Deleting contacts of people who have passed away?
April 7, 2021 9:06 AM   Subscribe

When (if ever) do you delete contacts of people who have passed away?

This is probably not a question with a right or wrong answer; this is a "help me understand how people think about this" question so I can better figure out my own thinking on the subject.

This has been a hard year for everyone. Like many people, I've had a number of family members, friends, and social/work contacts pass away this year (and without the possibility of traditional funerals or memorials). Compared to the actual losses it is a small thing, but now I find myself stuck on the question of when (or even if) to delete their contacts on my phone, on Facebook, etc. On the one hand, it is jarring and unpleasant to be scrolling and see the contact or get one of those automatic reminders of someone's birthday. But it also feels so final to delete the contact, like that is the last thing I have of that person.

Like I said, I am not expecting this to have a definitive right/wrong answer, but I am very interested in how others have thought about this.
posted by Dip Flash to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
On the one hand, it is jarring and unpleasant to be scrolling and see the contact or get one of those automatic reminders of someone's birthday.

It depends on your relationship to the person of course, but when one of my best friends died, over time as the most acute pain faded I found all of those unexpected reminders comforting. I took a little moment to remember them, and it made me happy for them to be a part of my day.
posted by unannihilated at 9:17 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]

I'd delete the contacts (I'm famously non-sentimental/anti-hoarding in my family).

But beware that sometimes that removes related content, so it's best (but sometimes painful) to check what you're going to lose access to when you remove those contacts, as you likely can't get them back, and you may want to download and archive that content - pictures, email threads, text messages, etc.

It is erasing part of your history, which is totally OK and reasonable to do. For some of us, that history creates a lot of mental baggage, and getting rid of it provides both closure and "lightens the load" of your own life.
posted by jpeacock at 9:18 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]

My condolences for your losses. It's a good thing that you're thoughtful about this gesture, precisely because there was no possibility of traditional funerals or memorials. Such rituals are how we deal with death's finality, and finally let go of that person (but not their memory).

In your position, I would start to think about how the act of deleting the contact can be itself ritualized, as a substitute (however pale) for the funerals and wakes and memorials that never could be. Or if it could somehow be worked into another ritual of mourning and grieving, alone or with others. There may be some people you're more ready to let go of than others at this point in time, and that's important to respect too. The process should proceed at a pace reflective of what each relationship and each loss means to you.
posted by obliterati at 9:18 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]

I put them into a phone purgatory of sorts. I add a Z. to the beginning of their name so they're all grouped together at the bottom of my contacts. I can't quite delete them, but I don't want to see them all the time.
posted by hydra77 at 9:20 AM on April 7 [19 favorites]

I tend to save them. First, because it keeps them in my memory. Also, I'm very hesitant to discard information because too many times in the past, I deleted something and regretted it (and it costs nothing to keep it).
posted by davcoo at 9:23 AM on April 7 [4 favorites]

I am generally not sentimental. But I still have my dead husband in my contacts five years later. It used to sting to see his name and I'd wonder if I should delete the contact. At this point, it doesn't hurt anymore, it makes me smile to think of him ... but I'm remarried ... but I have so little of him. I don't know if I'll ever delete him, but I worry a lot less whether I should.
posted by katieinshoes at 9:24 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]

If I cared about the person, I generally do like seeing their name pop up unexpectedly sometimes. So usually I keep them, but I may re-spell their name to bump them lower in the list if their position is too prominent - either by putting their surname first, or, same as Hydra77, by adding Z to the beginning of their name.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:29 AM on April 7

I generally do not delete. If feels like I am deleting them from my history or memory. I have a contact still from a friend who died in the Trade Center Tower collapse on 9/11. In general, if they are a family or personal contact, I keep them, but if they are a random contact or business contact or friend of a friend type thing, I will move them to an archive account I set up.
posted by AugustWest at 9:35 AM on April 7 [2 favorites]

I've given this a lot of thought, especially with regards to people I've been connected to on social media who've passed away.

The tl;dr is that I don't delete contacts or unfriend/disconnect from people on social media, but I dearly wish social media platforms would not do things like "it's so-and-so's birthday, wish them a happy birthday!" with people who haven't logged on in > 1 years.

