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Teresa Lee Headshot

Death and Technology in the Millennial Age

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My older sister passed away less than two months ago. She was 26-years-old. She was a doctor. Her job was to save lives.

But this isn't about that. This is about what happens after.

I got a call around 5 a.m. from the hospital. I raced uptown in a cab. The first thing the doctor gave me after delivering the news was her phone. No personal items. No purse. No wallet. Just a phone. Still in a state of shock, and having no tears, I even remember pondering how they opened her pass code. Do emergency personnel have a hack? I was in too much of a daze to even ask what her code was, but still conscious enough of the situation to immediately power off her phone. I didn't want my dead sister's phone ringing and haunting me. What was I even supposed to do with her phone? Answer her calls and respond with, "Hello, she's dead, but can I take a message?"

The first couple of hours were relatively quiet. My parents were on a plane and only my relatives were texting me. My boyfriend somehow brought me home and I dozed in and out of consciousness. Then the texts started. And then the calls. In this day and age, there is no good reason anybody should be calling you, so any call is basically bad news. The medical examiner calling to let me know her body was being moved, and the code I should write down to provide if we wanted to view the body or to give to the funeral home to collect her body. They had reduced my sister down to a random mix of letters and numbers. Okay.

Then the texts pouring in from her roommates. From her friends. Updating me where they were. Sending their condolences. Telling me how sorry they are. Asking if there's anything they can do. I am slightly OCD and must save everybody in my phone with first and last name, and now I have some contacts with only first names in there because I don't want to know their last. I want these to be temporary contacts. I don't want these people in my life, and I'm hoping maybe they'll just fall out of my contacts.

I've received a million emails, text messages and calls before. I've heard my phone beep, ring and vibrate before, but suddenly now, I can only have my phone on silent. The noise it makes scares me every time. It's not that I relate the ringing or beeping to my sister's death, but I just jump every time it makes a noise now, so it will now be forever on silent.

Then the Facebook messages. Her friends reaching out to me in the only way they can, since they don't have my number. All apologizing that they're using Facebook as a means of contact. Even a friend's mother Facebook messages me to send condolences. Friend requests from people I've never even heard of. One mutual friend: my sister. All I want to do is shout at them, "We're not friends! Who are you? Were you even friends with my sister, considering I've never heard of you? Stop contacting me!"

A friend sends a message telling me of an online legacy book where people can sign and share stories. I ignore her message. Maybe I don't want to share their grief; I already have so much of my own. As Jackie O said after JFK's death, "Most people think having the world share in your grief lessens your burden. It magnifies it. ... When this is over, I am going to crawl into the deepest retirement there is." Maybe I didn't have a nation watching, but hundreds of her Facebook friends and mine were more than enough.

And god, Facebook. When did it become a thing to change your profile picture to one of you and your deceased friend? Literally, everywhere I looked was her face. Every one of her friends who messaged me was another picture of her that I had to look at over and over again. And since now Facebook is the way to let everyone in your life know of any updates with people posting news of engagements or newborns, was I supposed to make a status to let every know? "Hey, FYI guys, my sister died and her memorial is this Friday." Is a Facebook status the new equivalent of posting an obituary in the newspapers?

And what do you do now with her digital presence? You still have to file her taxes and close her bank accounts and forward her mail, but what do you do with her Gmail, her Facebook or her Instagram? I can't even bring myself to click on my own profile pictures because she was the first to comment on it, and her comment and her profile picture haunt me.

I still continued on a huge trip through Southeast Asia as planned, because I now needed to run away from it all. But damn you Google Voice. I used to love it precisely for the fact that I can call, message and listen to voicemails through the internet, but now, even though I was halfway around the world and running away, I could still receive calls from the hospital looking for her. Hey, as a hospital, maybe keep it in your billing department's records when someone dies. Just maybe, so you don't shock their family when they get a call looking for them to pay their bill. Well, how lovely that with technology nowadays, I am connected 24/7 and I can easily forwards voicemails from billing departments looking for my sister's insurance information to my dad in an email.

Many of us live just as much in the virtual world as IRL (in real life.) Myself included, I am a millennial through and through. I love free wifi and staying connected. But now, I wish this technology didn't exist. I wish I could actually run away and let my answering machine tape fill up, so people couldn't leave me any messages and I wouldn't see my sister's face everywhere. Technology has simplified and connected our lives in more ways than I know, but there is nothing to help with the immense grief you feel after someone dies. There is nothing that fills the hole in your heart. Only when someone so big and important is gone, do you realize how absolutely futile all this technology actually is. So, the next time you feel some FOMO, don't. It's only because no one posts anything negative on social media that we never experience JOMO (joy of missing out). Everybody reading this who can only feel sympathy and not empathy because you have never lost anyone dearest to you, enjoy some JOMO. Be glad that you don't know what this feels like. Be happy that you can just breeze through my Facebook status and continue scrolling down your Newsfeed without consequence. Because in the real world, the hurt of grief is very damn real.

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