On Grieving the Dead Online

Miles away from home, I watched my grandmother’s funeral on YouTube

It’s 5:45 a.m., and I’m procrastinating. The lamp in the bathroom is on, and I’m sitting on the toilet (lid down) with the door closed because my husband is asleep in our studio apartment. My laptop and iPhone are on the kitchen counter, their screens shimmering in the Brooklyn dawn. Like phantoms, they call to me. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. I’m not awake enough to start the day, but I know I have to. I’m going to need caffeine.

After another 15 minutes of procrastinating — tweeze eyebrows, contemplate the ingredients of a mud mask, absentmindedly read some Pema Chödrön — I tiptoe into the kitchen and turn on the stove. As the water boils, I prepare the tea — three heaping scoops into the silver teapot. If I touch the base of the teapot above the handle, my fingers will burn and need to be slathered in aloe vera from the fridge, so I’m especially careful when I hear the kettle screaming. I place honey and milk next to my favorite cup, a white clay mug handmade in Japan. My hair is a mess, and I pull at my pajama top, wondering if I should dress up for the occasion. But I can’t procrastinate anymore. It’s time.

I plug in my laptop, pour the tea into my cup, and slide into my chair. The mousepad is old—I’m the only one who knows how to use it—and I click and click until I get to the YouTube homepage. I type my grandmother’s name into the search bar and, next to that, the word “memorial.”

I’m alone in a kitchen in Brooklyn, and it is now 6:25 a.m. The video takes a few seconds to load, and I’m not sure how to react. My heart is palpitating, and I know that I am going to cry, but there is no one to console me since I’m not actually at the funeral, which happened a couple months ago, just before Christmas. I lean my face into my open palms, my elbows resting on the countertop so I can get closer to the screen.

The memorial service is an hour and 45 minutes. The first thing I see is a slideshow presentation. Then opening prayers and memorials given by select family members. These are interspersed with old Mennonite spirituals before two microphones are set up so that anyone can speak, and then the slideshow comes back on as family members file out of the church.

If this were a film or the opening to a TV series on Netflix or, more likely, a YouTube serial, I’d say that the acting was spot-on, the camera angles eerily on point, and the set dressing — a blown-up picture of the deceased matriarch next to an arrangement of poinsettias and white tulips — inspired.

But it’s not a TV show, I keep having to remind myself. It’s your grandmother’s funeral. You should have been there, you wouldn’t be able to zone out if you had been there.

I know this, and I also know that circumstances beyond my control prevented me from going — I am waiting for my green card and cannot travel to Canada, where the funeral took place. I see my father in the front row, my aunts and my uncles. If I were there, it wouldn’t seem so disconnected, but it’s like I’m watching someone else’s aunts and uncles and fathers because I’m watching their movements from the documenter’s point of view. I don’t know if it was warm inside or if my family was crying or if they would have taken my hand had I offered it. Most of the memorial is shot from the back of the room, and it makes me feel like I’m a director watching dailies, and that feels like a bit of a heresy, especially because the memorial is in a church and my grandmother was deeply religious. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling of separation.

Which is the writer’s curse. As a memoirist, nostalgia is my guide, even though I know it is only an imprint, like the images that stick with you after waking from a dream. This yearning for the past becomes a writing tool, my long-term memory a film camera that scans through what I remember, pausing and enhancing what I saw and what I felt until it finds something I can use. The hope is that this activity will eventually veer away from my individual experience to hit on something universal, something that relates to tangible social, cultural, or political concerns.

But I don’t think this as my aunt reads out my grandmother’s obituary or when the pastor leads my family in a prayer for her soul. I am slack-jawed, in a numbed-out state of disbelief. What I am seeing on the screen doesn’t seem real, and so I feel disembodied, a phantom limb, a ghost floating above all the people.

On YouTube, I can see the recommended videos that are set for automatic playback, a long thread of memorials—other people’s grandmothers, grandfathers, lovers, colleagues. I realize that if I wanted to, I could spend the whole day immersed in a state of longing, the state of grieving dead people. Or, more accurately, the documentation of the grieving of dead people.

My aunt was with my grandmother during the last nights of her life, when the pain in her spine was so horrible that she hadn’t slept for two days, and the medication had stopped working, and she was beginning to lose hope. It was too much to lay down, so the two of them were sitting in the living room at 2:00 in the morning when my aunt had an idea.

“Mom, let’s have a party.”

“How could I possibly do that,” my grandmother said, motioning to her stiff body, kept awake by the sensation that it was being ground into dust.

“Let’s try,” my aunt said.

And she started to sing.

My aunt sang the Mennonite hymns my grandmother had taught her, songs from my grandmother’s childhood in a Mennonite farming community in northeastern Canada, songs that were sung in the fields, at their dinner tables, to greet the dawn, to end their day, on the way to church. My aunt and my grandmother sang all night long, until there was no pain, until my grandmother’s nurse woke up and tiptoed into the room.

“I’ve never heard such beautiful music,” she cried.

I’ve never heard such beautiful music, either. I’ve never seen a Mennonite songbook, I don’t know any of the words, and I hadn’t heard a single Mennonite hymn until I clicked on the YouTube link to my grandmother’s funeral. For years, I didn’t know my grandmother at all.

I met my father in 2006, when I was 26. I had just broken up with my fiancé — a guy I had proposed to at Burning Man — and it marked a kind of reckoning, a desire to be a better version of myself in the hopes that it would translate into my next relationship. I found myself contemplating my biological father, who, at 17 and addicted to drugs, left my mother while she was pregnant with me. My feelings over the years had been complex — anger at what he did, frustration at what I did not know, compassion for the fact that he was a kid when it happened — but all of these were eclipsed by yearning, a deep well of longing for a family I didn’t know and who had never reached out to me.

