I'll never forget the first time I used Google Maps Street View. I had no idea such a thing existed. I typed in my address and, to my amazement, a photo of not only my house but my entire neighborhood appeared. You could virtually navigate where I had lived my entire life. What stunned me even more was the time stamp on the photo. It was taken in November 2007. I found myself wishing that the street view photo had been captured just a year earlier. I wondered if maybe it would have frozen my father in time. I desperately longed for this--to see him in the yard, to have an image of him like that. I can't explain it. I have many photographs of my father but to see a picture of him in which he was unaware of the camera, just going about his day, would have meant something to me. Instead, I see a home of grief. I see the bare trees of winter and I know that, inside the house, is a mother and daughter in mourning.
A few months ago, I checked Google Maps Street View again and discovered that another image of my home had been taken in May 2013. To my delight, it shows my mother sitting on the porch as our dog uses the bathroom in the yard. The picture captures the dog precisely at the moment when he is defecating. It's hilarious and it also makes me cry. My mom is still alive, but here is this photo that captures her at a random moment in life. It moves me in a way that, once again, I cannot explain. Even though street view also has a photo of my home from 2015, if I click on certain parts of the screen, I can bring up the 2013 photo and also the one from 2007.
I mention all of this because of an essay I read at The New Yorker. Matthew J.X. Malady talks about discovering an image of his late mother on Google Maps Street View and how it affected him. He also discusses the new role of technology and social media in modern mourning. Because we didn't have internet or computers when my dad was alive, I have no technological trace of him. I'm ambivalent about this. On the one hand, I would love to know what he'd post on Facebook, the kinds of things he'd share and write. On the other hand, I imagine this would be a painful reminder of his absence.
Whether we like it or not, social media is changing how we grieve and mourn. Modern forms of surveillance, like Google Maps Street View, are also affecting our relationship to the dead. In a way, the dead are never completely gone because their digital presence persists.
First, I noticed that a gigantic American flag had been affixed to the mailbox post at the corner of the driveway. That was new. Then I spotted the fire pit in the front yard that my mom and her husband, my stepfather, used for block parties, and the grill on the patio, and my mom’s car. And then there she was, out front, walking on the path that leads from the driveway to the home’s front door. My mom.
At first I was convinced that it couldn’t be her, that I was just seeing things. When’s the last time you’ve spotted someone you know on Google Maps? I never had. And my mother, besides, is no longer alive. It couldn’t be her.
That feeling passed quickly. Because it was her. In the photo, my mom is wearing a pair of black slacks and a floral-print blouse. Her hair is exactly as I always remember it. She’s carrying what appears to be a small grocery bag.
The confluence of emotions, when I registered what I was looking at, was unlike anything I had ever experienced—something akin to the simultaneous rush of a million overlapping feelings. There was joy, certainly—“Mom! I found you! Can you believe it?”—but also deep, deep sadness. There was heartbreak and hurt, curiosity and wonder, and everything, seemingly, in between.
I cried for a minute. Then I chuckled. I shook my head. It was as though my mind and body had no clue how to appropriately respond, so I was made to do a little bit of everything all at once. But almost immediately I realized how fortunate I was to have made the discovery: at some point in the future, and probably quite soon, Google will update the pictures of my mom’s old street, and those images of her will disappear from the Internet.
It is now a few weeks later, and that late-night discovery still occupies my mind for long stretches of each day. It has also prompted me to pay more attention to the expanding, multifaceted role technology plays in the experience of grief. Facebook is awash in memorials and posts paying tribute to deceased loved ones, of course, and scores of Web sites are in the online obituary business. But in most instances, people have to seek out that content in one way or another. It doesn’t sneak up on you. Not so for the ambush-style online reminders that began arriving shortly after my mom’s death and still throw me for a loop every single time.
Each year, I receive automated Facebook reminders urging me not to forget to wish my mom a happy birthday. During the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, the flower company FTD, without fail, sends between five and ten e-mails to my old Yahoo account telling me that I should not wait any longer before ordering flowers for mom. I didn’t even realize that my mother had joined LinkedIn until January 2nd of this year, when I received one of those maddening, computer-generated e-mails informing me that her job anniversary was coming up.
These fleeting online occurrences can make an already difficult grieving process even more complicated and bizarre—mainly because it’s more difficult than you might expect to decide, finally, what to make of these things, or what to do about them. My Street View discovery was the best, but it was also the worst. Those Facebook pings about my deceased mom’s birthday bother me, but I don’t think I’d want them to go away forever.Read the full essay at The New Yorker