Lessons on Digital Grieving
By María Mínguez
Writing a novel reveals the complexity of facing loss in the 21st Century, and proves that there is still hope within its spiraling nature.
I travel back to my home country of Spain yearly. It is an arrangement that my partner of 21 years and I made when I decided to remain in the United States and share a home with her. It was during one of those regular trips abroad that I decided to take our two young children to an art exhibit at La Casa de América in Madrid. La Casa de América is a public consortium devoted to strengthening ties between Spain and Latin America, and it is housed inside the Palacio de Linares, a beautiful late 19th-century palace located at the heart of the city. The irony that La Casa de América operates inside a wealthy palace, symbolic of the very system that colonized the continent and subjugated women, doesn't escape me. Still, that particular summer, I felt the urge to connect both continents; I felt the need to be a sort of vessel between both cultures, and La Casa de América seemed like a good place to start.
As a writer, and ever since I was a kid, I've been most interested in the truths that we choose not to tell ourselves, and the reasons behind this selective blindness. The summer that I arrived at La Casa de América I was feeling somewhat broken and disillusioned. Yes, Obama had become the first black President of this nation, and yet, in that same hopeful election, my Californian neighbors and acquaintances had chosen to take away what had been my legal right to marry my partner by passing Proposition 8, which prohibited same-sex marriage. We were also in the midst of an economic recession that perhaps had been rooted in the myth of American homeownership and the financial system that perpetuated that myth. Around this time, I also couldn't help but notice that digital technology was catching up with us; in fact, it seemed to go faster than we could make room for. That summer I felt the need to dig deeper. I wanted to understand the truths that we were not telling ourselves about homophobia, about personal and corporate responsibility and greed, about our naïve demeanor towards digital technology. I badly wanted to write about all of it. But, who would care? Would anybody read it?
Madrid's summer temperatures reach 100 degrees on a daily basis, and that day was no different. I remember walking into the La Casa de América lobby and welcoming the slap of cold conditioned air in my face, feeling grateful for the refuge. I remember walking down the small hallway towards the exhibit, and coming face to face with a tiny bronze plaque hanging in the middle of a white wall. The plaque contained a quote from a woman whose name I've forgotten, but whose words will stay with me forever. The engraving read: El alma es al cuerpo lo que el artista a su tiempo (The soul is to the body what the artist is to her time). I can't even recall what the exhibit was about. What I do remember clearly is that right at that moment, I made a commitment to myself to write this novel. I understood, sometime between reading that plaque, one, two, three times, and listening to my children complaining about the heat, that waiting for somebody else to write it was no longer an option.
I developed a roadmap for the manuscript. I worked on setting, historical background, narrator's voice, and character development. I even found a way to weave the economic recession and the LGBTQ struggle into my novel! But digital technology, that turned out to be a different beast. A large and a slippery one. One that was constantly morphing. I couldn't figure out how to weave it in. So I decided to approach the subject with a fundamental question in mind: If digital technology applications are developed to help us human beings navigate this world, why was it beginning to look like it was the other way around? Who was actually at the service of whom?
What were the truths about digital technology that we were not telling ourselves? And so I began the work of framing my novel's plot around this last fundamental question. I had been exploring the possibility of beginning the novel with one of the main characters already being dead, while still considering the different ways in which digital technology could be incorporated into my plot. And yet, I was struggling to find the heartbeat of my novel. Months passed before the last piece of the plot puzzle finally came to me one morning at a coffee shop. I was working on my laptop, writing, when I received an email. It was from my mother's cousin. When I read his name, my stomach sunk. I felt sick. My mom's cousin had been dead for a few years; I had attended his funeral. Now, keep in mind, this is before our email accounts were hacked on a regular basis, the message felt like it was genuinely coming from him. This was before having a deceased person in our social media circle of friends became the new normal. After my stomach settled and during the following hour, I sipped on my cup of coffee and envisioned a world in which our loved ones do not disappear after death but linger in the sort of alternate reality that is the internet. In my novel, Patricia would be dead, and Leslie would have to figure out a way to grieve for her loss and find closure, in spite of the digital footprint that her lover leaves behind.
Researching Leslie and her particular circumstances taught me a lot about grieving during the four years that it took me to write Patricia sigue aquí, and the year and a half of conversations with readers I've had since. I learned that grieving is bleeding; a bleeding of the heart that follows a great loss. That the bleeding is internal, quiet, and ruthless. That grieving means to endure pain in confinement, although it is best if we do not have to go through it alone. I learned that grieving is a natural process that can turn pathological, which happens when the wound of the heart refuses to heal; when, no matter how hard we try, we cannot find closure. I learned that closure means to go through a series of tasks that'll allow us to continue on living as functioning human beings in spite of the loss. I learned that there are as many grieving processes as there are grievers.
I discovered that there are also as many losses as there are life experiences. To live is to experience loss, to be forced to let go in one way or another: Aging is parting with body and mind ableness; divorcing is parting with a shared life; chronic illness is permanent separation from our old selves; rejection at work or at love is losing confidence in who we are… There are micro losses and macro losses, but the one thing that they all have in common is their demand that we grieve.
And what role do our digital footprints and digital communications play in all of this? They have the power to instantly take us back to the way things used to be or could have been—they can do it with such vividness. Layers and layers of hidden memories can resurface in a split second. A grocery list task reminder can take us back to the smell of burnt coffee coming from the kitchen the morning we argued over money when in reality we were arguing about not feeling appreciated; a text exchange can resurface to take us back to the warm breeze on the lake the day we both called in sick to work; a photo on a cell phone can resurface to take us back to the celebratory honking on the way home from our child's only winning game of the season. Years ago, we would have had shoe boxes or endless albums filled with pictures that we would pull out whenever we felt the urge to revisit. Now, we walk around holding cell phones that beep, light up and vibrate informing us that Google photos made this wonderful album from that day at the lake a year ago; or notifying us in Facebook that today is his birthday (he would have been 38;) or reminding us in our calendar that we have an appointment with our marriage counselor (if only, we signed our divorced papers a month ago.) We no longer recall our own memories, they are recalled for us, whether we are ready for them or not.
What I learned from my character Leslie's experience is that our beloved one's digital footprint (or any digital footprint in general) has the tremendous potential to be both an ally to our healing and a foe, turning natural grieving processes into obsessive ones. Which made me wonder, how can a person who is suffering a great loss, and not in her usual mind, differentiate the one from the other?
We've chosen to be blind to the fact that digital footprints and communication are not a one size fits all kind of technology, and that we can all be extremely vulnerable to it. Makers of digital applications have a responsibility to not treat consumers as one monolithic body of people. And we, the consumers, are equally responsible for our usage. We should treat access to digital footprints and communication as just another tool in our grieving kit; you might as well call it our living kit. We owe it to ourselves to recognize when it might sabotage any chances we may have at living healthy, functional lives after a loss, and hope that we are surrounded by people who'd care enough to notice and let us know when it turns against us.