What Stories Have You Learned From Digital Messages Left Behind?

My stepfather died last spring, and I inherited his iPad. Because I have not reset the device, it contains Jeff’s old Facebook account, text messages and email. It can feel awkward, like I’m walking around the house in his XXL cat T-shirt and khakis. But I like having a place to go where I’m not distracted by my phone’s notifications.

One evening, as I read the news on the iPad, I noticed an app I hadn’t previously considered: Photos. It had been a few months since Jeff had died, and while I had already gone through his Gmail and Facebook messages (nothing to write about), I had overlooked this one. I paused for about three seconds — wondering if I should first ask my mother’s permission — and then I looked.

When a family member dies, surviving relatives used to mostly dig through boxes in the attic, looking at albums and mementos that contain old stories; when our loved ones die today, they most likely leave behind countless digital scraps: Text messages, voice mails, emails, screengrabs, to do lists, social media accounts — including hidden ones.

We want to hear what others have learned about their families or friends based on the digital scraps left behind when someone died. Share with us a photo, email, Facebook message, Note draft, or other digital information you discovered, and tell us what it taught you. (See form below.)

Like boxes in the attic, these digital messages contain stories we may not have known about our relatives. After my grandfather died, my mother looked through the letters he had sent home from the army during World War II, learning about his efforts to keep Kosher during the war. These letters had always been there, but now they carried extra weight.

After my stepfather died, our family pulled out old photographs of him to look at.Credit…Courtesy of Barbara Strauss

Unlike older generations’ curated albums and carefully written letters, though, the digital scraps now left behind are often spontaneous and unedited.

My stepfather was very sick at the end and before that spent much of his free time in bed reading, so many of his photos seemed to be taken lying down. Looking through his Photos app, I saw plenty of feet shots. Many of the images looked more like accidental screengrabs than intentional photographs.

Feet, feet, feet and then pop — a series of close-ups of Jeff’s face, his head leaning against his hospital bed. Was Jeff taking selfies in the hospital? In one, I swear I detected a smile.

I kept going back. Most of the old photos included either my mother or his cats, Basil and Oregano — Reggie for short. Other than naming them, my mother never wanted much to do with those cats. But Jeff had his eye on her, and each time Reggie crawled on her lap while she watched a show or read a magazine, and my mother inadvertently pet him, Jeff caught the moment.

There were also multiple series over the years of my mother standing in the kitchen, trying on outfits. I imagine those photos were forced, what one takes to keep a partner happy. But then there were some taken at their favorite lake in Maine. My mother was sitting on an Adirondack chair, painting a scene of wildflowers, and Jeff captured her from every angle.

In another series, I spotted my boys from years ago. They looked maybe 1 and 3, wearing footie pajamas. I could see Jeff’s belly in the photos, the boys playing on the floor in front of him. They looked up at Jeff, with the kind of twinkles in their eyes that kids save for grandparents.

The photos gave a glimpse into a moment my stepfather had with my boys that I wasn’t aware of. I was probably still in bed when it happened, sleeping through it. It made me think of all the other moments they must have shared, just them.

If you’d like to participate, please fill out this form. We plan to publish a selection of the responses in a future piece on the digital scraps left behind when someone dies. We will not publish any part of your submission without contacting you first. We may use your contact information to follow up with you.

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