The way we express grief for strangers is changing

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In late March, Claire Rezba heard about the tragic death of Diedre Wilkes. Wilkes, a 42-year-old mammogram technician, had died alone of covid-19 in her home, her four-year-old child near her body.

Rezba, a physician based in Richmond, Virginia, was shaken. “That story resonated with me,” she says. “She was about my age.” Wilkes’s death also heightened Rezba’s anxiety and her fears of bringing the coronavirus home to her family.

Her response took the form of a memorial project. Whenever she could find a minute, Rezba searched for notices of health-care workers who had passed away. By mid-April, she had collected 150, which she started posting as tweet-length obits to her personal Twitter account. The list, US HCWs Lost to Covid19, “became a mission,” Rezba says—and continues to grow daily.

Rezba’s Twitter account is just one of several emerging efforts to remember the victims of covid online. Covid.memorial, for example, is a virtual scrapbook inviting people to learn about the lives of those lost. A Google Doc of incarcerated Americans who have died from the disease shows the enormity—and anonymity—of the toll. Another catalogue is devoted to memorializing Filipino health-care workers in the United States,

While the Google Doc is sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, most of these projects are homemade, compiled by amateur internet sleuths in honor of strangers.

In a year when thousands have died, it makes sense that people want to find ways to understand the loss. Coronavirus patients often die alone, the usual rituals for observing death and processing grief demolished by social distancing protocols. As the pandemic and the rising casualty count dominated the news, people trying to avoid the virus have remained isolated at home.

Death that is at once so prevalent and so distant is hard for us to comprehend. Our brains are working against us, researchers say: it’s one thing to know that four people were killed in a car crash, for example, or that a plane crash took the lives of 100-some passengers and crew. But with “big numbers,” our ability to comprehend and empathize starts to shut down.

The pre-2020 formula for dealing with death online meant memorializing the Facebook account of the deceased, maybe opening an online condolence book with a funeral home, perhaps a GoFundMe page to raise money for expenses. These newer online memorials are different, inviting strangers to peek into the lives of those who have died and participate in mourning their passing.

Stacey Pitsillides, a design researcher at the University of Greenwich who focuses on death technology, says that virtual worlds are some of the most innovative spaces gathering strangers to memorialize covid deaths.

“We’ve seen a rise in creative bereavements,” Pitsillides says. One example: in Animal Crossing, the hit feel-good simulation game of 2020, gamers who have lost loved ones will create in-game memorials or characters to honor them.

Even funerals have changed. Gathering in a closed room, hugging a mourner, viewing a dead body—all are potentially deadly acts in a pandemic, which has led to a boom in Zoom funerals. “The pandemic is really just accelerating the tech for funerals that was already at play.”” says John Troyer, the director at the Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath and author of Technologies of the Human Corpse. “Everyone can do it [webcast an event].”

It’s not just coronavirus deaths that are commemorated this way. AIDS deaths have been memorialized this year on an Instagram account, for example. Ron Sese, a volunteer with the project, told NBC that it helped an internet-native Gen Z understand history: “”If the history books won’t write about us, how do we tell our stories? How do we share our stories? How does the next generation learn about the generation that came before them?”

Mohammad Gorjestani, a filmmaker, feels the weight of history as well. Gorjestani started 1800HappyBirthday, which invites people to remember those killed in incidents of police brutality by leaving voice mail on their birthday. 

“It was limiting to have these police killings and straight-up murders get sensationalized in the media and, once it was not sensational any more, to move on,” Gorjestani says. “It’s a disservice to the individuals that were alive. Those were individuals who were just trying to live, not trying to be martyrs or tokens for political platforms or politicians.”

On 1800HappyBirthday, people can find the birthday of a person who has died at the hands of police and leave a voice mail that’s available for the public to access. These messages are screened to keep racists and other bigots out, but they are otherwise open for any memory or thought.

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Gorjestani says the medium of voice mail—available to nearly everyone—lends a rawness that often is missing from a written tribute. “There’s a nostalgia to them,” he says. “It’s sentimental, like someone is trying to get ahold of you. It’s a confessional tool. Any human being can use them.”

This year’s remote life has shown that physical distance doesn’t have to be a barrier to empathy. “There’s a desire to move death to a technological solution to help people meaningfully experience and understand what is quite distant right now,” Pitsillides says. “Millions of people are dying, but mobile phones are a vehicle to make those people more real, to use these spaces to create eulogies, to record and take pictures.”

As I write this, approximately 275,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, and nearly 1.5 million people in the world have succumbed to the disease. Online memorials are, perhaps ironically, helping the living grasp the humanity behind these extraordinary numbers.

For Rezba, the notices on her Twitter account are people she becomes close to, watching from afar.

“I don’t know any of these people,” she says, choking up. “But their losses feel so personal.”


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