Grieving in a digital age

Last year I lost many people who were either close to me or had a great impact on my life. I’ve been reluctant to write this post because it’s very personal and I didn’t want it to feel exploitative, but writing has always been therapeutic.

The loss I’ve experienced this year, just reminds me of the losses to come.

I’m lucky enough to have those closest to me still on this side of the plane of existence but I also know that life is fragile.

Lately I’ve been thinking to what extent it’s easier or harder to grieve in a digital age.

Each day, I have records upon records, massive amount of data, on my relationship with the people in my life.

They’re represented in push notifications, in reminders through time hops and “last year, this time” functions on social media.

Instead of choosing when to be reminded of your grief, you are constantly reminded through push notifications, tags in pictures, unread emails, joint social media accounts etc, and you can either log off and ignore or embrace the wave of emotions. To look. To remember. To process, or dwell.

Someone I frequently talked to passed away last year, and for the first few weeks after the funeral I would open our conversation-thread on my phone and start typing when I had something to discuss, until I half way through the message realised what I was about to do.

And I cried.

Each time.

New conversations have since filled my feed, and our conversation thread has been pushed down, out of sight, but not out of mind.

I think about how easy it would be to create a chatbot, to ease the pain. Like Eugenia Kuyda did when her dear friend Roman Mazurenko passed away.

But just like the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back, I realise that it would (in the long run) just prolong my grief and pain.

Black Mirror — Be Right Back — Netflix

Or would it?

Would an AI or a simple chatbot be a bandaid for the flesh wound that is grief, or is it just salt in the wound?

I don’t know which it would be.

If one ignores the legal and ethical ramifications of recreating loved ones based on their direct messages, how would I feel recreating someone? How would I feel if someone recreated me?

Flattered, worried, both?

Would they take me out of context, change my personality, would it still be me they are talking to, or a watered down version of me. Would it change their opinion of me if I said something that hurt them?

Would a flawed AI change my opinion of the one I’ve tried to recreate?

Is it fair to form new memories with someone who’s not around to take part of their own words?

I don’t know.

I just know that I’ve experienced grief before and after social media, and I cherish the fact that I can read that the last words I said to you were that I admired and appreciate you.

But I also know that I can read all the times I’ve fought and disagreed with loved ones, hurt them, been unfair, intentionally or not, it’s there.

Technology and grieving is a double edged tool.

It let’s us remember, but will it let us heal?

And I’m not sure what I think about it yet.