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I Used TikTok and Snapchat to See My Deceased Parents Again
September 13, 2023

I Used TikTok and Snapchat to See My Deceased Parents Again

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It felt weird, but it helped me process my grief.

Everyone else was doing it. Experts had praised how real it looked. Kylie Jenner had tried it out. (She didn’t like it, though.) I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

So, one day, while sitting on the toilet (where we all like to scroll), I opened TikTok and tried the ‘Aged’ filter, wondering if the virtual old-lady version of my face would give me credit for my meticulous sunscreen habits.

As I angled the screen up, I was surprised to see my late father staring back at me. The filter had turned me into the spitting image of him (but with my long hair now colored gray instead of dark brown). I saw Dad’s familiar dimples, his under-eye bags, the texture of his skin. Without thinking, I smiled so I could see his smile.

Then I let out something of a yelp, a particular sound familiar to anyone who has lost a loved one or witnessed someone else getting the worst news of their life. I felt a mix of comfort and bitterness and longing and the approximately 1 million other feelings that go along with grief. I set my phone down on the sink and put my head in my hands to cry and laugh at the ridiculousness of what had just happened, with my jeans still around my ankles.

Over the next few days, I looked at the ghost mirror again and again. I loved seeing my dad’s reflection as my face, and at the same time, I hated it. The filter felt real enough that I got comfort from it, yet ephemeral enough to be devastating when my brain snapped back to remind me that Dad was not actually here. But for that little dopamine hit of seeing him ‘alive’ again? It was worth it every time.

It was a secret ritual that I didn’t tell anyone about. I felt shame, as if this were a particularly weird thing for me to be doing. But this wasn’t my first rodeo.

Back in 2016, Snapchat introduced ‘Face Swap.’ At first, the filter switched the faces of two people sitting next to each other—two people who were alive. But after the feature added the ability to upload a static image of someone for you to virtually wear as a sort of mask, the first thing I wanted to do was try on my dead mother’s face. (If you’re keeping score at home: Yes, both of my parents were dead by the time I was 30—my mother when I was a child, and my father about three years ago.)

I thought to myself, Wow, that’s a really weird thing to want to do. I did it anyway.

Gazing into my mom’s blue eyes instead of my own brown ones, I noticed how similar our eyebrows were, and how, except for our noses, our faces perfectly aligned in shape. (I decided I probably had my father’s nose—to be confirmed later by TikTok.) I couldn’t stop. I had to take in every possible angle of Mom’s face moving around as a virtually projected part of me.

So, when I realized the other day that the new TikTok ‘Aged’ filter worked on still photos too, I knew what I needed to do. I had moved on from staring at Dad’s face as my face—it was time to take it a step further.

On the 21st anniversary of her death, I used the ‘Aged’ filter on a handful of photos of my mother to see what she would have looked like if she’d had the chance to grow old. It was frighteningly realistic—2016 ‘Face Swap’ feels almost rudimentary compared to what A.I. can do now. It gutted me to see how much my mom looked like her parents, who each lived well into their 80s and 90s. TikTok gave me a glimpse at an alternate reality that, of course, I took screenshots of. I wanted to hold on to those images, and I even thought about whether I’d frame one and keep it next to a photo of my dad—but I decided that that would be way too weird.

All along, I’ve felt an underlying sense that it’s wrong to use technology in this way, even though it brings me some comfort—that I am actually so much weirder about these things than everyone else. But is what I’m doing really that strange? Why is wearing my mother’s old clothing and her old jewelry OK, for example, but wearing her face virtually is not?

Too often we assume we should hide our grief because it doesn’t feel socially acceptable or palatable. But what if we all collectively decided to embrace our grief, even at its weirdest? Maybe social media and technology can give us a chance to finally process our grief, unfiltered.


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