The Digital Fragments We Leave Behind After Death

The article discusses how the photos, texts, playlists and to-do lists that we find after loved ones die can offer poignant glimpses into their lives.

The Digital Fragments We Leave Behind After Death

After a loved one dies, we may find photos, text messages, playlists, and to-do list. These can provide a poignant look into their life.


Remind yourself to:

Linda, I love you

Hanna Ingber & Leo Dominguez

May 3, 2023

After my stepfather's death, I found the Photos app in his old iPad. Jeff wasn't a great photographer and his photos showed it. While flipping through the photos, I noticed that many of them seemed to be taken accidentally, such as closeups on his feet. Jeff was no longer there, but I still wanted to see more.

I discovered photos that he had taken while lying down. Jeff, our curmudgeon and Civil War buff who loved to read Civil War books in his spare time, was he taking selfies at the hospital? I continued. I kept going. Jeff had taken the photos so that she could choose what to wear.

More I looked, more sweet memories of my mother I found. She was seen petting Jeff Jeff's cats. Other of Jeff's cats snuggled against her. I discovered a series where my mother painted wildflowers on their favorite Maine lake. Jeff had captured her in every possible angle.

Even the photos with awkward feet brought me comfort. These images confirmed everything I already knew about my stepfather, but also showed me more.

Families would look through boxes and photo albums when older generations passed away. When a loved-one dies, there are so many more things to look through from their life: text messages, emails and playlists. These digital artifacts are a record of the spontaneity and luck that make up life. These digital artifacts show us small details and moments we might have missed.

Our readers were asked to share the digital scraps that they discovered after a loved-one passed away. The following is a selection, edited to make it clearer.

--Hanna Ingber

He was not sentimental. Linda Lee, a San Francisco woman who had been with her partner for 16 years, found an iPad reminder note that he wrote after his death.

Tom had passed away and I discovered an entry on the Reminder application of his iPad. I was just stunned. I didn't think he would use it -- he was not a techy person. When I found it, I was in tears.

He wasn't sentimental. He gave me cards with messages like 'XOXO'. He never said 'I love' to me verbally.

It was the most beautiful gift I have ever received from him. A gift that will be treasured for the rest of my days.



Linda, I love you

I never considered recording his voice. Sharon Koppel, from Mifflinburg in Pennsylvania, lost her husband Jeff in 2020. He was 73.

After Jeff died, I did not have any recordings of his voice. I then stumbled across a video showing him riding his bicycle to our local Y.M.C.A. In his kind, deep voice, he explained why he valued exercise and the friends he made at the Y.M.C.A. I smiled when I saw the T-shirt that he was wearing: a cartoon dog holding drinking glasses with the words 'I make all decisions'.

We dated for nearly 30 years. Jeff was my soulmate. I had been in two bad marriages before. It was a great time every day.

The Greater Susquehanna Valley YMCA

Cushing's had debilitating effects on his muscles, body, and other things. He signed up for the local Y.M.C.A. and became a regular. He rode his bike to class five days a weeks.

The video was made as part of an earlier fundraising campaign, but I hadn't given it much thought for so many years. He was doing well and in remission, but then suddenly, it wasn't. After seven weeks in hospice care, he died.

He died at his home because it was so busy. Someone asked me about a month later if I'd saved any of his voicemails. I was so busy that I hadn't given it a second thought. I took all his photos, but never considered recording his voice.

I met the head of Y.M.C.A. At the grocery store I asked if they, by chance, had any videos of Jeff talking. She replied, "Sure, we've got that video from the election campaign," and I burst out in tears.

Allison Reeves, from Baton Rouge, lost her 25-year-old brother Jimmy. He died in a bicycle accident in Taiwan, more than 10 years ago.

I found the email I sent to my brother just before his accident. I had been bored at work on a friday afternoon and wrote to him, 'I love like a big kid loves cake. I love you! It was our way of expressing love to each other in a secret language.



I love you as a cake-loving fat child loves cake. I love you!

My parents gave me my father's computer after he passed away. I found an app that allowed me to view his emails. When I saw the email in his inbox, I had no idea that I sent it. I was surprised at how happy I was that I sent the email and that he had read it. I also knew that I had said all I wanted to before his accident.

Sarah Chute, a Toronto woman, stumbled across a picture of her father in an old forum.