On a whim, I thought I might find him on the internet, and so I lazily started a Google search. All I knew was his name. Within minutes, I had his home address, cell number, work email, and a picture. It was a headshot, actually. He worked in sales and had spoken at conferences, so he was pretty easy to find. The thumbnail picture appeared on my screen, and like a rock to the gut, I knew.

That’s him, I thought.

I can do no justice to the moment I saw his picture, the algae-colored background, his tie matching his businessman smile. I was looking at a stranger, undeniably a stranger. It was just that this stranger was my father.

A few months later, after some congenial emails and a phone call, I met him at an Indian restaurant in Vancouver, where he filled me in on the preliminaries: My grandfather had been a pilot and was dead; I had a half brother and sister; he struggled as a kid and felt he had abandoned me; he wanted my forgiveness. Having my actual living father sitting in front of me — a cultured and well-mannered father as opposed to the alcoholic traveling vacuum-cleaner salesman who raised me — was dizzying. I listened to his stories of living all over the world and watched him eat chicken vindaloo while referencing obscure jazz musicians. It was so overwhelming that I had no time to process what was going on or what he was asking when he asked again for my forgiveness.

“I forgive you,” I said, motioning with my hand like it was nothing, like my absolution was a total giveaway.

It took almost a year before he told his children and extended family about me. All that changed when my grandmother came to visit me over a long weekend. We sat knitting in the drawing room of her B&B, silent except for the sound of us eating cheese and crackers from a wafer-thin porcelain dish. The quiet between us was an introduction — she never asked for anything, I never asked for anything. But it wasn’t a standoff; it wasn’t strange or uneasy. It was a grandmotherly silence, the kind that smells of lilacs and makes you want to have a warm nap under a wool afghan. It was in that space that she was wordlessly offering me her presence, the thing I had spent more than two decades yearning for.

She flew home and told my father that he had two days to tell his family about her granddaughter. If he didn’t, she would. And she meant it. So he told them.

I have to admit something: Writing this piece terrified me. It’s usually the ideas that terrify you that you need to write about the most, which is a fancy way of saying I wrote this piece so I would actually watch the YouTube video of my grandmother’s memorial. I had it saved on my computer for more than a week, but I was avoiding it. I thought the writer part of me would stay rational, scaffolding the article in real time so I wouldn’t have to feel loss. So I wouldn’t have to face the shame of not being able to get on a plane. So I wouldn’t have to sit in a room full of my family and their tears. But even if I had gone, I probably would have sat there writing this article in my head. It’s a writer’s dilemma. I don’t know how to not be the outsider, the observer, the one who makes a story out of everything.

In the end, I half-escaped the grief and cried at odd moments—the pause at the end of a song, or the moment when one mourner would pass another heading to the podium. But I wept alone, putting my face in my hands and convulsing while swallowing my tears. I didn’t want to be consoled by my husband, and I was quiet so he wouldn’t wake up. I wanted it to be private, an intimate connection between my grandmother and me. I wore earbuds, and it didn’t feel like a group experience at all. And because it wasn’t a communal experience, it didn’t really serve the function of what a memorial is supposed to be. Everyone else was over there; I was over here.

The internet is an unbelievable creation — an ethereal manifestation of us as humans, as a civilization, where the past can speak to the present, where the past and present are merging, where something that happened in the past repeats, a holographic rip in time, an image coming back to us, like a recurring dream that’s a click away. Watching the service felt like my grandmother was speaking to me through the computer, that what I was seeing was three-dimensional because I have seen my grandmother, hugged her, and felt her weight. But the picture on the screen is like a hologram that, if I reach out to touch the images playing on my computer, will turn to smoke.

During the funeral service, someone mentioned that my grandmother loved Psalms. After watching the video, I Googled some of them, searching in between the stanzas for some evidence of her, of where she might be heading, of what her inner life looked like. I found Psalm 90 and read the line “All things are transient, as insubstantial as dreams,” and my mind jumped back to reading Pema Chödrön that morning (“Life is a dream; death is a dream; waking is a dream; sleeping is a dream”), and then I remembered listening to the On Being podcast with poet John O’Donohue (“Every night when we sleep, we dream, and a dream is a sophisticated, imaginative text, full of figures and drama that we send to ourselves”), and then I read the online Canadian Encyclopedia article on Mennonites, and then I opened Spotify and listened to the Mennonite Children’s Choir and the Laudate Mennonite Ensemble and the Canadian Folk playlist and Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and Dan Mangan, and then I doubled back and started reading online quotes from Susan Sontag’s On Photography until my brain was spinning and I was embarrassed at how desperately I was grasping at the last remnants of my grandmother, whom I loved and whom I love very deeply. She was leaving, she was a phantom, smoke rising into the nothingness. She wasn’t inside the computer; she wasn’t speaking to me in hyperlinks. She was gone.

When my grandmother was a young girl living in that Mennonite farming community, her sister was dying, and she didn’t know what to do because she loved her sister very much. So she carried her sister out to the fire in their yard and held her in her lap, watching the fire embers, a million of them, each individual spark flying off into the sky. My grandmother thought this was her sister’s soul and that it was God lighting the way for her sister to go to heaven.

The year before my grandmother died, she was driving with my cousin, who was trying to explain Spotify to her.

“You can get any song you want, anything. Tell me a song, and I’ll find it for you right now.”

My grandmother was a bit incredulous, more in awe than frustration, and so she asked for the song “Try to Remember.” The most popular version, by Harry Belafonte, croons, “Try to remember the kind of September, when life was slow and oh so mellow.” Her husband, my grandfather, had died in September years before, and the song reminded her of him. She always talked about them being reunited someday. I hope they are, and that wherever they are, they are slow dancing.