Grieving Beyond The Grave: How Media And Technology Shape Mourning

If it’s possible to envy others’ grief, then I envy those whose loved ones have left more concrete evidence of themselves: photos, videos, and especially words.

It’s been 3.5 years since my father died from a heart attack at age 63, and as Father’s Day looms, I wonder what he’d think about what’s happening on Game of Thrones.

Yes, there are other, more important horrors—the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, for instance, and Donald Trump’s hate-filled quest for the presidency—about which I’d also love to get his opinion. TV may seem a shallow interest to focus on in this time of annual grief for me and collective mourning for the victims of the Pulse shooting, but television was important to my dad and me, going all the way back to the dysfunctional catharsis of The Simpsons and our Sunday night dissections of The Sopranos. We took our TV seriously. We understood its ability to represent and reach for meaning inside the senseless things of this world.

By the time of his death, though, our primetime paths had diverged—while I fell off the Madison Avenue skyscraper with Don Draper on Mad Men, my father fed his love of the epic with Game of Thrones. Each of us tried to get the other hooked on our narrative du jour, but only he succeeded; after his death, I began to watch GoT because I felt I owed it to him, and because I hoped watching his favorite show would reveal something new to me about the man I’d lost. I hoped that within the show’s themes and ethically complex characters I’d learn something that would make my father live again, not like Jon Snow, resurrected from the dead by the priestess Melisandre, but like Ned Stark, whose complicated legend haunts the show, a legend still influential five seasons after his death.

My dad would be pleased to know that I’m now hooked—Monday mornings are spent with coffee and recaps—but I haven’t uncovered any secrets in Westeros that have brought my father back to me. What the show mostly offers is a metaphor: It goes on (and on and on), embracing change so profound, so connected to the traumas of the narrative, that many of the main characters are hardly recognizable over time. This is similar to my own life. Since my dad’s death in 2012, I’ve moved twice across the country, weathered a high-risk pregnancy, birthed a daughter, and experienced a thousand alterations to my career, my body, my family, and my country that have made the years without my dad feel like an epic all their own. So much has changed, in fact, that I struggle to imagine where my father would fit into the life I’ve made in his absence. It’s easier to access him through the TV.

Besides the oversized flat screen I inherited when he died, my father was a notorious technophobe. Westeros is the fantasy genre’s equivalent of Europe in the Middle Ages, but even the Mad King had wildfyre. Nevermind eschewing Facebook and Twitter, my dad didn’t even own a computer, had never once in his 63 years been on the Internet. He had no email account. He had no cell phone. He never sent even one text message. The only trace of him that exists online is his obituary, which I wrote (the guest book is now defunct for lack of payment to keep it active). The only recording of his voice is not a voicemail, preserved in the chrysalis of an old Nokia phone, but on a cassette tape from 1984. You can barely hear him for the static.

Nowadays, what is dead may never die. Computer technology and social media preserve pieces of us, allowing our stories to be retold and reshaped by whomever controls the memorial, which is to say, the living. Like everything else, grieving in the 21st century reflects the paradigm shift surrounding public narrative—a death takes place as much online as anywhere else, and the social media accounts of the deceased become ongoing obituaries where the bereaved can gather to mourn and memorialize and activate in the name of their beloveds. Just look at how much the media have relied on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat to offer us glimpses into the 49 LGBTQ, Latinx, and ally lives lost on June 12th.

Even the Red Wedding and its casualties have a Facebook page.

My father left no such digital imprint for the people who loved him. Despite his gregarious nature as the owner of a sports bar, my dad could be an intensely private person. He was also deeply resistant to change, which, for him, signified the ultimate eventuality: his own death. Rather than seeing the technological boon that took place in the last 20 years of his life as a chance to advertise his business and fuel his love of facts (my god, how he would have loved Wikipedia), he clung harder to his landline, his idiosyncratic handwritten bookkeeping, and his stacks of yellowed tax documents in an old filing cabinet. At the same, he kept his life devoid of history—no family heirlooms, no photos, no cards or letters from loved ones. When we cleaned out his house, we threw almost everything in it away because so little of his possessions held any value—monetary or sentimental. The only photo album he had was made by the friend who once cajoled my dad into a road trip to Orlando back in the ’70s (the album catalogues the adventure, and shows my dad with an impressively thick moustache at Disney World). The only picture of me, other than a handful of school portraits my mother had given him, was a photo taken of us at my cousin’s wedding in 2009.

Here are the things I saved: that photo from the wedding, plus another one of my dad with Mickey Mantle that once hung in the bar; his Yankees baseball hat; his Yankees lighter; a note with my cousin’s phone number scribbled on it in my dad’s handwriting; the paperwork for the corneas he donated posthumously; an article written about his brother’s death in Thailand during the Vietnam War; his Army discharge papers; his briefcase; his ashes.

And, of course, his TV. His granddaughter uses it to stream Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. It’s one of the few things I will be able to point to in order to say, “I had a daddy once, too, and he would have loved you.”

If it’s possible to envy others’ grief, then I envy those whose loved ones have left more concrete evidence of themselves: photos, videos, and especially words. I treasure the last email my grandmother wrote to me not because she says anything particularly insightful, but because I can hear her voice so clearly in the rhythms of her sentences—she’s just so her.

This may partly explain why my own digital archiving is so annoyingly thorough. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t post something, usually several kinds of posts: links to articles and friends’ bylines, angsty political rants, the occasional profundity about parenting, silly updates about my daughter’s language development, and of course, photos and videos of her. Lots and lots of photos and videos. At 2 years old, my daughter knows exactly what I’m doing when I yank my phone out of my pocket. “No take a picture!” she says sometimes, swatting the phone away. And yes, I know that raising that tiny screen between us interrupts, and maybe even denigrates the moment I’m documenting, but I can’t help it; I have no illusions about living forever. Whether it’s reinforced by shatteringly young deaths on Game of Thrones, or by the news of 50 shatteringly young people killed at a gay nightclub, we live with the knowledge that we’re guaranteed nothing except death. And in America, which is looking more and more like Westeros in the scale and depth of its violence, we should all be thinking hard about the legacies we’ll leave.

I could keep a journal instead. I certainly hope I make writing to my daughter a priority throughout her life—cards, notes, emails, texts, whatever she’ll accept from me. But when I imagine her looking through the detritus of my online life, it’s not just my story I want her to find, or even the story of our family as I’ve chronicled it. I also want her to see the way my life intersects with others’ lives. I want her to see the ways in which I’ve grappled, or failed to grapple, with the many urgent issues of the day, with trying to have a career, with being a mother, a writer, a teacher, a citizen, a human. I want her to see that I, and, therefore, she is part of a much bigger, ongoing story, one that connects us so much more than separates us.

Like characters on a long-running television series, it’s about seeing evolution and the reveals of one’s humanity in response to all that challenges it, all that tries to erase or erode it.

I miss my dad, and in the absence of a grave—physical or digital—I have to look elsewhere for refuge in my grief. Thankfully, the virtual world offers real comforts in the form of community. Fans of GoT write new analyses each week and partially fill a conversational void my father left. Mourners gather in a worldwide, rainbow-colored vigil. All around us, people create meaning from pain. Story continues to save us.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA, with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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