Grief in a Digital Age

This week, a man I admired and loved died suddenly while on vacation. As a Pastor, I have been experiencing my own grief while also trying to lead my church through theirs. Many knew him as not only a leader of our community but as a father, uncle, or friend. Each of us has been trying to adjust to a world without him, a world where God is real and still good men die young, in our own way.

One of the most difficult moments of the week came from a most unexpected source – my inbox. I had spent several minutes trying to craft an e-mail that captured something of what he had meant to us, of how it feels when we lose someone, of where we go next, to send to the church listserve to inform any who couldn’t be reached by phone of his death. And as soon as I hit send, something new popped up in my unread messages – his auto-reply, letting me know that for a little while he was going to be out of touch.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I’m pretty sure I did both. Seeing his name, sitting there, still lit up in the attention grabbing ‘unread’ color scheme of gmail, felt like a sliver of hope that maybe it wasn’t true, maybe he wasn’t gone, maybe all our grief was just mistaken. It also felt like something precious, banal as it was in content – it was probably the last time he would ever communicate with me.

It broke open my grief, forcing me to realize all the things that we would be missing now that he is no longer present on this Earth. I’m sure twenty, or two hundred, or a thousand years ago, something would have done the same thing. But it wouldn’t have been this.

I’m not the only one for whom technology became a  major part of losing and remembering those who’ve gone. My friend Matthew Johnson writes eloquently at the Portico Collective about his experience of receiving one text, over and over again, from a dead friend. Millions of us are trying to figure out how to interact with the Facebook pages of the dead. Just this week, in the wake of actor, comedian, and gamer Robin Williams’ tragic death, we immediately saw the best and worst the internet has to offer.

On the one hand, fellow gamers have already started campaigns to get characters added in his name to World of Warcraft and Legend of Zelda, to honor the life he led and the things he loved. On the other, his daughter Zelda (named for that very game) has been forced to close all social media accounts because of anonymous harassers bombarding her with cruel comments and altered photos of her father.

We tend to overestimate how much technology changes the fundamentals of who we are. The Luddites and the i-obsessives love, and feel, and hurt alike. But it feels genuinely different to live in a world where there are so many traces of a person, left behind, for all to see, with little control over how and when we encounter them, after their physical presence is gone.

In the past seeing our lost loved ones in the quiet moments, in the jars of their favorite cookie on the bakery counter, in the pile of letters left in the sock drawer, were things that were somewhat private. They moved us, but we could start to figure out what they meant on our own. If we were in too much pain, it was a little simpler (though never easy) to avoid such reminders.

Like all things, I think this has good and bad in it. Our grief is even more fraught. Strangers have greater ability to twist or take advantage of it. Some of our protective walls are crumbling.

But it is ever more a reality of our lives that we are reminded that those who are gone aren’t really gone. They left an impact, a consequence, a trail of code and pictures messages. They were here, and so are we. Maybe we’ll take our own lives more seriously, live them more fully, if we know how much of the evidence of them will stick around once we’re gone.

As a Christian, every time I take communion I affirm that I am doing so “with God’s people on Earth and all the company of Heaven.” We believe that the living and the dead are a part of one body, one Spirit, one beloved community tied together forever in creation. We never really lost each other, and with God’s help we will one day find each other again, just as resurrected Jesus promised his friends.

I am choosing to let the realities of grief online be a good thing. A strange, but precious reminder that we are never really separate, we never really leave, and each life, no matter how short or how flawed, is infinitely precious and worth remembering. The fleeting traces of the dead that I encounter will serve to remind me of the full and fleshy lives they lived, and of the reality that I am still a part of a community which includes them and billlions of others.

Death is one of life’s great mysteries. But continuing to love and honor the dead can still be one of our greatest gifts – in whatever forms that love now comes, and whatever new forms it takes in the future.

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