Harvey Chute was a prolific creator who ran two forums for Kindle and Microsoft Zune users in the late aughts. Harvey Chute had many hobbies that he pursued alone, such as writing a young adult novel and playing the guitar. He would involve us in smaller projects such as unboxing videos, where we were children and opened Zune accessories. In 2015, before he died, he taught me, my mom and sisters how to run a forum. We were able to appreciate all the hard work he had put in over many years, which we had dismissed as "just Papa's hobbies."

I searched for his name on Google earlier this year in the hope of finding an audio clip, or an interview, that I had not heard before. To narrow my search, I added 'zune.' This brought up a post by a stranger on another website. He documented a day spent at Zune HQ as a Microsoft Valued Professional. Scrolling down, I was moved to see a picture of a group working in a boardroom. The familiar, comforting sight of my father's balding head and his gaze fixed on his laptop at the other end of the table brought me to tears. This was the same scene I saw every evening when my dad worked on forums that he created during his off-hours.

I was struck by the fact that he had gathered a group of strangers for a gathering, and that many of them witnessed his mannerisms and nerdy hobbies, as well as his gentle curiosity and mild pleasantries. It made me realize how many lives he had touched.

Decoding a bit of the past Madeline de Figueiredo, from Houston, lost her husband Eli Aperin in November 2021. He was 25.

In my husband Eli's email, I found a message that was dated the night of our very first kiss. He sent himself an email in Japanese with the message: "Prediction: marry Madeline ...'


to: Elijah

Wed Jun 7, 2017, 11:45AM

Yu Yan :maderintoJie Hun

After years of friendship, I was surprised when our relationship began to take a romantic turn. We got married three years later.

Eli was killed in a car accident 18 months later.

It was as if I had decoded a part of my past. Eli knew from the start that it was me. What a wonderful gift to get from him during the first weeks of grief.

Before this happened, I thought that once someone died, your relationship was over. Even though he had passed away, I felt that I was still getting to know him after I found this.

Discovering the other side of Dad Carolina Ramirez, a Denver resident, lost her father last December. She found his playlist after he passed away.

The loss of our father was the most difficult thing we have ever experienced. We lost him very suddenly. We lost him in December. He was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus last May. We thought we would have more time.

My sister quickly played the 2022 Spotify playlist when we were trying to find mementos after his death. We felt we could see a side to our father that was hidden on the long drives in traffic as he traveled to different houses for his job as a painter. Our Mexican-born dad, who was an immigrant, loved old-school, country music. His favorite artist was Dolly Parton.

We huddled together around his phone and played a video of his last year. My mother, sister, and I laughed and cried as we watched the clip. We created a playlist of his favorite songs for his graveside funeral service. Then, we listened to it as the casket was lowered. This playlist will help us remember our quirky, funny and proud father.

Te quiero mucho, Papa.

Before the trouble began Priscilla Dickerman, of Downingtown, Pa. lost her brother Malcolm a year before. He was 62.

My brother passed away this spring. He died from an overdose after years of being homeless, which was a combination of head trauma and family trauma as well as mental illness, addiction, and addiction.

My brother led a difficult life. Some of his problems were caused by his poor life circumstances and others were due to his own bad choices. He was a kind and caring soul and I loved that about him.

Few months later I found his voicemail left on my phone. I had blocked him at the time because I thought he was toxic and out-of-control. The message was sweet, loving and thoughtful.

Hey, I just wanted to reach out.

I find his message both comforting as well as painful to hear. The message came from the tender heart that my brother hid deep within himself. It was the part of him that only I could recognize from when we were children, before all the troubles began. It has helped me get through the grief of his death.

Did you have other moments like this? Mike Johnson, a resident of Cave Creek, Arizona, lost his mother on August 2020. His brother discovered this picture on the father's computer after she passed away.

Our mother was a control freak with a love for her family. She did not have a good sense of humor. It's difficult to imagine why she would lose her cool in this photo.

I knew her for over 60 years and she didn't laugh much. She was very goal-oriented and not a free thinker. Then to see the picture of her and my father just losing their minds -- wow! What prompted this reaction? I had never seen her laugh so hard. I'd seen her chuckle before, but never had I seen her laugh so loudly.

You remember it. You think, "Wow, there were other moments like this that we didn't even know about?"