Name-Place-Animal-Thing is The Wire’s culture newsletter. If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing here.
Being mortal ensures that we will all experience the loss of a loved one sooner or later, yet we consider the emotional aftermath of losing someone as somehow incommunicable. The pieces in this week’s column don’t just discuss death and loss but bring to light the universality of grief.
The wind telephone – kaze no denwa
In a little Japanese town called Otsuchi, there’s an old English-style telephone booth – white with glass panes – with a black rotary phone inside that doesn’t actually connect to anywhere. The man who set it up, Ikaru Sasaki, calls it the wind telephone. He set it up in his backyard after he lost his cousin and was having a hard time talking about his feelings, but with the telephone booth Sasaki felt like he could simply step in, talk out loud and begin to come to grips with his grief.
Otsuchi was one of the worst hit in the 2011 tsunami that devastated much of Japan. While the tsunami killed 19,000 people in total, 421 people went missing from the town itself – creating gaps in countless families. In the tsunami’s aftermath, other people have started to come to the phone booth as well.
The This American Life episode which featured this story included excerpts from several different conversations that took place in the booth – an old woman who came in regularly with her two grandsons to update her deceased husband, another old woman who habitually dialled her old number since that was her husband’s last known residence, stood in silence and then left, a young teenaged boy who rode the bus for several hours just to talk with his dad who went missing during the tsunami.
However, the most emotionally gruelling calls were the ones made by men. As Miki Meek, this American life producer and the woman behind this piece noted, Japanese farmers are not a demographic known for expressing emotions. So to hear these men, who have been societally conditioned to reject feelings or at least the urge to display them, talk to lost wives and children was heartbreaking.
As Meek noted, “One of the things that makes these calls so poignant to me is all the understated ways that people are actually saying, I love you, and I miss you. I’d never say something so direct like that in Japanese. It’s just not done.” There was an unexpected novelty in hearing an old male voice burdened with emotion, enough to elicit an almost instant teary response from me as I listened to the episode on my way to work. And Meek was right, these men never said words like “I love you” or “I miss you”, instead they asked after their loved ones’ health, urged them to eat properly, told their lost sons to take care of their moms, even requested them to come back as they choked up with tears.
If you think about it, this is one of the main challenges of dealing with a loved one’s death – talking only achieves so much, saying words such as ‘I love you’ only goes so far. We’re still left with these gaping holes in our daily routines that don’t just disrupt our regular living but also the habitual actions through which we express love. You can’t do that with a person who simply isn’t there. And maybe it’s the personal, highly individualised nature of these holes that makes it so difficult to share grief despite its universality. But the wind telephone creates a space where you can share your sense of loss with the one who feels it just as you do, because at the end of the day the person you lost is the only one privy to the idiosyncrasies of your relationship.
Dead man talking?
While listening to this episode of This American Life, what really got to me were the lengthy periods of silence that inevitably punctuated the conversations in the phone booth. At one level, I recognised the catharsis of the act of speaking to a loved one out loud – my grandmother passed away when I was 15 and I still feel the urge to tell her things – but on the other hand the silence made the entire endeavour seem so frustratingly futile.
What if the dead could talk back though? Would that help us move on or prolong our grief by sheltering us from the inescapable fact of death? This is the question that Casie Newton tried to tackle in her piece Speak, Memory.
When Eugenia Kuyda lost her friend Roman Mazurenko in a freak car accident, she didn’t find herself alone in her sadness at Mazurenko’s death, he had many friends and loved ones all experiencing the same shock, but she was unsatisfied with everyone else’s ideas for memorialising Mazurenko. According to Newton, “To Kuyda, every suggestion seemed inadequate.” At the end of the day, when someone passes away all we’re really left with is our memories of them. And memory is such a subjective, personal experience, one we exercise so much agency over that creating it through a collaborative process may seem like an unacceptable compromise.
So Kuyda decided to embark on a project of her own – she took all her digital correspondence with Mazurenko, filtered out the bits she considered too personal, and fed the rest into “a neural network built by developers at her artificial intelligence startup.” Gradually, Kuyda expanded the project, soliciting Mazurenko’s correspondence with other people such as his parents and close friends, really whoever volunteered to share their personal logs with her.
Kuyda has now succeeded in building a Roman Mazurenko bot, something she refers to as his “digital monument”. The bot has so much information on Mazurenko’s speech patterns and consequently his personality that people can text the bot and receive responses that are uncannily Mazurenko-esque in nature. Understandably, some of his friends feel uncomfortable with the whole project and refuse to contribute or participate in it and others who do use it, like his father, are all too aware of the bot’s occasionally visible flaws – when it slips up and doesn’t respond the way Mazurenko would have.
