He Died the Second Time

When a friend delivered the brown cardboard banker’s box from the Vancouver Police  evidence warehouse my reflex was to tear the lid off and see if my son was inside. Or rather – –  what of my son was inside. There must be something in that box to explain it all. 

Summer light spilled in the kitchen window and I was searching for ways to make his sudden death untrue. I flipped open the lid and saw the box was filled with several sizes of brown paper bags and envelopes. There were intricate labels on all of these items. Rows of stickers like the ones on prescription bottles. I ran my hand over the bags and envelopes and my chest contracted. passport – one of the labels said. bank card. work-boots. socks.   

“Are you sure you want to do that now?” My husband asked.  What is the appropriate  action to take when the last personal effects of your son arrive on your kitchen table? Our eyes met across the box, “I mean, maybe you could just think about it for a while.” He knew better than anyone that I had the resilience of damp tissue paper.  I nodded. He gently closed the box, tugged it from my reluctant hands and took it down to the basement where he placed it on a high shelf in the storage room with the camping gear and Christmas decorations.

About three months later, on a rare day I was alone in the house, I crept down to the storage room and reached for the brown box on the shelf. I sat on the cold cement floor with the box between my knees and opened the lid. There were the brown paper bags and the familiar printed labels: t-shirt blue. backpack black. work gloves. samsung phone.

I snatched the envelope containing the phone, slammed the lid on the box and ran up the stairs before the earthy smell of my son’s work-shirt could dilute my resolve.

Upstairs I slid the phone out onto the counter and saw the screen was cracked but not shattered. I saw Holden’s finger prints smudged all over it. Very likely the last thing his hands had touched.

After a lot of deep breathing I pressed the power button and the phone vibrated, chimed and easily buzzed to life.

What to do now? I wanted to see him, so I instinctively tapped the photos icon. The last picture he had taken was of a poster for a heavy metal show at Pat’s Pub on Hastings Street July 3, a day he would not live to see. But the one before that was of a forested trail, blackberries, salal, ivy and dappling light. The one before that showed he had been up on a hillside, looking out over the ocean with islands in the distance, the sky a brilliant blue, the next a warm grassy road, forgotten by cars, I could feel the warmth of summer now faded. The next few pictures showed a diminishing sunset from the beach, glorious oranges letting go to yellow and the blue grey of the pacific. The experience of looking at these photos was transformative, I could be where he had been, see what he had seen, get some sense of his mood, these photographs were light, beautiful and calm.

Look, there is the arc of the highway overpass and the rushing Capilano River. He was close to our house, he was almost home. Knowing he had been surrounded by the beauty of nature was comforting. The next picture was a blurry photo of his face surrounded by leaves and sunlight. His last selfie. I began sending these photos to myself. My own phone came alive on the counter ding, ding, ding, messages coming in from Holden, Holden, Holden. It’s him, he’s alive, wait, there has been a mistake. Wait.

A few days later I launched the familiar blue Facebook app on his phone. I had looked at his page from my own computer to read the messages of condolence from his friends but I had never thought to open his profile and read his private messages. Like many kids who don’t pay their phone bills Holden used Messenger to communicate.

This, I thought, will fill in the blank space, the unaccounted for hours leading to his death, I’ll be able to tell who he was with, what his frame of mind was, who he spoke with, where he went. I will at least know some of what happened. 

The app opened, his page came into view, I clicked on the messenger icon and blurry words began sharpening into focus. Anticipation and hope rose in me, a helium balloon in my chest, I sat a little taller. I could find my son here. This would explain things.

Then entire screen faded to blackness and lettering appeared saying something like: ‘This account has been memorialized. No further access will be permitted.’

I was being strangled. He was dissolving into vapour, again. My son had been dead for three months and I was forced to watch another part of him die. His last communications would not be mine to see.

I emailed Facebook explaining the situation, pleading for help. The next day I received a automated reply saying that my son’s account had been memorialized on the instruction of a friend or family member and could under no circumstances be reverted back to it’s active state, nor would they, under any circumstances provide any additional details. This, they declared, was in order to keep the account secure.

I hadn’t given them permission, nobody is our family had, none of his friends had. Could there be some kind of automated algorithm that triggers the slamming of the gate? Too many RIP’s posted or too many key words of condolence?  I have heard from others in similar situations, grieving parents with mysteries to solve, who have experienced a similar sudden cutting of the rope.

I consulted a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property. After some research she advised that: ‘there is no point in trying to fight Facebook. There is not enough money in the world for that.’ So I gave up and added one more cruel devastation to the long list of other devastations we had already and would continue to suffer.

Down in that storage room in the basement I have my son’s books, his personal sketches, his report cards, his teapot and his high school diploma. I have his music collection  and his underwear. I have his private emails and text messages but I have no knowledge of my son’s last few hours. Not because Facebook can’t provide this closure for me, because they refuse to.

Facebook now has a provision for users to appoint a legacy contact which would allow access after death, but what 21 year old man thinks he’s going to die?

So, there remains a blank section in time, an area just out of reach that does exist, but not for me. Words that could perhaps deliver a greater acceptance will never be mine.  And knowing that, keeps me forever at arms length from peace.

** This Essay is broadcast on The CBC Sunday Edition with Michael Enright, Sunday June 17, 2018.  Here is the link to the audio and the show’s website.**

***If any lawyers reading this story are interested in taking it on I am very interested in speaking with you.  Thanks.***


  1. Leslie

    Powerful Tara. I held my breath the whole read and then read it again. Keep writing please!

  2. Cat

    Heartbreaking , important story, beautifully written.

  3. Ange Frymire Fleming

    Such poignant expression, Tara. My heart weeps for what you’ve endured. warmest thoughts to you.

  4. Debra Dickson

    Tara… I have a 24y old son. This is a soulful, heart wrenching, agononizing, painful read.
    I have not been where you are and so it would be wrong to say that I understand…
    I don’t think that true understanding, with the depths of mental, emotional and physical anguish that you are feeling, is possible by someone who has not felt the premature loss of a beloved child.
    I do however feel deep sympathy and empathy for your loss.
    My wish for you is that at some point you will begin to feel the peace, joy, serenity that your son felt in those last pictures, with the sunlight streaming through those forest trees, and you can at last, be one with him.
    My heartfelt sympathy,
    Deb Dickson, Edmonton, AB

  5. Sandy

    This was a poignant and touching essay, Tara. As always, you wrote beautifully and from your heart. It is a story that truly needs to be heard and shared.
    I also listened to your eloquent reading on the CBC broadcast, which moved me deeply.

  6. Lisa Letwin

    Wow Tara your writing is so amazing. I felt I was right there with you!! Thank you for your courage.❤️❤️

  7. Jennifer Brum

    So heartbreaking and so beautifully written. Your struggle with Facebook is beyond words. I’m so sorry. Sending you love,


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