The pen v. the keyboard and privacy in death

A few weeks after my brother’s death, Mum and Dad received eight large cardboard boxes of his personal effects from where he was stationed in Afghanistan as well as from his UK base living quarters. His laptop was included amongst these.

We had and still have an insatiable desire to find out more about him, piecing together strands of his life story like a jigsaw puzzle as we look through old photos and have conversations with his friends.

Our curiosity extended to his laptop but at the same time, we felt uncertain about whether we should look into its contents. The existence of a username and password on a laptop changes the way that you feel about accessing someone’s information contained within, whether they are alive or not. It’s generally considered taboo.

We wouldn’t have thought less of him, regardless of (almost) anything we discovered.  Our concern was though, would he have wanted his family or friends to know what was beyond his screensaver? He was rigorous about changing passwords frequently.

Despite our initial reticence, our solution was to ask an acquaintance who didn’t know him to crack into and look through the laptop’s content, deciphering what he might have wanted to share with family or friends and what he was more likely to want to remain private. That way, conversations, photos, old internet searches, notes and chat via apps such as WhatApp that he may have wanted to stay confidential, remained confidential.

It seemed to be a good compromise.  We could continue to find out more about my brother’s adventures through previewed items such as photos or snapshots of his most recent selections in music and movies via download histories or databases. Meanwhile, we felt he kept his dignity.

I considered it a straightforward process and thought that would be the end of the matter.  That is until over time, more and more belongings were unpacked and we discovered his diaries.

My brother was a meticulous note taker and asides from the occasional lapse, a writer of regular diary entries.  He had notebooks that came back from Afghanistan, his various postings as well as journals from his London work life and school days. As soon as we discovered these, I realised we had assessed his digital memoires very differently from the ones he jotted down on paper.

He wrote several online notes and entries on his laptop, usually in note taking programs or in word documents. Initially I felt that we should avoid or wipe these, perhaps because in my mind they seemed off limits and were less structured. By comparison, it hadn’t occurred to me that we should destroy his penmanship.

The online entries fortunately survived and both laptop and handwritten entries remain mostly unread.  But a conundrum remains.

Currently I’m contemplating whether or not it’s okay to read a person’s private thoughts when they are gone regardless of where they are written.

Diaries are often read and published post-mortem. In an informal poll with friends and family, their response tends to be that it is a question of personal choice whether or not you read the inner thoughts of someone close when they’ve gone.

Not having spoken with him about his views on the matter and in the absence of any last wish guidance, my opinion wavers regularly. However, whatever the outcome, his thoughts from the laptop will have equal weight.

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