Grief and Letting Go in the Digital Age
After friends died, the author struggled with whether to delete contacts
I recently found the need to open my address book for the first time in years. Like all of us these days, I communicate primarily by email or by calling from a phone that stores all necessary numbers. So I regarded this pre-digital contact storage as a history book, filled with people who have long slipped from my life, either professionally or personally.
Then there were those who also have slipped from this earth. I began to mentally tick them off, as if filling out a survey. “He died… he died… oh, I forgot she died…” I felt almost detached, having grieved, accepted and moved on some time ago. They died. That’s life.
Yet, as I’d write email after two particular friends died, it would never fail to stun me when their names would automatically pop up when I typed the letters D or B, like a jack-in-the-box straight from The Twilight Zone.
Why was I holding on to their contact information? Was I hoping they were pulling an elaborate practical joke and would reappear when the time was right?
(MORE: Getting Through Grief by Hanging on to Yourself)
If only. Both friends, you see, had such profound, yet profoundly different impacts on my life that it seemed erasing their names would be an act of disloyalty.
Dean was the first columnist who made it a point to read a blog I’d started in 2004. He was not only encouraging, he talked me up to his editor at The Weekly Standard. I was soon made a regular contributor. A couple of my pieces were even republished by CBS News. Soon, I had the confidence to contribute to other publications. If you’ve enjoyed anything I’ve written on Next Avenue, you can thank Dean.
Only months after he got me the Standard gig, Dean was dead from cystic fibrosis. To my lasting regret, we never met face-to-face. Some might consider it a “virtual friendship,” but for me it was as real — and important — as any other.
(MORE: How to Cope with the Death of a Friend)
Bert, on the other hand, was simply the funniest person I ever knew, a trait that scored high with me. When he told me he’d been diagnosed with stage three colon cancer, it didn’t really register. He looked healthy; he was still hilarious — what my father would call a rascal. Heck, just after Bert broke the news, he showed me a decades-old topless photo of his ex-wife. No way this guy was going anytime soon.
Three years and two rounds of chemotherapy later, Bert was dead. By then, he had re-married and moved to New Jersey. The last time I saw him alive, he was in the hospital, shriveled like a worn out dishrag. With what little strength he had, Bert introduced me to his nurse as one of his best friends and promised me we’d see each other again.
Whose spirits was he trying to raise with that impossible pledge — his or mine? He was gone in a matter of days, only 52 years old.
‘Contacts Have Been Deleted’
The times when Dean or Bert automatically appeared in the address bar, I literally twinged with emotion. Make that “emotions.” Sadness, of course, that they were gone. Regret for not talking to them more than I did. Mostly gratitude, though, that they’d been part of my life.
Deleting their contact information, I decided, was no more a disloyal act than their funerals. They were gone. Even if, like a spirit who doesn’t realize he’s dead, Bert can still be found on LinkedIn — a happenstance that would offer him no end of amusement.
So I went to my email account and pulled up their names. I took a breath. Did I want to do this? No. Nobody ever wants to do anything like this. Should I do this? Yes. Years had passed. What was the point? It was like saving captions to photos that no longer existed.
(MORE: A Surprising Way to Handle Grief)
I checked them off. A second later, I was informed in bold letters, CONTACTS HAVE BEEN DELETED. At another time, I would have taken it as a rebuke. Now, it was just a statement of fact.
Knowing his sense of humor, I think Bert would remark that he and Dean were deleted from this life a while ago anyway: “Get rid of the addresses already! I hardly answered your emails when I was alive! And Dean says he only helped you because he felt sorry for you!”
No, I don’t need to hang on to a couple of obsolete addresses to remember them. But I freely admit to hoping that one morning I’ll go to my email and receive a couple of messages with a dot-heaven domain. Something like, “Hey, Kevin, sorry it took so long getting in touch; things are really laid back up here. See you soon. LOL!”