Ghosts in the Machine

Monday morning, I log into Facebook. Up pops the familiar blue screen. On the corner of my newsfeed there is a little reminder that I haven’t spoken to Angela Lang in a while. It suggests that I reconnect. Angela Lang is my mother. She died over a year ago, after an eight-year battle with cancer.

This thumbnail picture of her makes me panic. I feel sick and it becomes hard to breathe, like being kicked in the stomach. Caught off-guard, I have had no time to prepare myself. I am reminded of the moment I realised I was sitting by a hospital bed looking at a corpse.

One year on, I can’t focus on the good memories, I’m stuck in a broken and ugly loop of her last week, when she was barely conscious. I hadn’t banked on how much her presence on the internet would upset me or how frequently it would appear. My mother signed up to Facebook to keep up with the younger students when she started an MA at Cambridge University in 2004. She was so confused by her profile that she set up two by mistake. It is unfortunate that I
am doubly exposed to Facebook’s insipid
memory lane of reconnection ‘suggestions’ and ‘photo memories’.

The internet is a difficult space for those who are mourning. We don’t realise how much of a digital mark we leave. Around 60 per cent of us use social networking sites, with one survey estimating we have seven online profiles each. My mother, who was not a prolific user of the internet, still pops up in GmailSkype has immortalised her as ‘offline’ in a white cross on a grey blob; and her BlackBerry, which I now use, keeps trying to send emails from her Yahoo account as if from the grave.

Social networking sites are waking up to this problem. Last year they started to publicise their ‘memorialisation’ policies in response to huge criticism from users who experienced similar problems to mine. Facebook spearheaded memorial profiles after a member of staff died and they faced the issue of what to do with his profile.

Friends or family have to provide a news-paper cutting or obituary before Facebook will accept a person is dead. Then the memorialised profile minimises the emotional damage created by an active account, by halting the suggestions or status update functions while still retaining the wall. It also protects the deceased by preventing anyone from logging into the account and accessing personal information. Effectively the profile becomes a headstone friends can scribble on and meet around, except it lasts longer. These profiles will be online forever.

‘Facebook can be positive – it’s a wonderful way of keeping my father’s memory alive,’ says Arabella Llewellyn, daughter of the Swinging Sixties socialite Dai Llewellyn who passed away last year. Six months after he died, she found a Facebook memorial page. ‘It was really sweet. I was bumbling around Facebook when I found a page dedicated to Dad. It is full of thoughts and wishes from so many people.’ Many of whom she didn’t know. ‘There were messages from pub owners in the Midwest saying, “We’ve got your hat pinned up on our bar.” ’ There are over 200 members of the page and some have added their own messages. Facebook, Arabella says, is the one place that can bring friends and fans together from all over the world to share memories.

None of the major social networking websites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, know how many of their users have been ‘memorialised’. All quote the same policy of ‘honouring the requests of close family members’, creating the memorials and leaving it at that. Nor is there an independent body collecting information on the dead profiles floating about the internet. The only litmus tests are websites such as Its members link obituaries and news reports to MySpace profiles to find out which users are, in fact, dead. Since 2006 they’ve tracked around 14,000.

This does raise questions about online legacies. There is nothing written in inheritance law about ‘digital’ estates, which could include anything from personal emails to PayPalaccount details. Companies, such as Legacy Locker, offering online repositories for digital property that is ‘inherited’ after death, do exist. However, the topic is something that businesses have not grappled with fully. My siblings and I are not quite ready to ‘memorialise’ my mother. For some reason, shelving or deleting my mother’s profile is tantamount to killing her myself. While she is present in cyberspace, she is still interacting with the world somewhere. Maybe that’s why I haven’t got rid of herAmazon or eBay accounts – as if she’ll somehow be able to giggle at my next ridiculous purchase.

My mother’s blog is my favourite cyber-cenotaph. tracks her gruelling treatment schedule but also catches some incredible moments such as when the Royal Marsden Cancer Hospital caught fire. The alarms went off as she was about to start chemo, so she had a huge needle dangling out of her chest. ‘I thought it could only have been a toaster… but to my horror I saw the hospital was on fire,’ she wrote, before directing panicked traffic out of the building. I can see her, still impaled by the needle, bossing bewildered consultants about.

I also have my own messages. The week my mother died, we sat around her bed fidgeting. I needed something to do and so used her BlackBerry to email my friends what was happening. It became an hour-by-hour graphic live feed. I went into details of the tube down her nose, of how we were singing at her bedside, of the tumours bursting her belly and of playing Ella Fitzgerald aloud on our iPhones.

‘Once there was nothing else they could do,’ I wrote in one of the last messages, ‘the doctors handed us a leaflet called The Dying Patient. They changed her bed blanket from blue to red and stopped all the support systems.’ I sent the final email at 5pm, two hours before she died, begging for a miracle.

I’m grateful for these digital imprints that won’t go away. My memory of that afternoon is dream-like, the chronology all wrong. Re-reading these emails makes the events visceral and real again.

One month after my mother died, my siblings and I found ourselves writing to her on her Facebook wall, to remind her that we hadn’t forgotten and that we hoped she would sleep well. There is something bizarre about writing a deeply personal message to a webpage. Despite the fact that she was only a sporadic and somewhat bemused user of Facebook, it felt like I was talking to her. More so than standing with flowers at her grave. I like to think the wall posts reach her, even if she wouldn’t know how to reply.

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