It’s been 10 months since Jenn Forman lost her mother to cancer, but seeing her mom’s name in her contact list — in favorites, where she’s always been — can still trigger the grief Forman is struggling to move past.
“Sometimes I think maybe it’s time to delete it,” said Forman, 35, a medical assistant at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “But I can’t do it. I feel like if I delete it, then she’s really gone.”
On its face, a phone contact seems like such a slight connection. But in an age when physical heirlooms have become less significant — many adult kids don’t want to inherit mom’s dining room set — the seemingly emotion-free phone contact has become a meaningful way to hang on to a relationship, a lifeline to the deceased.
“I feel deleting their numbers will be deleting them,” said Rob Marco, 38, of Marlborough, explaining why his late cousin, grandmother, and mother remain in his contacts.
Ubiquitous digital technology offers a bounty of opportunities to preserve the memories of deceased loved ones and sometimes even the illusion that they are still alive.
People save voicemail in order to hear once again the voice of someone who has gone, or text exchanges, alive with banter and the mundane notes that make up a life. “Stopping at grocery store on way home. Do we need milk?”
Memorial Facebook pages have proliferated, packed with photos and memories. And it’s unlikely to be long before technology makes possible even more sophisticated ways to remember the departed. A California startup called Eternime Inc. is in the private testing stage of signing up people who want to live forever digitally. “Eternime collects your thoughts, stories, and memories, curates them and creates an intelligent avatar that looks like you,” the website reads.
But even just a name and number in a phone, perhaps with a small photo, stands out as a tie to someone who can never call back.
Dan Berg, a home health aide from Salem, keeps his contact for Steven, even though his childhood friend died two years ago at age 58.
“For a few months I’d call his cellphone just to hear his [outgoing] voice message,” he said. The number was eventually disconnected. “But I still have it on my favorites, and I click on it to see his picture.”
Keeping the contact of a deceased loved one is very common, said Michael Grodin, an MD and professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine.
“People want to have a connection,” he said, a place to visit to remember a loved one. “It’s very similar to a burial site.
“The question is, how positive is it?” he said. “If it’s allowing people to adjust and move on, it can be healthy, but if it’s allowing people to hold on in a pathological way, then it can be a problem.”
Janet Haines, a housing planner in Cambridge, deleted her mother’s phone contact after she died, but not those of her late brother or sister. “I think it was because my mother was ready to go and my brother and sister went too soon,” she said.
Haines’s sister, Linda, died two years ago, and as her life recedes into the past, Haines said, the simple act of seeing her contact makes her sister feel more present, and also makes her think of all that her sister did and enjoyed in life.
“I want to be scanning my contacts for something and see her name with surprise,” she said. “Not my sister, but Linda Haines. She had an identity which was not just my sister. For the rest of my life I will mourn and remember my sister, but I also want to remember Linda Haines. Linda Haines, the librarian who led a sing-along at her library for toddlers even though she couldn’t carry a tune. Linda Haines, who had more friends than I ever imagined, who enjoyed the things she enjoyed — reading, yard sales, TV shows like ‘24.’ ”
Natalie Donovan, 43, a psychiatric nurse from Stoughton, gets a bit thrown off every time she sees her late friend Tim’s contact in her phone list, but she feels it’s important to keep it because the contact reminds her of the good times they enjoyed, and also of life’s uncertainty.
“You think you’re going to be here for another 40 years but you might not be,” she said. “It’s a blessing to wake up vertical.”
Important as keeping the contact is to many people, making sure not to dial the number can be equally crucial.
When Forman’s phone accidentally called her late mother’s number, this is what she heard: “This phone is no longer in service.”
“It was honestly devastating,” she said.
For the most part, though, the contacts are a tiny, private treasure, a way to sneak in a visit in the smallest of moments.
Barrie Levine, 73, a retired attorney who now writes a blog, said she would never delete her late husband’s contact, still in her phone four years after he died at age 78.
It’s the number at Bravissimo, his shuttered Beverly hair salon, and a nice picture of him cutting hair. “He was handsome from the day I met him,” she said.
Deleting that number, Levine said, would “disrespect” 50 years of his work as a hairdresser. “This will be in my contacts for as long as I live.”
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.