A few hours ago, Ruth Murray had sent a message to her late brother Mike. She has texted his number almost every day in the six months since he passed away because it helps her to feel close to him. But as a text pings into her phone, the last thing she expects to see is a message from her “brothaboo.”
Murray comes from Minneapolis, Minnesota. In September 2019 the 36-year-old was still very much grieving for her brother Mike, who had passed away suddenly six months earlier. The pair had been in regular contact when Mike was alive. So Murray was struggling to adjust to life without him.
Murray opened up about Mike’s death in an interview with British news broadcaster the BBC in October 2019. She explained, “My brother Mike overdosed on heroin in March. He had struggled with addiction for 12 years and although he had been clean for three months, he relapsed and passed away aged 37.”
As Murray had discovered, it can be difficult to let someone go after they’ve passed away. As a result, people may try to find ways to still include their lost loved ones in their life. For instance, they may stop by their grave regularly, or even set up some kind of memorial where they can go to pay their respects.
Historically, religion and spirituality has often helped people to feel close to the dead. However, more recently, technology has also started to play a part in how we communicate our feelings on a person’s passing. For instance, people sometimes establish a memorial page on Facebook for their loved one, or continue to message them through social media or texting.
Toronto-based psychotherapist Andrea Warnick spends her time counseling grieving individuals. And she isn’t surprised that people are turning to technology to feel close to their late friends or family members. Warnick told the BBC, “There is a profound human need to stay connected to the dead.”
Speaking of those who find comfort in contacting their dead loved ones, Warnick explained, “Most of the people who engage in this are not expecting a response. It’s just a means of communicating. Many of us don’t have the rituals or traditions that used to be the guiding force in these times.”
So while messaging the dead on social media or by text might seem like a strange notion to some people, it’s not as unusual as you may think. In fact, humans have harnessed technology to help them grieve for hundreds of years. Psychologist Elaine Kasket explained to BBC Scotland, “Whenever any new communication technology emerges, people tend to pull it into service as a way of contacting the dead.”
For instance, in the 19th Century contemporary photography techniques were used to insert “ghosts” into images. Furthermore, the use of “table rapping” in the séances of almost 200 years ago was said to have been inspired by the new technology of the telegraph. So texting dead loved ones can be been as an extension of this kind of tradition.
Kasket explained to BBC Scotland, “It’s a human urge to continue bonds with people we’ve lost. In a way, it’s kind of easier [now] because there’s so much data associated with the dead; and our communications with them live and stay in the tech already, so we can continue to reach out in the same places and spaces and via the same devices.”
With that in mind, Kasket had a reassuring message for those who’d felt the urge to contact the dead using modern technology. She said, “It’s an extremely common phenomenon… So if anybody is feeling odd or weird or judging themselves – or somebody else – for engaging in these practices, they should feel reassured that it’s pretty much a normal phenomenon.”
But while Warnick agreed that it was natural for people to desire a connection with their deceased loved ones, she warned that texting their phones could be risky. After a while, unused numbers are reassigned, and when this happens the psychotherapist told the BBC that it could feel like a second bereavement to those who are already grieving.
However, back in Minneapolis, having Mike’s number given to someone else was presumably the last thing on Murray’s mind when she began texting him following his death in March 2019. When Mike was alive, his sister had been in almost constant contact with him. So it felt normal to her to simply carry on communicating with the number that had been his.
The siblings had enjoyed a strong bond and Murray had nicknamed Mike “brothaboo,” which was the label his number was saved under in her phone. She explained to the BBC, “We were really close and would text every day. He called me ‘Sisterboo.’ If I had a joke to tell him or a memory I wanted to share or I just wanted to reach out to him, I’d message him in the same way as before he died.”
During an interview with BBC Radio 4, Murray explained how messaging Mike had helped her to still feel close to him. Revealing how it all began, she said, “I would find myself kind of picking up my phone to text him after he had passed and telling myself that he wasn’t there. But it just felt normal to still text it.”
And so, in the six months after Mike’s death, Murray continued to contact him as she always had done. She explained, “I had been texting his number almost every day since he passed just to tell him jokes, or something I’d seen during the day that reminded me of him. I just felt like I was still kind of talking to him.”
One day in September 2019 it seems that Murray was feeling particularly down and wanting to communicate with Mike. As a result, she texted her late brother simply saying, “I just MISS YOU so much. God. What the hell.” The message was nothing out of the ordinary, compared to others that the bereaved sibling had sent in the previous six months. But what happened next took her by surprise.
Hours after she sent her latest text to Mike’s old number, her phone buzzed with a message. When she investigated, she was shocked to see that she’d gotten a response from “Brothaboo,” the name she’d assigned to her brother’s number. Murray would later tell Radio 4, “It wasn’t out of the ordinary that I was sending that text, but it was out of the ordinary that someone responded.”
At that moment, Murray realized that Mike’s old number had already been reassigned to another person. She knew that this would happen someday. But given that it had only been a matter of months since her brother died, she felt that things were moving on more quickly than she had anticipated.
With that in mind, when the message from Murray’s brother’s number pinged into her phone’s inbox, she was overcome with emotion. In fact, she was forced to exit the room and find somewhere she felt more comfortable to let her tears flow. After all, she had found comfort in messaging Mike’s number, and she had no idea how the new owner had taken her texts.
As a result, Murray deliberated over reading the stranger’s response to the message meant for her brother’s phone. She later revealed to Radio 4, “It took me a little bit to open it because I wasn’t sure what it was going to be.” But when Ruth finally looked at the reply, it became clear that she needn’t have worried.
