From Disney’s award-winning Coco depicting traditions around death and remembrance to Black Mirror’s “Be Right Back” episode, recent media releases have us pausing to reflect how grief and expressions of grief and remembrance have evolved over time. Most notably, while some rituals like ofrendas remain in tradition, as technology evolves and emerges we are now experiencing and expressing grief in the digital world. Regardless of the expression of grief, all roads eventually lead to the realization that the person we once knew is no longer accessible to us to interact with in the same way.
Since the advent of the answering machines, the loss of a loved one sometimes meant calling an answering machine indefinitely or listening to old messages about what to buy at the grocery store, just to hear that person’s voice. Only to realize it wasn’t a two-way conversation anymore. For some who are religious, death promises an after-life or continuation of the soul. Some who experienced loss would pray for or to their deceased relatives almost as if in a dialogue. Yet, at some point, there comes the realization, that even with the belief of the continuation of the person, there will be no answer. But what if there could be a two-way conversation? What if there could be a response on the other end?
Artificial Intelligence: Keeping Memories Alive or Suspending Denial?
Dystopian Black Mirror asks exactly that question in “Be right back.” Spoiler alert- in this episode, a woman named Martha unexpectedly loses her spouse, Ash. In the waves of relentless grief – the place where you have cried and heaved so much that your insides seem so hollow they would echo – she uses a service recommended by a friend at a funeral. The service takes her deceased husband’s social media footprint and digests it into a tool that can text back in a similar tone and diction. As the storyline escalates, the AI goes from text messages to being able to talk on the phone to being a live “robot” of sorts that Martha can interact with and even be intimate with.
Yet, as Martha’s interactions with the AI version of Ash increase, she comes to a point where she is forced to recognize it is not really him. It is not a two-way conversation with the man she once knew. Despite consuming all of Ash’s social media and public digital persona, the AI could not fully capture Ash. It was a shell and remembrance of his public self. Though many now share their lives openly in the digital world, I like to believe there are still intimate moments not captured in all of our social media profiles or captured by the natural language processing devices that listen to what we say.
These are the moments that are uncapturable – the moment in Good Will Hunting, when Robin Williams ad libs that his late wife used to fart in her sleep. He then goes on to describe how one time she woke herself and dog up. These are the private moments that the advanced AI in the episode doesn’t capture. Then, even when we think there is a surrogate for the loss, we are faced to confront the reality that the person we know cannot be accessible to us in the same way anymore.
Digital Footprints: Helping or Hurting the Grieving Process?
With the emergence of Facebook Memorialized Accounts and other digital platforms, graves, wakes, and memorials are not happening at a physical place or even in a synchronous time anymore. As we’ve become increasing portable, so have the graves where we mourn. Social media has changed how we grieve and remember people. For some, bringing the grief online may show them a side of the deceased they did not know about. For example, a parent who lost a young adult may see their child’s digital persona for the first time. Yet these “places” are a sort of asynchronous wake and a “place” longer lasting than a roadside memorial. For some, it allows them to process grief in their own time.
A woman I know died in a tragic car accident commuting back from college to her hometown. Her best friend did not attend or speak at her funeral. A year and a half later, she posted on her Memorialized Account sharing how she wasn’t ready to speak then, and she isn’t sure if she’s ready to accept the loss now, but she wanted the deceased to know she was missed and still thought of. The page gave her a place to mourn when she was ready.
Conversely, Alana Levinson of the RollingStone magazine suggests “The problem with collective mourning in the digital age is not the act itself, but that it doesn’t ever end. Unlike a funeral, the casket is never lowered…The grief the American people feel from one tragedy is simply transferred to another. And instead of building to a crescendo, I’m afraid that we slowly grow numb.”
It seems regardless of how we mourn or what process we go through before reaching acceptance, there is still a moment of recognizing the loss- that it is not the real thing. Things cannot and are no longer the same. It calls to attention what makes us uniquely human – the ability to be irrational, the ability to create something new, and the ability to share in the joy of discovery.
Mourning is unavoidable, but ensuring the wishes of the departed is not. Advance care planning is a step that can provide families and friends comfort during the grieving process. It enables both family members and providers with the care preferences, goals and values of the person facing end of life. While still a painful process for those left behind, it can prevent additional grief caused by uncertainty.
Providers and caregivers often are faced with the impossible – delivering the news of a loved one’s departure. Navigating conversations with those affected can be extremely difficult and the impact of dealing with the stress of these circumstances also takes a toll. Learning self-care tactics and communication skills around conversations of loss are just as important for staff as clinical aptitude. These principles are often applied in palliative care and, as previously mentioned, in circumstances of advance care planning.
Learn more about building and applying these skills by watching our webinar on palliative care.