She saved her late grandmother’s voicemails with the utmost care, but rarely did Janie Crockford listen to them.
“I didn’t want to break down,” Crockford, 31, of Dorchester, said, starting to cry at the memory of that soft voice. “She brought me back to what was important.”
But this spring, about a year after losing her grandmother, Crockford, a manager at Banana Republic in the South Shore Plaza, suffered a second loss. When she upgraded her phone, three years’ worth of cherished messages vanished. “It forced me to deal with the fact that eventually I’ll forget what she sounded like, what her speech pattern was like,” Crockford said. “It’s the little things that you take for granted.”
If grief has a modern form, mourning the lost voicemail is surely it. The very technology that allows bereaved friends and relatives to feel, if only temporarily, closer to the departed can just as easily sweep away that connection.
There are ways to permanently save voicemails, but most people do not think like archivists. Messages disappear in system upgrades. They are deleted by companies intent on keeping subscribers’ inboxes within preset limits. They go missing during carrier-to-carrier switches. Sometimes they are there, somewhere, but wrongly believed irretrievable.
Within the past decade, voicemail has become reviled as a time waster in the age of texts and e-mail. But at the same time, holding onto a lost loved one’s voice has become so important that many people save and resave messages for years to prevent automatic deletion. Others pay to keep alive a dead relative’s phone contract so they can listen — and listen again — to the outgoing message.
“I called her phone every day, sometimes multiple times,” said Tom Clancy, 44, who looked forward to being alone at some point during his day so he could hear his late mother’s cheerful “Hey, it’s groovy Grammy.”
“I felt for some reason she’d call back, even though I knew she wouldn’t,” said Clancy, a bartender and student in medical dosimetry at Suffolk University, who took joy in hearing the messages his mom’s friends left on her machine after her funeral. “It was like getting a hug.”
But his mom’s phone belonged to the company she had worked for, and after a year, the Braintree construction firm, completely unaware of the phone’s significance, asked for it back.
“Sometimes I smell someone wearing her perfume and that brings her back a little,” Clancy said, “but that voice, you can’t replace it.”
That power of the human voice is recognized by lay people and professionals alike.
At Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Amy Scobie-Carroll, a clinical social worker in outpatient psychiatry department, says the voice can be more powerful for her patients than photos, clothing, or other objects associated with the departed.
“It brings you back to what was good in the relationship,” she said. “So if a daughter loses her father, and she has a recording saying, ‘Hi sweetie, just calling to check in on you,’ she’s going to feel loved and protected, as opposed to the feelings of loss or fear she may have had when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
“The goal through grieving,” Scobie-Carroll explained, “is trying to find the balance between still being attached to the one who is gone, and acceptance — knowing that everyone who lives dies.”
So central have voicemails become in the grieving process that some people live in what might be called an anticipatory-doom state, saving voicemails of loved ones who are in perfect health — just in case. In Franklin, Donna Strok keeps the messages her adult son leaves from the airport before he travels internationally and doesn’t erase them until he lands.
“I know it’s spooky,” she said, her throat tightening.
If the nation has a call center for this particular type of grief, it may be the offices of CBW Productions , in Center Ossipee, N.H. The small company is in the business of duplicating messages onto CDs, USB sticks, and MP3s for permanent keeping, at prices that start at $10. But many callers mistakenly think the firm can retrieve deleted messages.
By noon on a recent weekday, customer service representative Joshua Whitehead-Millar had answered three calls from people hoping not for a medical miracle, but a technological one.
“The best thing I can do is listen,” he said, his multiple lip piercings and baggy jeans at odds with his role as a lay therapist. “And say I’m sorry.”
CBW Productions got its start in a two-bedroom apartment in Cohasset in 1999, and in the early days, most business was in professional voiceover recordings. But after the attacks of 9/11, Verizon hired the firm to permanently record victims’ last messages sent and provide them to survivors.
Since then, the recording part of the business has grown. Some want to save voicemails for legal reasons. Others want recordings of happy times — a child singing “Happy Birthday” into mom’s phone. Others want to capture messages left on the voicemail system of someone who has died. “Hi, John, I’ll see you on the other side.”
But the saddest callers are those whose needs cannot be met — whose treasured messages are irretrievable. “People call us crying their eyes out,” said Holly Seppala, a company cofounder.
For some people, the fear of losing a treasured voicemail becomes its own kind of suffering. In Mendon, Jennifer Michel Capobianco spent three years saving the last message left to her by her beloved oldest brother, George Michel, who died at 58 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was the charismatic high school football star, the one who still called her by her childhood nickname “Ba Ba Ba.”
“If I didn’t save that message every three weeks it would automatically delete,” said Capobianco, a real estate agent. “But I’d have to listen to it to save it. There was always a big dark cloud over my head. It set my day off in a very blue way.”
But last January, on yet another night when she found herself awake and worrying about her elderly mother and her five children and losing her brother’s voicemail, she decided she could no longer live that way. She used a $19.99 do-it-yourself product from Voicemails Forever , a New Jersey firm, and put George’s message on an MP3 file.
Then she went almost a year before listening to it. “Just knowing it’s there gives me comfort,” she said. “I can hear his voice when I want to.”
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BethTeitell.