What stories have you learned from the digital messages left behind?

What stories have you learned from the digital messages left behind?

What stories have you learned from the digital messages left behind?

My stepfather died last spring and I inherited his iPad. Since I did not reset the device, it contains Jeff’s old Facebook account, texts and emails. It may seem awkward, like I’m walking around the house in his XXL cat t-shirt and khaki. But I like having a place to go where I’m not distracted by notifications from my phone.

One night while reading the news on the iPad, I noticed an app I hadn’t thought of before: Photos. It had been a few months since Jeff had died, and while I had already gone through his Gmail and Facebook messages (nothing to write home about), I forgot this one. I paused for about three seconds – wondering if I should ask my mother for permission first – then watched.

When a family member dies, surviving relatives used to rummage through boxes in the attic, looking at scrapbooks and memorabilia containing old stories; When our loved ones die today, they most likely leave behind countless digital remains: text messages, voicemails, emails, screenshots, to-do lists, social media accounts, including hidden ones.

We want to hear what others have learned about their family or friends based on the digital remains left behind by someone’s death. Share with us a photo, email, Facebook post, draft note, or other digital information you discovered, and tell us what you learned from it. (See form below.)

Like boxes in the attic, these digital messages contain stories we may not have known about our loved ones. After my grandfather died, my mother went through the letters he had sent from the army during World War II, learning about his efforts to keep kosher during the war. Those letters had always been there, but now they had added weight.

After my stepfather died, our family pulled out old photos of him to look at.Credit…Courtesy of Barbara Strauss

Unlike the curated scrapbooks and carefully written letters of older generations, the digital remains left behind today are often spontaneous and unedited.

My stepfather was very ill at the end and before that he spent a lot of his free time in bed reading, so many of his photos looked like they were taken lying down. Browsing through her Photos app, I saw plenty of pictures of feet. Many images looked more like accidental screenshots than intentional photographs.

Feet, feet, feet and then pops – a series of close-ups of Jeff’s face, his head resting against his hospital bed. Did Jeff take selfies in the hospital? In one, I swear I detected a smile.

I kept coming back. Most of the old photos included either my mother or her cats, Basil and Oregano – Reggie for short. Other than naming them, my mother never wanted to do much with these cats. But Jeff was watching her, and every time Reggie crawled on her lap while she was watching a show or reading a magazine, and my mom inadvertently stroked him, Jeff seized the moment.

There have also been several series over the years of my mother standing in the kitchen, trying on outfits. I imagine these photos were forced, what one takes to keep a partner happy. But there have been a few caught at their favorite lake in Maine. My mom was sitting in an Adirondack chair, painting a scene of wildflowers, and Jeff captured her from every angle.

In another series, I spotted my boys from years ago. They looked like maybe 1 and 3, wearing footed pajamas. I could see Jeff’s belly in the photos, the boys playing on the floor in front of him. They looked up at Jeff, with the kind of twinkle in their eyes children reserve for grandparents.

The photos gave a glimpse of a time my stepdad had with my boys that I was unaware of. I was probably still in bed when it happened, sleeping. It made me think of all the other moments they must have shared, just them.

If you would like to participate, please fill out this form. We plan to publish a selection of the responses in an upcoming article on digital remains left behind after someone dies. We will not publish any part of your submission without first contacting you. We may use your contact information to follow up with you.


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