When a loved one dies, dealing with paperwork can add to the pain of grief. But what happens to a person's digital legacy? How do you wind up a dead person’s digital affairs? Will a surviving spouse have automatic access to their email and social media accounts? If not, who do you turn to for advice? Putting his spouse’s online life to rest has been a frustrating and lonely process, as caller Philip Quigley told Joe Duffy on Liveline.

Philip's wife died tragically in 2019. There was a coroner's inquest following her death, due to the fact that she had taken her own life, he says. This meant a longer than normal wait for the full version of the death certificate to be issued. Philip was working his way through the tasks that had to be completed and he wanted to close his late wife’s Google account, as he explained to Joe:

"She died on the 8th of July 2019 and in September, I sent off a copy of the temporary death certificate, an interim death certificate from the coroner, a copy of our marriage cert and a copy of my passport to Google to close my wife’s account. I got an automated reply stating they were unable to authenticate my documentation and therefore wouldn’t be closing the account."

Philip says he was at a loss to know what to do with the automated rejection, and his grief made it all the more difficult:

"I didn’t know what to do. I suppose I should have pursued it online, but at that particular time I was up in the air."

Philip says the process was emotionally draining :

"You’re trying to close off things that remind you and bring back memories."

Covid was an added complication, as the physical isolation of lockdown came only months after his wife’s passing. In November 2020, Philip submitted the documentation to Google online again, requesting that his wife’s account be closed. The response was exactly the same, that the documents offered could not be authenticated. He decided to gather up the documentation and bring it in person to the Google office in Dublin. Philip was taken aback by what he sees as the lack of in-person service at Google HQ for something so sensitive. Philip described the exchange he had with a staff member in the company’s office in Dublin:

"I explained I wanted to close off my wife’s account. 'Oh, we don’t deal with that here.’ I said, well, can you give me a number, even? You can’t even get a number to ring."

At that point, Philip had already tried the online approach and been rebuffed by automated replies. His frustration was compounded by grief and by having nowhere to turn, he says:

"When you’re going through this process, as you say, it’s a very sensitive and it’s a very … it’s a hurting process, you know? It’ just like getting rid of, moving your wife’s clothes from the wardrobe, it’s the same kind of experience."

A month later, he says he contacted Google for a third time, and this time, he was asked to submit the final version of the State death certificate. It took Philip around 3 months to get new copies of this official document as already used any copies he had for carrying out other essential tasks. Finally, he says the company agreed to his request:

"I then submitted that death certificate and lo and behold, they came back and said, ‘Yes, we will now close the account.’ We’re nearly 3 years after the death and it’s 2 and a half years since I started the process, and I believe I’m not the only one that this has happened to."

Closing his late wife’s Facebook account was relatively easy, Philip says. She had an Instagram account, which he intends to close soon, but he is taking it slowly, step by step with the grieving process:

"She had an Instagram account. I still haven’t gone back in, I just looked at it the other day to see what I have to do. It just opens up wounds that you’re trying to heal."

Almost 3 years on from the loss of his wife, Philip says that he has found some coping strategies that have helped him through both grief and Covid lockdowns simultaneously:

"I do mindfulness and meditation and I read quite a bit around coping with life’s events. But largely I walk my way through it."

Philip says that the state services were more compassionate and that has made all the difference. He praised the emergency services and the Gardaí for their approach, which he says contrasts with the corporate way of doing things:

"The local Gardaí called out afterwards with documentation about groups and how to cope; the personal touch was absolutely fantastic. Unfortunately, that’s what’s missing with these big corporate entities. You know, they’re dealing with huge numbers and it’s not always possible, but I think they have to start addressing that somehow."

Philip also talks about dealing with other issues like dealing with Revenue and mobile phone accounts, following the death of his wife in the full segment on Liveline; listen back here.

If you are personally affected by anything that came up in Joe’s chat with Philip, helpline information is available here.

You can contact Samaritans for free on 116123 any time 24/7.