricky or impossible for others to access, you can ensure that important practical and sentimental information is stored in formats you can control, without third parties and their terms and conditions getting involved.
As a bereaved person, perhaps you have more agency there too, especially if you commit to not giving yourself "dirty pain" by judging yourself or self-imposing "shoulds." As researcher Morna O'Connor writes in Digital Afterlife: Death Matters in a Digital Age (2020), just like everything else in grief, the impact and significance of digital afterlives is not uniform or predictable. Digital afterlives do not "export simply into grievers' experience" (p. 52). Each griever relates to the digital objects left behind by the deceased in their own way.
We continue our bonds with the dead not just on our phones, but in our memories. Those gone before continue on not just in digital data, but as embodied in our narratives and actions. In these ways, the dead have stayed with us since the beginning of time, and although the digital age has changed much, it has not changed that.
Bonanno, G. (2010). The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Kasket, E. (2020). All the Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Afterlife of Your Personal Data. London: Robinson/Little Brown UK.
O'Connor, M. (2020). Posthumous digital material: Does it 'live on' in survivors' accounts of their dead? In M. Savin-Baden & V. Mason-Robbie (Eds.), Digital Afterlife: Death Matters in a Digital Age (pp. 39-56). London: CRC Press.