Combing Through My Dead Dad’s Gmail Account
On digital heirlooms and ongoing conversations
A recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Family Heirlooms That Our Children Don’t Want,” apparently resonated with millennials, as many of my peers were sharing it on social media. The gist is that boomer parents have a lot of stuff, and often, for various reasons, their adult children don’t want the stuff. This dilemma raises some complex emotions for boomers, but ultimately, many of them come around to realize that millennials already have their own stuff, and what’s deemed valuable or important to one generation isn’t necessarily viewed as important or valuable to the next.
When my parents died five years ago, my brothers and I were tasked with sorting and clearing, determining who got what and what to leave behind. Fortunately, our parents made this relatively easy for us, as they had already downsized and they’d never attached too much meaning to objects. There was a decent amount of clutter but very few heirlooms. Mostly, it was an unemotional affair. Most things were just things: furniture, artwork, books, photographs. We were free to make our own choices.
But in talking about the things people leave behind, we often forget that there’s stuff beyond the physical. Today, most of us live with one foot planted firmly in the digital world. And that is the stuff that can be more challenging to sort through — after all, it can remain until we’re ready to deal with it. It can remain forever, really. There’s no need to make space or throw any of it away. No storage units, no moving boxes, no looming physical presence.
A few days after my dad died, I started combing through his email inbox. Originally, I had a mission: to retrieve essential information for bureaucratic purposes. I didn’t look at anything else out of respect for his privacy. But as the weeks and months went by, I found myself returning to it. Even now, half a decade later, I go in for an occasional poke around. Why not? While there’s never anything new of interest — just lots of junk mail and newsletters — there’s 10 years of old stuff to rifle through, to encounter with new eyes. That’s a lot of material, a lot of answers, many more questions.