Digital legacies – are we ready to be surrounded by virtual ghosts?

In a tragic twist of fate, Lorna Harris lost both her parents, when they both died within months of each other.

Three years on though, she is still in ‘contact’ with her mum, Glenda, 71. 

‘I still have voice notes from her and I listen to them when I need to remember what she sounds like,’ Lorna, 48, tells Metro.co.uk. 

‘I have one that I play a lot. It’s so normal. I had flu and my parents were popping me some bits over to my house… My mum and dad are in their car and mum is saying she’s got me “Lemsip, a magazine and a massive bar of chocolate. Will pop it over and give you a cuddle. Keep warm. Love you”…’

‘I listen to it when I feel sad or ill,’ adds Lorna. ‘Not all the time but now and then. My dad Harry is in the background joking around that I am ‘skiving off work’ but they both shout ‘love you’ at the end.

‘I love seeing videos and hearing their voices but sometimes the magnitude of their loss is pulled into full focus and can send me reeling a bit.’

While no longer considered a phenomena of the modern world, voicemails can often hold a far deeper meaning than any of us realise – a chance to immortalise the unique sounds, breaths and intonations of a deceased loved one. 

And they’re not the only way someone can leave a digital legacy. Thanks to 21st-century technology, the dead are far from hidden these days. Family members can log onto their Facebook accounts to share updates about the deceased’s lives, wishing they were there, as a form of contact; they archive and often print dead loved one’s WhatsApp messages, revisit Instagram Reels or listen to songs and videos they recorded in the past.

Nowadays we can easily carry the deceased around in our pockets, never quite deleting that mundane voicemail of a shopping list, or wiping their contact from our address books – constantly blurring the lines between what is real, and what we wished was still real.

Celebrities are in on the act too, with Kim Kardashian revealing on Instagram in 2020 that Kanye West gifted her a lifelike hologram of her late father, who died in 2003 from esophageal cancer. 

Even our children are making contact with the dead – LBC radio presenter James O’Brien once shared on Twitter that his 10-year-old continued to message his deceased father, hoping that he had an amazing life, and informing him of birthdays and presents. 

Talking about her own experiences of holding onto her parents’ digital legacy, Lorna explains, ‘Grief is very hard. We get through it how we can. I downloaded my mum’s WhatsApps and printed them into a little folder. It’s like a love letter from her – with moaning!’ 

‘I have never called it digital ghosts,’ she says, adding, ’but I suppose in some way it is.’

With research estimating that 8,000 Facebook users died daily in 2018, there’s no doubt we are surrounded by online footprints of those who’ve passed.  But while some use these digital legacies as a form of closure, and a chance to remind themselves of good times gone by, others question whether holding on to the past might be harmful to our grieving process – hindering us in our healing, rather than soothing our emotional wounds? 

It’s a question Sarah grapples with after being caught off guard via an unsolicited push notification from a gaming app.

After setting up Scrabble on her phone to keep a close friend company in hospital as he didn’t want visitors, she hadn’t anticipated the impact it would later have after he sadly passed away.

‘My phone buzzed and my body froze,’ she says, remembering the moment. ‘I’d received a notification saying our online Scrabble game was over. When I saw his name, cold lightning went through me. I closed the app, deleted it and threw my phone at the floor.’ 

Recalling why she downloaded the app in the first place, Sarah explains, ‘Playing online and sending texts and emails was all I could do. His turns in the game became fewer and far between. 

‘He hadn’t responded to my last text when I heard he was in palliative care. I sent one final message, sending my love, telling him I missed him and was thinking of him. I couldn’t bring myself to say goodbye.’

Now, Sarah says, her house ‘is full of ghosts’.

‘At my kitchen table where I made him cups of tea. In the armchair where he told me he was ill. The window where we hugged… I didn’t know it would be the last time I would see him,’ she says.

However, despite the initial shock of the app notification, Sarah admits she has found solace in other forms of their online communication. 

‘I didn’t know who to contact when he’d gone, as I didn’t really know his friends or family,’ she says. ‘Instead, I looked through our old texts and emails. I found comfort in every expression of hope and every smiling emoji he’d sent. His messages of affection warmed me when I felt numb.

‘My grief is confusing, noisy, and painful. It leaves me breathless. It’s messy and I don’t know where to keep it. Looking back over those digital whispers from the past offer a little solace. They keep small connections alive.’ 

But what happens if these digital connections are suddenly lost? Maybe through a change in phone providers, or a family member shutting down a Facebook page. Could it spark feelings of deep loss all over again?

According to some experts, the answer is yes – with psychologists calling this the fear and anxiety of ‘second loss’.

While we know that photos and camcorder videos may fade and perish over time, social media (we believe) is expected to always be there – we’re reliant on it being reliably present. So when that is removed, along with the black-and-white memories of our loved one’s, we start to panic. 

‘For the bereaved, the Internet has become an important tool, which many find comforting,’ Dr Debra Bassett, Visiting Fellow at the University of Bath and a digital afterlife researcher, explained in a 2018 paper. ‘The Internet is providing a platform where ‘ordinary’ people can remain socially active following biological death, which was once the realm of the rich and famous in society.

Speaking to Metro.co.uk, she adds, ‘However, current research has highlighted that digital endurance is creating a new fear for the bereaved: Fear of losing the data created by – or commemorating – the deceased.’

Dr Bassett says she began research into the digital afterlife after her friend’s daughter passed away, while leaving behind an active Facebook page. ‘I grew interested in why people were still talking to her as though she was still alive,’ she explains.  

‘My research has shown that people who ‘control’ the digital memories and messages find comfort in them. Comfort and control are entwined – it has shown that virtual keepsakes are seen by the bereaved as containing what I call the ‘essence’ of the dead in a way that physical keepsakes are not.’

