'Somebody answered my dead brother's number'

By Dhruti Shah
BBC News, Washington DC

  • Published
Ruth and her brother Mike MurrayImage source, Danielle Dummer
Image caption,
Ruth and her brother Mike Murray

When a loved one dies, it is often hard to let go and many people try to maintain a connection any way they can. For some, it can be by visiting a grave, posting on a Facebook memorial page or even texting them.

For six months, Ruth Murray had been finding comfort in text messaging the phone number belonging to her brother Mike - it was a way of staying close to him after he died suddenly.

The 36-year-old from Minneapolis never expected a response but it was just her way of staying connected to her older sibling.

So in late September, when her phone buzzed with a message from the number she had for years labelled "brothaboo", her stomach dropped.

She had texted him just hours previously saying: "I just miss you so much. God. What the hell".

But the stranger - Amber Leinweber, 32, of Oshkosh, Wisconsin - has turned out to be a godsend for grieving Ruth.

When Amber found out what Ruth was going through, she told her to "text anytime you need to", adding: "I know we don't know each other, but [I] don't mind being a sounding board."

She had, by coincidence, been assigned Mike's old number when her bosses gave her a work phone, and had at first thought that the texts she kept receiving were for a lost phone.

Ruth said: "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.

"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."

She said she never expected his number to be reassigned so quickly and when Amber first messaged, Ruth had to leave the room she was in and find somewhere to cry.

Image source, Amber Leinweber
Image caption,
Amber Leinweber is astonished by the attention her kindness has received

However, when Ruth posted the exchange on Reddit, she was shocked by how much it resonated, with more than 80,000 upvotes and 800 comments. People from all over the world admitted to how they too would contact their loved ones via text, Snapchat, Facebook and more.

Camille Sharrow-Blaum from Michigan was among those who responded. She posted that her friend Jenny had died from cancer last year aged 27 but despite this Camille's network continued to reach out to her.

"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."

She told the BBC the group still felt Jenny was a key part of their lives and they wanted to share milestones with her, adding: "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."

'Small things'

Jaclyn Schwartz from Texas also continued to pay for her husband Jason's phone line following his death from multiple organ failure in 2017. It allows her to text him, see the images he took and the conversations he has with people.

"It makes him seem not so far away when I really miss him," she said.

"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."

Image source, Jaclyn Schwartz
Image caption,
Jaclyn Schwartz and her late husband Jason

And Jessica Allen, of London, Ontario, told Redditors: "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."

Jessica told the BBC her brother Brad killed himself aged 18 in 2007. She said it had been important to the family to maintain that connection through the phone. When the number was reassigned, Jessica admits it was difficult as it marked another loss.

Andrea Warnick is a psychotherapist in Toronto specialising in grief counselling. She is unsurprised by the need for people to stay in touch with deceased friends and families through their phones and social media: "There is a profound human need to stay connected to the dead."

She said that historically this would be where religious and spiritual institutions would step in and offer rituals.

"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."

She says it was perfectly healthy to want to stay in touch however, when the numbers were reassigned by third parties, there was a risk of it feeling like an additional death. She added it was important for those grieving to make room for death in their lives.

Ruth says she felt comforted by the reaction and she wanted to meet Amber to thank her in person, especially after discovering this one-time stranger's husband once played in the same poker circles as her brother.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mourners have traditionally turned to spirituality to contact the dead, says Prof Andrea Warnick

Amber, 32, said: "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 realised we had so much in common.

She is a little puzzled why it "blew up" on Reddit like it did.

"When did being a compassionate human being become something exceptional?

"It didn't cost me anything to respond. People get hung up on trying to say the right thing in these types of situations but sometimes people just need to be able to vent or say what they need and move on.

"They don't need advice on how to grieve. They just need space. It takes nothing to lend your ear."