'Her heartbeat can fill my heart': How digital memories let us communicate with the dead

The concept of digital memories and the fear of losing them is a new area of research that sociologist Debra Bassett is tackling for her Ph.D research at the University of Warwick.

Whether it's social media tribute pages or artificial intelligence, the digital age is reshaping how we grieve

Sandra LaRose lost her daughter Kailynn Bursic-Panchuk to a train collision in Saskatchewan last year. Now, she says digital recordings allow her to hold her daughter's memory close. (Sandra LaRose/Facebook)

Sandra LaRose will never again hold her daughter, or touch her face, but she can still listen to the sound of her laughter. In the void left by her daughter's death, LaRose takes deep comfort in digital memories.

"That's the biggest thing, the laughter. I'll never forget her voice but I'm always scared I'm going to forget her laugh," LaRose said.

Her daughter Kailynn Bursic-Panchuk died when her car collided with a train last August.

"She was known for her laughs, her eyes and her smile. To see it, to hear it, I play [the recordings] probably at least once a week," LaRose said.

The concept of digital memories and the fear of losing them is a new area of study that sociologist Debra Bassett is tackling for her PhD research at the University of Warwick.

The inability to hug and touch a loved one following their death can be painful, but the ability to see and listen to digital remembrances is a way to feel closer to them, say those who grapple with grief. (Shutterstock)

"Grief in the digital age is here to stay. That is only going to be more and more the norm," she said.

Digital memories, like video recordings or old voicemails, have become dear to people who are grieving.

"They somehow contain the essence of the person that has died, in a way that the physical memories don't."

Their use is creating new questions of control and access, said Bassett. Who gets to control the dead person's Facebook profile, for instance — a partner, a daughter, an ex, a friend? 

Facebook is also thinking about the problem, and how digital memories can cause harm. In a blog post published on Tuesday, the company's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote about how the platform has introduced a new feature to let people choose a legacy contact that will control the Facebook account in the event of their death.

She noted that once an account is memorialized, Facebook will use artificial intelligence to stop painful reminders of the dead from cropping up, like recommending they be invited to an event or reminding people to wish them a happy birthday. 

"We hope Facebook remains a place where the memory and spirit of our loved ones can be celebrated and live on."  

Second loss

Digital memories can also lead to fears over what happens if technology becomes obsolete, such as if a phone no longer works or Facebook shuts down and the grieving person loses their loved one all over again.

"It's a new anxiety for the bereaved," said Bassett, who dubbed this a "fear of second loss."

New software and companies have sprung up to answer this fear and back up data.

Having digital memories on a phone or on social media pages can introduce a fear of what happens if that technology is to become obsolete. (CBC)

Technological advances are also resurrecting the dead in ways that were never possible before.

Bassett found one man that used artificial intelligence to create a "Dadbot," a digital avatar of his father that he could still communicate with. These AIs can be trained to become more and more of a convincing recreation of the dead person, she said.

Bassett said that while artificial intelligence is still unnerving to many, that could change.

"From what I've seen a change in four years and how technology does change, I wonder how long that will still be weird and creepy," she mused.  

It's no longer surprising, for instance, to hear of dead celebrities like Tupac Shakur, Ray Orbison or Amy Winehouse giving concert tours thanks to holographic technology and the power of illusion.

Technological advances allowed Tupac Shakur to appear on stage at Coachella in 2012, introducing the concept of resurrecting dead celebrities on stage. (Getty Images)

LaRose said she'll often think of those holograms as she walks around her family's farm, thinking, "God, if I could just shine a picture and have her walking beside me."

"These thoughts go through your mind, which to other people might seem odd, but they're not," she said.

"You're trying to cherish and grasp any memory that you can and hold onto it. And that's all it is."

Bursic-Panchuk's friends will still sometimes send messages via social platforms, as if she can still see them. For LaRose, they are reminders her that her daughter is still alive in people's memories.

I can't hug her any more, she can't hug me. But her heartbeat can fill my heart.- Sandra LaRose , on her daughter's memory

LaRose has taken it upon herself to safeguard and keep these digital memories.

"I've lost her, I can't lose anything else."

As her daughter waited on life support for her organs to be retrieved LaRose was given a digital recording of the teenager's heartbeat.

Now it's a profound digital memory of the vital vibrancy of her once-living daughter, backed-up on a flashdrive and tucked in a fire-proof safe to prevent its loss.

"When I'm having a bad day, it's one way to bring her close to me," she said.

"I can't hug her any more, she can't hug me. But her heartbeat can fill my heart."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

with files from Stefani Langenegger and CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition


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