NEW YORK — Dana Pisani's grandmother Josephine died seven years ago, yet her name and number live on in Pisani's cellphone contact list.
"It's just a comfort thing," says Pisani, 30, an English teacher at Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle, N.Y. "I called it a few times right after she died."
The dead aren't checking their phones from across the void, but some still receive calls and even voicemails from the living, who take comfort in continuing a familiar routine. When Jon Cannella's friend Nick died two years ago in a car accident in Bridgeport, Conn., Cannella dialed the number every few days and realized he wasn't the only one. "It got to the point where his voicemail was full," he says.
Eventually the number was disconnected, but Cannella, 32, kept calling it, in what he says was "a validation of reality" that no one was there to answer or return his call. He would never think of deleting the contact.
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"Even seeing that number in the phone, or in your outgoing calls, it jogs the memory," he says.
Not long ago, a line crossed through a name in an address book might signify the death of a friend or loved one. But now, technology makes it easy to keep transferring contacts into new phones, and what with Facebook and Twitter, Google Chat and AIM buddy lists, the dearly departed can remain a technological presence forever.
"I guess you have to make a conscious decision to delete people who aren't around anymore," says Elliot LeBoeuf of Philadelphia. "I haven't reached that point yet."
LeBoeuf, who works in marketing, noticed his co-worker Kate had been out sick one day last year. He texted her to see how she was feeling. Not so good, Kate texted back, but she planned to be back in the office soon. She died from an aneurysm the next day. LeBoeuf saved those final texts in his phone. "Everything can end in a second," he says. "I keep them there to remind me."
While mourning in the digital age might include non-traditional ways of coping, the concept isn't much different than holding on to a deceased friend's possessions. Indeed, bereavement experts say it's not unusual for mourners to experience guilt that they will forget the deceased, which is why widows and widowers have been known to leave their spouses' clothes in closets, or their voices on answering machines, for years.
One of the definitive studies on grieving in the modern age was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association and written by psychiatrists Holly Prigerson and Paul Maciejewski, who studied the mourning process of more than 200 individuals who had lost someone close.
"Deleting the cellphone or Web page is like deleting that person from your life and memory in an irreversible way," says Prigerson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Years ago, someone asked her about a company called Life Gem that compressed people's ashes into a gem that could be worn as an accessory. "Was that gross? Maybe, but people wanted a permanent reminder of that person," she says. "In a narcissistic way, if that special, dear cherished person can be deleted and forgotten, so can we all."
The development of social media platforms has created new ways to memorialize people after their deaths. A Facebook profile can be transformed into a tribute page once administrators at the company are notified of the death and given proof, such as a printed obituary.
Though Twitter has no similar tribute feature, it hasn't deterred mourners from trying. After Jackass star Ryan Dunn died in a fiery 2011 car crash, the number of his Twitter followers jumped from 30,000 to 130,000, according to news reports. Dunn had posted a picture of himself hours before his death showing him drinking with friends; alcohol was said to be a possible factor in the accident.
In December 2005, Mike Patterson founded MyDeathSpace.com, a Web site that links obits and news stories to the Facebook or Myspace pages of the dead. He, too, keeps the name of a deceased co-worker in Microsoft Outlook, whose name continues to show up on group emails. Though it sends shivers up his spine, he can't bring himself to delete the contact. "It's kind of like if you get rid of them then maybe they're really gone: out of sight, out of mind," he says.
Continuing to act as if a lost loved one is alive can be unhealthy, according to Patrick Hansen, the chaplain supervisor at the Arizona branch of the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. To reach a "new normal" after death, the living must come to terms with the fact that a person is gone. Praying to the dead, he says, keeps the conversation going while coping with the reality that things have changed. "We want to be able to take that person that is lost and place them in another place," he says.
The digital age might impede the grieving process, but it also brings with it unique opportunities, according to Hansen. He recently presided over a funeral service via videoconferencing where mourners as far as Venezuela shared memories through the Internet. He thinks the isolation of grief can be turned on its head through the use of text messaging or email.
Still, sometimes Hansen catches himself checking how the weather is in Kansas, where his parents once had a home. "They aren't there anymore, but we do those things we are used to."