My brother was killed when he was 55 and a half years old, divorced, with two children in their early 20s. A man who lived life to the fullest, with personal and professional relationships and an unusual knack to touch the lives of many.
It was clear to me that I should have to go over his personal computers before handing them over to his children, in order to neatly "fold" away his life in the most respectable manner. There were saved files with professional material that I wanted to forward to his colleagues, there were friends who requested me to remove personal correspondence from it and I also received requests from friends and acquaintances for pictures Tal took but didn't have the chance to send out.
The email accounts
I got into each of my brother's email accounts and proceeded to do exactly the same in each:
- By using the search engine that all email service provider have, I searched for both the addresses and names of those who requested me to delete their correspondence with Tal. As soon as their name or address appeared, I deleted those mails from both the inbox and the sent mail box, without reading them (I mean, of course, permanent deletion, not just moving to the trash file).
- I arranged the mail messages according to the name of the sender, and opened the first mail from every sender with a female-sounding name: If it was a professional correspondence, I didn't touch those mails and did not open other messages from the same sender.
If the correspondence was of a personal, private matter, I closed the message as soon as I recognized it, so I would not read anything beyond the bare minimum needed for identification, and deleted all mail received from this sender without reading them (so if you dated my brother and are now reading this post – you should know that no one other than you two read your correspondence). I continued in the same manner for every name in the inbox.
- I did the same as in article 2, this time in the "Sent Items" box: I arranged all mail messages by name of recipient, opened the first message that was sent to a recipient with a female-sounding name, and repeated the process described in the previous article.
An image I found online, demonstrating the process – this is not a print screen of my
brother's email account
- I opened his Pictures folder (luckily, my brother was a highly organized person, which made the search easy) and used the operating system's search option to track down both the images I was requested to delete and those I was requested to send copies of. Sometimes the search required a few search words or values: the name of the person in the picture / the model of the motorbike in the photo / the photo's date / the photo's location, etc., so I wished to get as many details and data, to locate the specific pictures. Luckily, I was able to track down all the pictures, although at times it took longer than expected.
- I tracked down images and files which I thought Tal's friends and colleagues may want to have – their pictures with Tal, pictures Tal took of them, etc., and made sure they got copies.
A Very Different Approach
I admit that it was hard for me to read of the choices made by Alison Atkins' family. The 16 year-old Canadian, who died from severe Colitis, seemingly wanted to keep certain things private even after she passed, but her family did not respect her wishes:
Alison's sister attempts to reset Alison's passwords made things worse. She couldn't reset Facebook without access to Alison's Yahoo mail account. But when she tried to log in to Yahoo, it asked her a series of "challenge" questions, put in place by Alison, which she kept getting wrong. She suspects her sister intentionally put in the wrong answers to the questions. "Very sneaky on Alison's part," she says. The same happened with Microsoft Hotmail. ...Alison's sister discovered some of Alison's most intimate thoughts and feelings... On her Tumblr account, Ms. Atkins found a password-protected second blog under the heading "you wouldn't want to know".
To me, this is a very clear "do not enter" sign. Alison's family did not think that way and did enter that blog, in which her sister found posts she described as "dark".
Alison was bedridden and aware that she was very ill. She did not die suddenly like my brother. From what I understand from the article, she did consider her digital legacy and chose not only to keep her passwords from her family, but also put obstacles if they tried entering her virtual space.
Again, I am not judging the Atkins family, in their immense pain, and it is possible that because of Alison's young age, her family members felt entitled to enter her digital life, online and virtual, after she died.
You Are Not Alone
I find it important that people who have lost their loved ones and have arrived at this post from browsing the web, may find it useful even if their choices are totally different than mine, finding solace in the fact that they are not alone in trying to cope. You are more than welcome to email me (even anonymously) with your own account of dealing with digital legacy, or even leave a comment here – perhaps reading this will be helpful for other people coping with a similar situation.
Dealing with digital legacy is hard and painful, partially – I believe – because there is yet to be any public acknowledgement of the subject: before dealing with the deceased's physical legacy and property (such as his home), it's common knowledge that the experience will be difficult, grim and painful. People prepare you for it, and you prepare yourself.
There is still no common knowledge about how difficult, grim and painful (as well as technically challenging at times) it is to enter someone's digital legacy. People around you are still unaware that they need to prepare and support you during the process, and you still do not know how to prepare for it. I hope that at least in this aspect I can be of assistance to others. I recommend reading my post "After death – caution and attention" before dealing with someone's digital legacy. Additional information you may find helpful can be found in the Technical Guide post.
Thank you Ayelet Yagil for translating this post.
Thank you Ayelet Yagil for translating this post.