That’s because the woman who’d been assigned Mike’s old number was Amber Leinweber. The 32-year-old lived over 400 miles away in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. However, her kindness to Murray in their subsequent messages would bridge the gap between the two women, forging an unlikely friendship.
Revealing her reaction to Murray’s emotional message, Leinweber told Radio 4, “I honestly thought it was someone trying to reach someone else and that person’s number had changed. So I didn’t want that person to keep texting thinking that they were actually reaching out to somebody and being ignored. So I just let them know that, you know, I’m sorry that you’re missing someone, but you got the wrong number.”
After Murray plucked up the courage to read Leinweber’s reply, she was struck by the stranger’s kindness. She explained, “The second I opened it and just saw how kind and empathetic she was, I kind of knew that we had started at least a conversation that would last a while, but it’s certainly turned into a friendship now.”
Murray responded to Leinweber’s message to explain that the number had belonged to her brother before his passing the previous March. She wrote, “I just like to text his number like he could hear me. Sorry.” And that’s when Leinweber decided to reach out to the grieving stranger in her time of need.
In a subsequent text message Leinweber wrote, “Don’t be sorry!! I’m going through a similar thing right now. My cousin, who’s like a sister to me, isn’t doing well and expecting to pass any day now. So I completely understand. Feel free to text anytime you need to. Sending you much love.”
Murray expressed her condolences for what Leinweber was going through with her cousin. But the heartwarming exchange didn’t end there. Leinweber texted Murray to add, “Also feel free to share anything about your brother. Sometimes it helps just remembering the good times. I know we don’t know each other but [I] don’t mind being a sounding board.”
Leinweber’s kind offer clearly touched Murray. So she responded to say, “I really appreciate that. I was dreading the day his number got reassigned. You’re a good human; don’t hesitate to reach out to me as well in the coming weeks and months.” And what’s more, Murray was so moved by Leinweber’s messages, that she decided to share their exchange on news aggregator website reddit.
Murray’s post seemed to strike a chord on reddit. Before long, the screenshots of her messages to and from Leinweber had attracted over 80,000 upvotes and more than 860 comments. Furthermore, many of the people who left messages on the site could relate with Murray’s desire to keep some kind of contact with her late brother’s number.
One person with whom Murray and Leinweber’s dialogue seemed to resonate was Camille Sharrow-Blaum from Michigan. On reddit, she revealed how she’d lost her friend Jenny to cancer a year ago. However, Sharrow-Blaum had continued to text her number, just as she had done while she was still alive.
What’s more, Sharrow-Blaum revealed that she wasn’t the only one who took comfort in texting Jenny’s number. She explained, “Her husband keeps paying for her cell phone and number so that we can all text it. He keeps it charging in a drawer and never looks at the messages, but he knows there are five of us in a group chat and we can’t bear to start a new one without her.”
When contacted by the BBC for a comment on Murray and Leinweber’s story, Sharrow-Blaum explained that Jenny still felt like part of her friendship group while they could still contact her phone. She said, “It just feels right for our conversations to continue with her in the group chat – it makes it feel like a direct line to Jenny. It helps us remember her, no matter how long she’s been gone.”
Jaclyn Schwartz also decided to keep paying for her late husband Jason’s phone after he lost his life to multiple organ failure in 2017. Using his old device, she can sift through photos that he had taken and conversations he’d had will friends and family. She told the BBC, “It makes him seem not so far away when I really miss him.”
Schwartz continued, “It’s something that was such an ordinary part of his day, using that phone. And when you lose someone the little things can disappear so fast with time. How his hair smelled, or the way he walked a little wonky in flip-flops, or the way he drove me crazy by never deleting any emails, even junk mail. I don’t want to lose the small things. I’m in no rush to shut it off.”
Another reddit user, Jessica Allen, from Ontario, revealed, “We buried my brother with his phone, so that we could text him. My parents paid for it for a few months then stopped. Eventually a year later someone got the number.” She later told the BBC that losing that link to her brother had been tough to take.
However, it seems that Murray had a more positive experience when Mike’s phone number was reassigned. In fact, in Leinweber, the grieving sister found a person upon which she could lean. About a month after Leinweber contacted her, Murray told Radio 4, “We’ve been in pretty constant contact since this happened.”
Furthermore, in a strange twist of fate, Murray and Leinweber discovered they had a weird link to one another, through Mike himself. Murray explained, “We’ve connected on a few things. We’ve talked about each other’s families… her brother used to play poker online with my brother. So we’ve come across some connections that are really, really cool.”
And somehow, through her new acquaintance, Murray felt closer to Mike. She said, “I still haven’t changed his name in my phone, even though I know it’s Amber. I almost feel like he’s… speaking through her, keeping a little bit of him alive. You know, I knew his number would get reassigned someday, but I didn’t expect it to go like this.”
As for Leinweber, she believes that the universe had a part in bringing her and Murray together at what turned out to be a tough time for both of them. She told the BBC, “I truly believe I was supposed to get that number. It’s more than a coincidence that I was given it. The more we talked over messages, the more we realized we had so much in common.”
So it seems that Murray and Leinweber’s friendship is just starting to blossom. On Radio 4 the 36-year-old explained, “I’ve thought about asking Amber for her actual number, because I think that this is her work number that I’ve been texting… and actually saving her name in my phone. We have talked about meeting up within the next six months or so. So that is our next stop.”