Kuyda told Newton that most users haven’t used the bot to have a fulfilling two-way conversation with Mazurenko. Newton writes, “It turned out that the primary purpose of the bot had not been to talk but to listen. “All those messages were about love, or telling him something they never had time to tell him,” Kuyda said. “Even if it’s not a real person, there was a place where they could say it. They can say it when they feel lonely. And they come back still.””
All of us are actively creating vast digital archives that will outlive us and could be utilised for bots exactly like this, maybe bringing catharsis or perhaps prolonging misery. While this is Newton’s main concern, I don’t find it quite as compelling. Yes, it is disconcerting that my sense of who I am is not limited to my physical self but seamlessly extends to my phone – the venue for my most intimate emotional relationships – but is this really very different from the physical letters people wrote each other ‘back in the day’?
Yes, we now have larger archives to glean information from but so much of it is bound to be inane. If you were to create a bot for me based on my digital correspondence right now, it might accurately predict how many times I use the poop emoji (too many times is the answer, in case you were wondering) but it will ignore the fact that I will stop doing that in some time and move onto some other idiosyncratic texting style. The Mazurenko bot too will ultimately be limited by this because it cannot grow and change with the people who are corresponding with it, even if it can retain the very essence of Mazurenko’s personality – something you don’t necessarily require a massive archive for.
But really, what interests me is the role memory plays in how we choose to move on from the death of a loved one. Kuyda’s Mazurenko shares many characteristics with the Mazurenko his parents knew but he will never be the same – you never present yourself in a uniform way to everyone you know. Kuyda’s memories of her experiences with Mazurenko are not transferable in the way that his words are.
Ultimately this is what really concerns Kuyda and all of us who grieve the dead – how to comb through our experiences with them and construct memories that we can cherish and love in their stead. Maybe this is what constitutes closure, because a memory once formed can only be disrupted if some new incongruent information comes along and since the dead don’t produce new information this is unlikely to happen. Unless of course you talk to a bot and learn something new and then you continue to be engaged with the deceased, going back and forth with a ghost to make sense of the new information. In other words, you continue to have a relationship with the dead instead of moving onto cementing memories of them.
If dealing with grief is partially about forming memories and moving on, then the outdated telephone booth and the high tech bot are not very different from each other – both address our need to communicate with the ones we miss the most and who we think understand our loss the best.
How do you decide the fate of a life?
In a piece for Live Mint, Namita Bhandare, brought home the fact planning for her mother’s demise wasn’t any easier than dealing with the aftermath of it. Her piece highlighted the fact that when you care for aging parents, the relationship becomes one-sided much before they actually pass away.
When Bhandare’s mother fell seriously ill she found herself wondering what to do about her mother’s health issues, which she simply identified as “mortality” because at the end of the day that’s what we’ll all die of. In the process of figuring out what kind of medical care was required for her aged, dying mother, Bhandare identified some really serious institutional and societal issues about the way we approach palliative care and death.
To begin with, the piece noted, “Doctors don’t have guidelines on when to de-escalate care. There are so many grey areas where nothing is written, so they simply go by gut.” When you’re dealing with an emergency case, you obviously go all out to save that person’s life but when you’re dealing with someone who is winding down, doctors still have the tendency to go all out and save lives. We fail to factor in the fact that someone may very well feel done with life.
She also quotes a 2015 TED talk by B.J. Miller, ““Healthcare was designed with diseases, not people, at its centre,” He calls this bad design. We need, he says, “to rethink and redesign how it is we die”.”
In figuring out what to do about her mother, Bhandare also found herself wondering what the doctors treating her mother thought of her conscious refusal to extend her mother’s life. She wrote, “At the back of my mind lurked the very Indian fear: what will the doctor think? Will she think I’m a bad daughter?” And added that there was “no guidance, no counsellor.”
Bhandare’s piece is also guided by an underlying question – can we live with the decisions that we make for others? When our own interests lie in keeping our parents alive how do we separate that from what may be best for them, especially if we can’t discuss it with them. The piece makes you wonder what you will do in such a situation, will you take Bhandare’s advice and have a conversation with your parents to know what they want you do to and will you be able to handle the consequences of the question now and when the time comes? And also how will we choose to remember our own actions once grief sets in, how much weight will we put on the decision of pulling the plug?
Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at email@example.com
If you’d like to receive regular updates from this column, please consider subscribing to Name-Place-Animal-Thing.