I was futzing around online at work one Friday afternoon in 2007 when an e-mail popped into my Outlook stream. “I’m coming up with baked chicken tonight,” my mom wrote. “Hang in there. I love you.”
Well, that sounded pretty fantastic to me. For starters, it had been a rough week. Also, I was hungry. And finally, I really missed my mom’s apricot chicken, considering she’d been dead for more than a year.
Her e-mail was dated May 15, 2006, nearly four months before she died. That was around the same time I’d been in the dumps after breaking up with my longtime boyfriend, conveniently right smack in the midst of “wedding season” among my friends. Gazing at the loving words on my screen, my visceral reaction was to allow myself to be tricked into the possibility that I was actually going to see her that evening. But that was short-lived. There would be no home-cooked dinner. No hugs and kisses and assurances that chances were good I wouldn’t end up like Miss Havisham. No Mom. Just more Ollie’s Chinese takeout and a handful of digital dust taunting me with happier moments.
Never before had the Internet played such a cruel trick on me. Not even when an early version of Pandora had inexplicably erased dozens of carefully crafted stations such as “Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole radio.” But oh, would the Internet continue to do so. That e-mail, which had bent time and space in its route toward my in-box, was my introduction to the wily nature of the web and its digital cousins, and to the massive wrench technology has tossed into the grieving process.
Since my parents died, I’ve had to be on guard against emotional digital sneak attacks. I’ve declined repeated notes from LinkedIn insisting I really should consider connecting with Ray Rosenberg (um, yes, that’d be great to connect with my dead dad, thanks!). Or gotten fleetingly excited when a Google alert indicated new updates on Shelby Rosenberg, only to read a piece on, weirdly, a star male forward on the Yeshiva University basketball team. Or spent hours on multiple devices deleting Mother’s Day onslaughts from marketers ranging from the unsurprising (looking at you, Edible Arrangements) to the truly very much so (et tu, Jiffy Lube?).
But if these surreal pop-ups are sometimes funny, especially after some time as passed, they are often shocking and painful. The undead nature of the digital world causes the dead to die over and over and over again, and by extension repeatedly rips off the scabs that strive to form over these deep wounds. And I realize I’ve had it pretty easy compared to other people I’ve met through Modern Loss, the site I run. I wasn’t the man who could’ve sworn he was being punked by Google Earth when he looked up his childhood home only to see his dead dad mowing the lawn. Or the grad student who turned off her phone to do a day of research, only to casually check Facebook later and learn that her entire town was talking about her dad’s death in a car accident earlier that afternoon. Or the mom who got repeated e-mails from the school district reminding her it was time to sign her kid up for kindergarten—the kid who’d died two years beforehand.
It’s not the fault of the Internet, in its inherent, uncaring existence. It’s the way we still have little clue as to how one- off “so sorry for your loss” comments or “sadz” gifs can be turned into live, meaningful action. It’s tough to figure out where death fits in between photos of burritos and babies in an unfiltered stream. But I do know that stream makes it easy for us to compartmentalize our feelings, and also to forget grief comes in different guises online. It’s not like you just Instagram it with gentle pastels, photos of lost loved ones, and pulled inspirational quotes. Sometimes grief online takes the form of a smiling selfie featuring a killer pair of new shoes because the person posting it is doing everything they can to keep their shit together. And sometimes it’s nothing: just because some people aren’t baring their souls on a given platform doesn’t mean they’re not in pain.
The Internet taketh away, but it also giveth. And it’s giveth me numerous ways in which to find solace and community, and build up my resilience.
For one, the web is an enormous empathy-building opportunity. In a matter of hours, we can provide thousands of dollars to families suddenly saddled with hardships; in a matter of seconds, while waiting in line for a cold brew, we can sign petitions to reform bereavement-leave policies. And, I wouldn’t even be writing this piece if I hadn’t been able to help launch an online publication taking on the stigma of loss. That publication is a portal that can draw people out of their isolation from anywhere they have a device, and it is a platform that allows them to state the truths of their grief fearlessly to an audience of knowing strangers-who-get-it, even if they’d balk at doing so in person to their closest friends.
My mom died about the time Facebook started to take off. So I don’t have the benefit of being able to sift through her stream whenever I feel like it, smiling at what would surely have been many Planned Parenthood posts and inadvertent Candy Crush invites. But I’ve found other places to visit her. My favorite is Growing Up Jewish in Northeast Philly, a closed Facebook group of more than six thousand enthusiastic members, of which I am one even though I did not, in fact, grow up Jewish in Northeast Philly. This group has become an unwitting support system for me, and a touchstone to her. Do I remember lunches at Jack’s Deli, hanging out at the American Bandstand studios after school or shopping at Caplan’s for Buster Browns? Nope. But it’s comforting to think my mom probably did, because those seem like nice memories to have.
I don’t have the answer as to how meaningful support can acquire as much e-space as LOLcats (which, for the record, I love). I’m not that smart. But I do know that no “like” can replace a conversation, or a hug, or shared double martinis. So in the meantime, I’ll do my best to use the web for good. I’ll set G-cal reminders to check in with friends on trigger days and remember they still exist as offline humans who occasionally appreciate a good old-fashioned conversation.
And the uncaring Internet will grind on. I’ll keep stumbling upon my dad’s absolutely terrible AOL joke forwards. A happy old memory will spring up on Timehop. And I’ll find myself wishing another ancient e-mail promising apricot chicken would inexplicably find its way to me.
Sometimes I’ll open these reminders from beyond unwittingly, but sometimes I’ll do it with one eye open. Because as much as I hate it, I love it. It hurts so good.
Rebecca Soffer is cofounder of Modern Loss and coauthor of the book MODERN LOSS: CANDID CONVERSATION ABOUT GRIEF. BEGINNERS WELCOME. She is a former producer for The Colbert Report. Say hi on Twitter @rebeccasoffer.