I like Terry Pratchett's concept that someone isn't dead while their name is still spoken. By staying connected / keeping people in my contacts, they're (in my mind) still with me and alive in my memory.

But, I would totally understand why somebody else would do so.
posted by jzb at 9:35 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]

To add my data point: I keep them, but maybe that makes me weird. Whenever I boot up my Xbox, it’s a sad-funny twinge to see “[dead dad’s username] is offline.”
posted by RisforKickin at 9:36 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]

My inclination is to keep contacts forever. However, after an incident in which I lost all of my texts/photos from my late father (which was initially devastating) I did find that ultimately it's fine either way. It's not like I'm going to forget who my father was, just because he's not in my phone. The regret potentials of deleting exist, but are not, IME, overwhelming.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:38 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]

I keep all of them. I like having random reminders that people existed, even people I didn't particularly like. And I'd rather have the occasional reminder every few months than save up all that stuff until I find a picture of them or something and get five years of emotion all at once.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:44 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]

I had a complicated relationship with my mom. She died in 2018 and I still haven’t deleted her contact or our text message thread. I’m not sure why. I think maybe it’s because it’s a non traumatic piece of our relationship that’s safe to hold onto.
posted by not_the_water at 9:48 AM on April 7

I still have the phone number from the hospital room that a loved one died in. It's been six years and it doesn't feel like time to delete it yet. I still have a voicemail too; in fact, I have voicemails from more than one dead family member. I never listen to them but somehow they are still with me as long as I have them.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:56 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]

I keep them. I can't bring myself to delete them. Like others have said, it's like I still keep a little part of me with them.

A couple of since-deceased friends used a Twitter app that tweets out your daily horoscope every day. It's a bit jarring when I see them pop up in my Twitter feed, especially since one of them has been gone for over 10 years!
posted by SisterHavana at 10:03 AM on April 7

I agonize over it before deleting them pretty early on. Sometimes it’s just too painful to see their name.
posted by Pretty Good Talker at 10:22 AM on April 7

My mom died almost nine years ago and I haven't deleted her phone from my contacts. It probably comes to my attention less than once a year at this point, and I always think about deleting it, and then don't. I don't know why I'm keeping it, but I figure I'll know when it's time. And if it's never time, it takes up such a tiny piece of data and head and heart spaces that that will be OK.
posted by Orlop at 10:41 AM on April 7

So this is a bit Roll Safe on my part, but I just don't save very many people in my contacts. I have my wife, my parents and siblings, my in-laws, a couple of friends from college, and that's it. 12 people, and I don't even really need that many because I've memorized a few of them as "emergency contacts". Everybody else is just in my text and phone history as their phone number. Maybe I'm unusual, and there are aspects of my situation that clearly are, but in most cases the area code is enough to identify a subgroup. If it's a 937 area code, it's probably either a relative or someone I went to high school with. 614 or other Ohio area codes, almost certainly a former co-worker. 716 is unquestionably one of my wife's relatives. 978 or 617 are former co-workers from another job. 603 are either current co-workers or service providers (daycare, mechanic, etc.). Then within that area code, a quick glance at the last two or three texts identifies the specific person. E.g., if it's a 617 number and there's a message about mussels (don't ask, really), it's the guy I shared an office with at my last job. Other area codes are unique enough that the mere area code is enough to identify the person: 773 is my boss, for example. 415 is my brother-in-law. 319 is a friend of my wife. The vast majority of my interpersonal communication is by text; phone and email are generally more commercial in nature. To the extent that I do communicate by email, nearly all email programs now use pattern recognition to suggest addresses, so that if I type "mo" in the To field, "" will show up as a suggested option. As long as I've emailed a person before, there's no real reason to add them to my contacts.

So I never have to delete someone from my texts. I do clean up my list of text conversations periodically, but generally it's just to get rid of robo-texts ("your Dasher is approaching"). Over time, people who are no longer alive (as well as people who are alive but just don't text me anymore) drift down to the bottom of the list, and that works well for me. I can still find people I need to text quickly, but I don't have to delete anyone's history.

