Grieving With Google Street View

After a recent Twitter thread, thousands of people shared stories of finding deceased friends and family members on Google Street View.

A pixelated screenshot of a Google Street View capture, of a street and sidewalk with a person walking next to some trees
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by gbh007/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

My hometown is three time zones and at least two flights away, so I don’t make it back as much as I’d like to. Whenever I’m feeling a bit homesick, I open Google Maps. In the bottom right corner, there’s a tiny yellow stick-person icon, and when I drop it onto the neighborhood where I grew up, it shows me the photos Google’s Street View car captured when it drove through in 2014 and 2015. After a quick peek at my parents’ lawn tchotchkes, I can click my way toward my old haunts: friends’ houses, restaurants, my high school, the church basement where my friends used to play pop-punk shows. Sometimes I see a car I recognize, or if Google has assigned a car to drive through more than once, I can watch how a tree grew over the past decade.

I used to think that using Street View in this way was my little secret, but I’m far from the only sentimental person who travels through time and space using Google. One Twitter user recently posted that her family never got to say goodbye to her grandpa when he died a few years ago, but when she visited her grandpa’s farm through Street View, there he was, sitting at the end of the road. Thousands of people responded, many with their own stories of finding old Street View shots of their dearly departed grandmas reclining in their front yards or their grandpas getting into their trucks.

Those who participated in the Twitter thread are just the latest people to share their serendipitous Street View experiences. Five years ago, Matthew J.X. Malady wrote about discovering how Street View captured his since-deceased mother walking to her front door, groceries in hand. In the New Yorker, he describes the strange confluence of emotions he felt: “joy,” “deep, deep sadness,” “heartbreak and hurt, curiosity and wonder, and everything, seemingly, in between.” When I spoke to him recently, Malady said he isn’t religious but seeing his mother was a spiritual moment for him. “It was almost as if I could be like, ‘Mom, if you’re around, make the light switch on and off,’ ” he told me. “When this kind of thing happens to you, you’re like: ‘This is a fucking miracle. This was meant to happen.’ ”

And who among us has not thought of a strange coincidence as conveying meaning? Just the other day, I had a dream about an old friend I hadn’t talked to in years, and woke up to an email from him. I knew it was impossible that we’d made some psychic connection, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was some force that could explain both mundane events. It’s all a trick of the mind; there have been plenty of times I’ve dreamt about a friend without receiving an email from them the next day, yet I ascribe no meaning to those instances. The human brain is primed to find patterns and connections between things, and mine invented a link between that dream and that email. Plus, personality traits like having a high need for control (hello!) or being prone to magical thinking are associated with a greater propensity for reading into coincidences, and there’s also evidence that people are generally more likely to do this if they’re feeling an extreme emotion, like sadness and anxiety or great happiness.

And it’s true that seeing someone you know on Street View is extremely unlikely. Most of the world has only been mapped by Google once, if at all, since Street View was introduced in 2007. Quickly developing urban areas tend to see more updates: University Street by Stanford, a few miles from Google’s California headquarters, has had 16 updates, whereas Beaverlick, Kentucky, has only been visited by a Street View car once, in May 2018. There’s an infinitesimally small chance that someone you loved was at the exact right spot at the very moment someone drove by in a Street View car and snapped a photo. “If you’re really close to someone, you have a sense that you’re mostly aware of all the images that exist of that person,” Malady says, so it can be a strange sensation to discover that a stranger in a camera car created an image that has existed for weeks or years without your knowledge, one viewable by anyone with an internet connection. I swapped some messages with Twitter user @sanitykillsx, who saw her late grandpa sitting in front of his house the one time the Google Street View car came through the town of Las Aguilillas in Jalisco, Mexico, in September 2013. “It’s amazing to see him again and again on there and to share it with my family,” she told me. “Like it’s something funny to see him where everyone else can without other people knowing who he is. That’s the beauty of it.”

As Google visits and revisits neighborhoods, these strange coincidences will only become more likely. (Street View keeps a list of its upcoming destinations, if you’re curious whether it might capture someone you know and love.) When Malady wrote about seeing his mom on Street View in 2015, he, too, thought he was the only one who visited his old neighborhood through Google Maps, but he was surprised at the number of readers who wrote to him following the publication of his piece saying they had also encountered a loved one while virtually strolling their hometowns. Now, people might even make these discoveries before the loved ones pass, making Street View a way to return to the way things were. Thomas Wayman first saw a photo of his two dogs playing in a park near his home in Conway, South Carolina, about four years ago; since then, they’ve both died, and he says he’s often gone back to visit the scene. “Ever since they passed, I cry every time I see it,” he told me. According to Wayman, the initial photo was captured in 2012 and hasn’t been updated by Google.

But as places get updated, those coincidences could also be replaced by newer photos. (Luckily, Google keeps all previous shots—before Malady knew this, he took screenshots of his mom.) That hasn’t happened to anyone I spoke with, but I know I would read into the replacement of my loved one’s photo as another kind of “sign,” accompanied by a new wave of emotions and reflection. What does it mean if the internet has written over your cherished old memories?

I asked Malady whether he’s gone back and looked to see his mom’s still there, and he said while he’s looked at his Street View screenshots, he actually hasn’t looked on Google Maps for her. “Knowing myself and how I think, I really believe that I haven’t gone back and looked to see if they’ve been updated because I don’t want to envision another image being in its place,” he says. “It’s not just random that I haven’t done it.”

While talking with Malady, I suddenly remembered a Street View location I’ve been not-so-randomly avoiding checking on. It’s not a loved one, per se, but a place that was dear to me that I know no longer exists. Years ago, I lived in suburban California, next to a small farm run by a friendly man we called Papa Ramirez. In the spring, he’d invite our dog to tear through his cornfields to scare away crows; in the summers, I’d admire his hulking sunflowers and buy boxes of fresh tomatoes on my way home from work. After I moved away, I heard developers bought the land and were planning to build a 670-unit condo complex. I was back in the area last year but refused to drive past the old farm. I figured that as long as I never saw those awful condos, the farm still lived on, if only in my mind.

Curiosity got the best of me, and I clicked over to the farm, now a mess of orange cones and “video surveillance” signage surrounding the construction zone. But Google’s photos from 2011 show the farm I loved: its handwritten signs, a couple approaching the farm stand, someone working in the rows by the front, where they grew carrots. I am at once grateful to Google for the memories as well as amused that the company contributed to the demise of this farm in a distant-but-not-insignificant way: As more tech workers flood the Bay Area, people are now looking at my old neighborhood as a reasonable balance between commute distance and housing prices.

Malady, too, has his reservations about the tech giant, but says that Street View has been a force of positivity for him. “This is something in my life that has really made my life appreciably better and more interesting,” he says, even as it’s brought up tough feelings after his mother’s passing. “I wouldn’t trade that for anything, and I’m super happy that all these other people are getting to have that experience.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.