My Husband's Digital Life Haunts Me, But It's All I Have Left

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
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A few weeks ago, I received a notification on my phone’s lock screen that my husband had received a new email. The email came from Tinder, a dating app that I have always (maybe wrongly) associated with fast, no-strings-attached hook ups, and alerted me to the fact that someone was trying to sign into an account under his email address. The email went on to say that no such account for that email could be found, and if the sign in attempt wasn’t made by me, I could ignore it.

First, phew. I’m glad to learn that my husband didn’t have a Tinder account, especially because we got together long before Tinder existed.

And, also, ouch. Because my husband has been dead for nearly three years and emails like that bring fresh waves of grief.

But emails and incidents like that are not uncommon.

Because, though my husband died, his digital life remains…well, not exactly alive and well and flourishing, but active and seemingly undisturbed by his actual death.

Prior to the attempted Tinder sign in using his email address, someone—a hacker probably—tried and succeeded in getting into his Instagram account. I changed the password and checked the account and didn’t see any vulgar or new posts—just the ones he’d last posted: five years ago of our game night, and our kids, and our blissful, naïve happiness. Armed with a reason to be wading through his long stale Instagram account, I looked at every photo he thought worthy enough to share and every caption and hashtag he thought witty enough to publish, and let myself reminisce and ride the wave of grief that hacker’s successful attempt at hacking had prompted.

There have been other, less successful attempts from strangers at breaking into his digital life. For years I’ve been protecting his Steam account, a platform that, until his death, I didn’t even know existed. Every few months I receive an alert informing me that an attempt had been made to sign into his account and every few months I log into the system and change the password.

He’s received job opportunities and countless requests for interviews through a LinkedIn page that was outdated years before he died.

A few years ago I memorialized his Facebook page. Seeing the birthday reminder pop up in my notifications that first year nearly undid all (if any) forward progress I’d made that year, and I couldn’t bear to see that reminder again. Besides, I didn’t need a reminder. If somehow the date crept up without my mind recognizing it, my body would remember all on its own. Those of us who know grief on an intimate level know that grief lives in the body, even without any input from the conscious mind. But I didn’t delete his page. Choosing to memorialize his page was hard enough.

Now, I periodically check his inbox and junk mail. Before he died, I never looked in his inbox—it was his space alone. In the days and weeks after he died, I did, and this periodic checking was necessary. Most of our bills and home vendors emailed him. Our home service providers and automatic payment accounts were linked to his email. It took more time than I would have guessed to switch everything to my email address while navigating the grief of young widowhood. Even now, years later, I’ll randomly find an account that is still emailing him, rather than me.

My husband and I drafted wills early in our marriage. We bought cemetery plots after our first child was born, but we didn’t talk much about the logistics of death, about funeral arrangements or what he hoped my life as a young widow would look like. Which means we almost certainly didn’t talk about what to do with his digital life after death.

All that means I keep his Instagram page, despite the hacks, and despite the fact that I have all the same pictures on my phone, probably somewhere hidden on my Instagram, too. It means I guard his Steam account, though nothing of him remains on that platform save for the avatar he chose to represent himself. It means I read every job opportunity sent to him on LinkedIn and imagine the mountains he might have climbed but for death. It means the act of checking his email, once an act I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing, is now an important part of protecting what I have left of him.

The truth is, it would be easier to close all of his accounts. His LinkedIn and Steam serve no purpose. His Instagram and Facebook pages are little bits of heartache preserved over the Internet. His email is largely spam—and a handful of vendors who seem incapable of updating their files. And yet, I cannot bring myself to close those accounts.

They feel like little bits of him. They are little bits of him. And I’ve lost so much of him now, that whatever bits I have, I hold onto with all my strength.

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