That’s why, Debra says, the fear of ‘second loss’ – a theory she originated – is one to be aware of. ‘People are anxious about losing the precious data of the dead through technical obsolescence or lack of control – several participants told me how it would be like losing their loved ones all over again,’ she says.

However, she warns that it’s something we all should be prepared for losing, as Dr Bassett adds, ‘Digital immortality does not exist – digital endurance only exists whilst the companies that hold the data exist.’

Sophia Waterfield, 32, admits that she’d be devastated if she lost the only recording she has of her late Grandma, after she died suddenly from a heart attack.

‘It’s a special video, apart from it being the only one I seem to have, as it features her trying to make my son laugh when he was around four or five months old,’ explains Sophia, who listens to it several times a year, including the day her Grandma passed.

‘I keep going back it because I want to hear her voice, remember how daft she was – and I mean that in the most loving way possible! – and also remember the times she bonded with my son when he was a baby. I have pictures of her, but the video is the only way I can hear her.’

Does she worry about losing that video? ‘God, absolutely,’ Sophia says emphatically. ‘I don’t think I would have anything else as close to her death as that. Old family videos perhaps, but nothing like that. I would probably be very sad everytime I wanted to hear her.’

Thankfully, there are a growing number of organisations helping change the way we interact with the dead online, preserving their life like a ‘virtual Victorian memory box,’ according to founder of MyWishes, James Norris. Initially set up in 2013 as DeadSocial before changing its name, his site’s aim was to preserve your social media and digital legacy – helping you ‘tweet from beyond the grave’. 

Jonathan Davies is a trustee for the memorial tribute charity MuchLoved, which also preserves digital legacies, as well as giving people the chance to fundraise for a chosen charity. With over a million registered users, the site has raised £100million in donations for over 6,000 charities so far, he says.

Jonathan admits that his own experiences of grief had a profound impact on him.

‘After my brother Philip died suddenly in 1995, I remember climbing over the fence of the graveyard one evening in order to visit his grave,’ he remembers. ‘It may have been a reaction to the idea of the cemetery gates closing shut at dusk, or simply the need I had at a particular time, regardless of whether it was day or night, to connect with him.’

Three years later Jonathan sadly lost his mum and recalls that it took many years before he was financially and emotionally able to begin work on a memorial website with his friend Andy Daniels.

When MuchLoved finally came to fruition in 2006, he says, ‘It was really therapeutic for me designing and helping build the service. Looking back, it was something I needed, but did not exist when my brother died.’

Creating an online memorial service ‘presents no geographical or time constraints,’ adds Jonathan, and says that as well as recording key events and details of their life, the website can display personal memories that otherwise would be shut away from the light of day.

‘Immediately following Phil’s death, I wrote a poem that I read out at his funeral which I’m proud and happy to show on his tribute site today,’ he recalls. ‘My father also added his personal diary entries outlining his own grief experience.

‘I have given close friends and family members the ability to access and contribute to my brother’s memorial so that they can keep his memory alive in their own way, at the same time perhaps adding photographs or stories that I may not have seen or heard before.’

The chance to continually update a memorial over time is something that Jonathan says he finds particularly helpful. ‘It never has to be completed or closed, as with my feelings for my dead brother,’ he explains. ‘It is this ongoing process of recording your thoughts and memories in many forms that can assist in your grieving, helping you connect with and keeping the memories of your loved one alive as you gradually adjust to life after loss.

‘It does not matter whether these bonds, or digital shadows, are virtual or tangible, it just matters that they exist and they help.’

However, while he does believe that digital services can be ‘an important tool’ when it comes to grieving, Jonathan also points out that they ‘should be seen as a complementary rather than an alternative way of grieving.

‘You can see how traumatic it has been for many families during the covid pandemic that they were not able to have the funeral ceremony or wake that they needed,’ he explains.

‘No digital service can replace that physical togetherness of an in-person gathering, however it can complement and assist – for example, enabling a funeral service to be streamed to someone that can not attend, or providing a sensitive format for wider friends and colleagues to share memories and send their condolences.’

Whether it is good for us to keep loved ones alive in a virtual world, is a tricky question, according to Maria Bailey, founder of Grief Specialists, an online hub to connect grievers with professional support.

‘I would say everyone grieves differently – if you want to listen to voicemails and read text messages, there’s nothing wrong with that,’ she says. 

However, Maria does warn that if you have unanswered questions for a deceased loved one, it might become a problem to hold onto so-called digital ghosts if that person is no longer there to answer them. 

‘Some of our grief specialists run a short action programme called the Grief Recovery Method that is very effective in helping grievers deliver all the things left unsaid, which in turn helps to deal with the pain they’re feeling,’ she explains.

And, as Jonathan’s story proves, not even the professionals who make alleviating grief their aim are exempt from the pain.

After discovering a voicemail from her mum, Gay Kennedy, following her death in December 2020, Maria admits it sparked a rollercoaster of emotions.

‘I had one voicemail I’d unintentionally saved,’ she remembers. ‘I found it about a week after she died. It was a very mundane message asking me to put in a repeat prescription for her but it ended with ‘love you.’ It was like finding a tenner that you’ve forgotten about in a coat pocket.’

‘I kept listening to it, just to hear her voice. Sometimes it made me smile. Other times I listened to it when I had a cry.

‘It wasn’t something I listened to on repeat for hours but perhaps once a day,’ Maria adds. ‘Then once every few days. Then it got to the point where I suppose I forgot about it, and now it’s not there anymore, as my messages go after a set amount of time, and I’m ok with that. 

‘For those initial few weeks though, it was a real comfort.’

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