Text Message for the Otherworld

When I was in school, Facebook was young. One evening, I saw a dead classmate’s […]

CJ Green / 10.16.19

When I was in school, Facebook was young. One evening, I saw a dead classmate’s profile, his picture featured on the sidebar, a recommended friend. I spent the next hours perusing the status updates he had posted when he did not realize his days were numbered. For anyone wondering, now Facebook has an answer for this—you can report a user’s death and request that the profile be memorialized (frozen in time) or taken down entirely. For me, it will never not be strange. The dead have always left their traces, in letters and photos—as Lewis Hyde says, “Writing damages forgetfulness”—but with our immortal technology, loved ones persist in many other places: email accounts, laptops, alternate identities across various platforms.

Phone numbers, too, live on, ten indifferent digits reassigned to a stranger nearby—an almost-portal to the person who once was. Last week, BBC News recounted the story of 36-year-old Ruth Murray, who, in the weeks following her brother’s death, sent text messages to his number. Though she never expected a response, her messages were “a way of staying close to him.”

So in late September, when her phone buzzed with a message from the number she had for years labelled “brothaboo”, her stomach dropped.

She had texted him just hours previously saying: “I just miss you so much. God. What the hell”.

But the stranger – Amber Leinweber, 32, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin – has turned out to be a godsend for grieving Ruth.

When Amber found out what Ruth was going through, she told her to “text anytime you need to”, adding: “I know we don’t know each other, but [I] don’t mind being a sounding board.”

She had, by coincidence, been assigned [Ruth’s brother] Mike’s old number when her bosses gave her a work phone, and had at first thought that the texts she kept receiving were for a lost phone.

… when Ruth posted the exchange on Reddit, she was shocked by how much it resonated, with more than 80,000 upvotes and 800 comments. People from all over the world admitted to how they too would contact their loved ones via text, Snapchat, Facebook and more.

The stranger on the other end, Amber, confessed that she was similarly grieving. She also said, “Feel free to text any time you need to. Sending you much love.” After that, they corresponded as friends.

This story is one of many from the cyberworld of grief. In one sense it’s modern; in another, ancient. The desire to communicate with the dead has long been ritualized through prayer, mediation, lighting votive candles, etc. In Japan, there is a phone booth connected to nothing, where people can call their loved ones who died in the 2011 tsunami.

Andrea Warnick is a psychotherapist in Toronto specialising in grief counselling. She is unsurprised by the need for people to stay in touch with deceased friends and families through their phones and social media: “There is a profound human need to stay connected to the dead.”

She said that historically this would be where religious and spiritual institutions would step in and offer rituals.

“Most of the people who engage in this are not expecting a response. It’s just a means of communicating. Many of us don’t have the rituals or traditions that used to be the guiding force in these times.”

She says it was perfectly healthy to want to stay in touch however, when the numbers were reassigned by third parties, there was a risk of it feeling like an additional death. She added it was important for those grieving to make room for death in their lives. […]

Amber, 32, said: “I truly believe I was supposed to get that number. It’s more than a coincidence that I was given it. The more we talked over messages, the more we realised we had so much in common.

She is a little puzzled why it “blew up” on Reddit like it did.

“When did being a compassionate human being become something exceptional?

“It didn’t cost me anything to respond. People get hung up on trying to say the right thing in these types of situations but sometimes people just need to be able to vent or say what they need and move on.

“They don’t need advice on how to grieve. They just need space. It takes nothing to lend your ear.”

“There are times,” Anne Long once wrote, “when what we most need is not advice or direction but the knowledge that someone is there, accepting us as we are, that we are not after all alone.”

Sometimes we need doctrine or dogma far less than simple presence. Despite the decline of ritual, Warnick maintains that people crave contact with the otherworld, the dead or the supernatural. Yet many of us suspect no one is on the other end. You pray for some change or relief, and all you hear is the hum of the A/C or the rain falling outside.

Still, the Bible describes angels with messages, and people having visions. Often different “types” of people—Jewish fishermen, a Samaritan polygamist, Roman centurions, an Ethiopian eunuch—are brought together by the Spirit, and revelations issue from the mouths of strangers, in voices as yet unheard. The gospel, in other words, is an iMessage from a dead number, an utter surprise. It comes to us at times and in ways we never expect, not the least of which may be the well-timed reminder that “someone is there, accepting us as we are…[and] we are not after all alone.”