Yes, I know this is bizarre.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:51 AM on April 7

As a data point, I have kept a game app on my phone that I used to play with my grandfather for several years (and across multiple phones) even though I no longer use it and there are no ongoing games or messages in it anymore. When I see it I think of him, and I like that.
posted by hepta at 11:46 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]

Well, after reading all the above I feel a bit callous, but for me, I delete the contact fairly early on. Not immediately but I'd say within a few weeks.

Obviously, I keep mementos like pictures or keepsakes, and I have screenshotted texts to keep for later before deleting the text history. But for me, I prefer to have to make the effort to go to look at those things vs. have the reminder come up unexpectedly.

I'm sorry for your loss and wish you peace.
posted by widdershins at 12:03 PM on April 7

While I haven't had to deal with deleting contacts who have died, I've had other people who I don't expect will be contacted again but am not ready to delete. So, I do exactly what hydra77 said, above; I add "Z-" to the front of the contact name.

I've also done this for people I want to keep handy but don't want to accidentally call. For example, my mother's cardiothoracic surgeon has the same first name as someone else in my contacts, and a similar last name; on numerous occasions, long after it was likely I'd be contacting his office, I'd accidentally hit that name. Adding Z- to make it Z-FancyDoctorName meant it's there if I ever need it (which I hope I do not).
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 4:04 PM on April 7

My mom died in 2012, and she's still in my phone even though her cell number is long disconnected. I actually started a new Facebook account to get away from the reminders and memories, because it was too hard otherwise.
posted by ApathyGirl at 4:22 PM on April 7

I not only don't delete people, but I took over the Apple IDs of my two deceased parents and so I have their calendars. It's kind of nice because it means I can wish their friends happy birthday. I don't use my Contacts that much. I'm a relentless pruner from Facebook so I delete people there who are still alive, but I archived my mom's account so no one gets a "Wish her a happy birthday!" message. I did not have text threads with either of my parents and I have had some DM threads with people on Twitter who have since died and... those went away (I guess their family members closed their account -- too bad but what can you do). I agree with jzb's general vibe that keeping your loved one "with you" in whatever way is nice if that's what you're into and I practice non-attachment in various other ways. Interesting thread!
posted by jessamyn at 5:47 PM on April 7

I'm sorry for your losses. I know it's hard.

I just deleted an important contact from my phone's Favorites list so that I wouldn't have to see it every time I look at my phone and so that I wouldn't accidentally call a dead number. Their record is still filed away, but I plan to make a screen cap of all their info and file it under their name only. Maybe it will move out of Contacts to another, better location one day.
posted by maudlin at 8:57 PM on April 7

i have not been able to delete contacts of dead friends, even years on. it hasn’t felt right, so it isn’t time. i changed phones recently and lost my texts and whatsapp history with a close friend who died a few years ago, but this is somehow fine. it is different to have something fade or be lost over time, but the act of deletion or removal— i can’t feel okay with that. guess i’m in the sentimental camp.
this question is oddly comforting. thanks for posting.
posted by tamarack at 10:21 PM on April 7

I keep them, unless I didn't like them in which case I might have deleted them before anyways.
posted by ead at 8:22 AM on April 8

When my husband died 10 years ago, I deleted his contact from my phone almost immediatly, it was making me cry to see it. We're still linked on facebook, but then I only log into the site maybe twice a year. I did leave my status as married for a few years before changing it to widowed.

But normally I would not delete them. I just am not a clean slate kind of person. I think the only people I have ever deleted from my phone, besides husband, were some work contacts I had saved for notifying on sick days, and who left the company. Other people who have died are still listed years later. I still have a contact for "Mom and Dad", even though it's really only mom now.
posted by buildmyworld at 3:01 PM on April 8

I want to thank everyone for responding, with thoughtful detail and a lot for me to consider.

I put them into a phone purgatory of sorts. I add a Z. to the beginning of their name so they're all grouped together at the bottom of my contacts. I can't quite delete them, but I don't want to see them all the time.

This is a perfect interim (and potentially long-term) solution that I hadn't thought of, thank you. This solves my immediate what-to-do question, leaving time to make any other decisions later.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:54 AM on April 9 [1 favorite]

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