My Phone Was My Connection to My Dying Father, But I Had to Put It Away to Reconnect With My Kids

Wracked with grief at the loss of a parent to COVID, one mom realizes she has to disconnect from the constant buzz of technology to help her kids and learn to cope with the fallout as a family.

A woman focuses on her phone
Photo: Getty | Mixmike

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century—Zedis Lepidis, c'mon—and dreamed of the day we'd be able to talk to people from all over the galaxy by screen. By the time FaceTime arrived on my phone, I'd forgotten that faraway fantasy. Technology sneaks up on us. Possibilities become realities in layers and stages. And by the time those major advances happen, they don't feel so major because of all the baby steps along the way.

I never thought I'd live to see this technology, much less use it to say goodbye to my dad for the last time. Strangled words, torn out of my body during a Zoom call coordinated by the COVID team at the hospital where he died. Without the ability to sit by his side and hold his hand, that call was everything to my family. It offered the people who loved him more than anything a chance to tell him just how much. One last time.

The weeks leading up to his death are a blur. COVID was already the deciding factor behind every anxiety-filled life choice we made as a family. My husband and I made a difficult decision not to tell our four daughters that their grandpa was sick. Every Zoom call was supposed to get him through the worst of it. The country-western music we asked the hospital staff to play by his bedside would keep him with us longer. Why worry them, when this was going to be a really terrible memory that we'd talk about at his next birthday?

We were #blessed with tech to get us through it. My phone became my lifeline. I could keep in contact with my sisters, updates from doctors were relayed at lightning speed, and I'd been messaging him every day—even after he was intubated—because I was certain that when he woke up he'd see them. Then we could joke about it on his birthday, too. That phone was my connection to my extended family. But more than that, it was my distraction from letting anything feel too real.

I should have known better. I've made my career as an author by writing about the way technology impacts the human experience. It wasn't enough to be detached in the moment from what was going on. I was shoving all that pain into the pages of my latest book—a mixed media YA novel about a girl who uses chatbot technology to uncover a secret about her dead best friend. A novel that stemmed from my grandfather's last words to me just two-and-a-half years earlier.

The night before my father passed, I sat at the kitchen table, face lit by a blue screen, and turned in my last major revision. I remember sitting there, the weight lifted. The deadline met—and how amazing was that, with everything going on? Then came a sinking ache in my stomach. The "what now" feeling. Because the story was written. Finished. But I had no idea that I was just turning the page in the very first chapter of my grief.

After he was gone, and I had no book to throw myself at, no hope to find on the internet, I realized how lonely I was. With four kids, I'm never really alone. But while my husband navigated meals, playtime, and distance learning Zoom sessions, I was phoning in my engagement. I'd half-listen during every conversation. Dinner, bedtime routines, and movie nights? I might have been with them, but I was watching my phone.

Maybe it was having to tell them that their grandpa died that made my babies seem so much bigger all of a sudden. Or maybe it's just because I was seeing them—without the light cast by a blue-hued screen—for the first time in almost a month. There was no retreating to our respective devices that day. My husband loaded the family into the car and drove far away from any city lights. We went for a walk, watched the stars, and spent the night talking about our favorite memories and how much we would miss their papa.

Technology is all around us. You're literally reading this on a screen right now. After our world shut down, my girls still got to see their friends' faces every day—even during quarantine—because of those video chats I longed for as a kid. Technology granted us safe and distant learning. I worked from home while my children sat next to me. Four kids' worth of Zoom classes. I'm sure you can do the math on how often we were parked in front of screens.

No, kids today will never know the woes of stretching the phone cord as long as possible so you can hide in the closet to talk or looking up a number in the phone book. They have everything they need in the palm of their hands. Phone, computer, internet, dictionary. It's easy to think they don't know how good they have it because "when I was a kid..."

Their problems are bigger. They're eating up information in 15-second bursts, and parents are so tired and drained, we struggle to find 15 minutes of our day to talk to them about what they're absorbing. Our children have constant access to connection—texts, emails, chat, multiplayer games. The internet is full of people looking to talk. They might be hiding their pain behind those screens, but who can blame them?

I can't be the only one who remembers how awful middle school was. Children today are almost never without the ability to talk to someone, yet the CDC reports that suicide attempts and deaths in children have increased over the last decade. We are more "connected" than ever, but our babies are lonely. And that was going on well before COVID.

Turns out that all the technology in the world doesn't hold a candle to human connection. Real, true connection that comes when you have to look someone in the eyes to tell them something. It's not enough to live adjacent, in the same room on matching Zoom calls. Our children need more. We need more. At least I know I do.

This January, Facebook was kind enough to let me know someone had tagged my father and I together on a post. For a second, just a second, it was like I was rewound. I was living in a world where my father and I could be sitting side by side for a photo. I thought about how it'd been so long since we talked. Pulling out my phone, I'd already typed his name before it hit me. He's gone.

Grief is a lot like technology. It sneaks up on us. Possibilities become realities in layers and stages. And by the time those major advances happen, they don't feel so major because of all the baby steps along the way. Take a break, look your kids in the eyes, talk to them, and hold on to right now. We aren't promised a tomorrow, but the internet will be there forever. It can wait.

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