Technology-Mediated Grieving

Over the last few years, the sadness was on me. I worried that others could sense it, wafting from somewhere deep within my pores, so I kept silent. Maybe it formed a slick sheen on my skin.

No one mentioned anything.

Quietly, the personal losses formed cavities in my heart.

It was easy to describe the name, the age, the cause of death, but impossible to measure and articulate the width and depth of the loss to someone who wasn’t there, who didn’t know.

Sometimes, in a moment of bleak curiosity, I probed a cavity by looking at photographs, letters, or emails, trying to assess the damage. Was it growing or shrinking? Would the structure of my heart ever return to its unbroken splendor? Results: Inconclusive.

Gradually, the sadness after each loss dulled. However, there were moments when it broke out like a sudden sweat, encouraged by a song droning on in the background of a convenience store or a turn of phrase in an otherwise friendly conversation. But how could they possibly know any better? They weren’t there. They didn’t know.

In 2020, I experienced technology-mediated grieving for the first time. I said goodbye from a Zoom square among Zoom squares, on an iPad, broadcast Live! to the COVID ward. There was no funeral. The country was in lockdown and the travel restrictions were enormous, ambiguous, imposing.

Two days later, I attended a work meeting using the same video conferencing platform, with the same aspirational background filter covering the boring, white wallpaper of my home, as someone blathered on about KPIs or ROIs or IDK. No one offered condolences. But what could they even have said about such a wretched death?

This is not a unique experience.

Sometimes I wonder if the deathbed rattles from these calls are surreptitiously stored above us in the AWS Cloud. But really I don’t want to know. Don’t tell me that those final, wrenching moments live on in a server.

In 2021, I livesteamed a sudden funeral on a platform called Boxcast. Their website boasts the slogan: “Life is better live.” I begrudgingly agree.

In the church, the webcam was positioned so that the viewer floated above the people underneath, looking downward on the proceedings, disembodied. I looked at the backs of the heads of my loved ones until I identified my parents. This unlocked a new feeling that can only be articulated by the desolate howling of a fragile mammal, in the deep, dark woods, at night, alone.

Everyone looked so tiny in their masks, and large in their grief. I gazed at the hardwood pews, the sturdy altar, the resplendent stained glass, and the worn and ruddy carpet. I could almost feel the cold drafts of air and smell the hovering clouds of incense. This was the church where my family members are christened, married, and mourned, somehow pixelated before me on a glowing screen, achingly familiar, yet uncannily grotesque. This content did not belong on my iPad at 2:00 AM. It was private and did not belong anywhere.

The livestream buffered a few times as the priest reflected on the mysteries. I muttered along with the ingrained rhythm of the recitations, and texted “Peace be with you” in time. These awkward actions were an attempt to participate in the funeral and not passively consume it as streamed content. I don’t know how to behave at a livestreamed funeral. No one has mastered this.

When the recessional hymn began, I watched my loved ones slowly leave. It felt like the credits should roll. There were no credits. Gingerly, I closed the tab.

Sometimes I wonder where this funeral data is stored. I can see Boxcast recordings of a few services and sermons on the church’s website and no deletion policy. Has this funeral been laid to rest in US-East-1? I don’t want to know for certain. I never want to watch it again.

During these times of technology-mediated grieving, it feels natural to ask: “What happens when we die?” However, it feels particularly ghoulish to ponder, “What happens to our data when we die? And will it be used for targeted advertising?”

We’ll all definitively learn the answer to one of those questions, the rest is a matter of faith.

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