How it Feels to Vlog Your Wife’s Death
For Tom Mills, losing his wife Andrea was devastating. His YouTube audience helped him through the process
Moments after his wife of 20 years passed away in a hospice close to the Wyoming home where she raised nine children, Tom Mills turned on his camera and started a YouTube live stream. “Andrea’s passed away,” Mills said before panning the camera around his grieving family and thanking his viewers for their prayers. The two-minute video ends with a two-second shot of Andrea’s body lying peacefully on a hospital bed.
Andrea Mills started her YouTube channel in October 2014 as a place to document life as a religious family of 11. She shared organisational tips, vlogs of her home-schooling schedule, and even the home-births of many of her children. Before she passed away from cancer and complications from a miscarriage on August 19 2019, Andrea had gained 50,000 loyal subscribers. “The people that she touched, they were not YouTube fans,” says Tom Mills now. “They were people that knew our names, that send my kids individual birthday cards, all nine of them, for all their birthdays.”
Andrea’s sickness and passing was sudden and shocking. Through tears, 43-year-old Mills recounts how his wife spent days lying in bed in pain before doctors said her gallbladder needed to be removed just months before her death. The gallbladder surgery revealed that Andrea’s liver was “bumpy”, and doctors flew her down to Denver to see a specialist who found cancer cells in her body. In Denver, Andrea miscarried the couple’s tenth child while awaiting further tests — shortly after, a doctor told the family she didn’t have long to live. Andrea chose to return home to a nearby hospice to die.
“They’re grieving her as much as I’m grieving her.”
When Andrea first became sick, videos on The Mills Family channel became less frequent. “Everybody was worried, everybody was very upset and concerned, and wanted to know badly what was going on,” Mills says of Andrea’s viewers. In response, he went to Walmart and purchased a laptop so he could update viewers while in the hospital. “I don’t want to say it’s a responsibility, but it sort of is,” Mills says. The family gained 20,000 subscribers throughout Andrea’s brief sickness, and have 72,000 subscribers today.
In a playlist of 15 videos entitled “The Passing of Andrea Mills”, you can now watch Mills’ live streams from 16 to 19 August — in them, he tearfully talks of medical testing, reveals Andrea miscarried, and films his wife waving as she is placed into an ambulance. Many might automatically see this as dystopian, a sign of the times, or an example of online content going too far. Yet Mills argues that this criticism is misguided.
“Death is sanitised in our culture,” he says over the phone from his family home. “Whenever somebody dies, people rush in with a white sheet and cover their face and close their eyes and rush the body away. If somebody dies in front of you now, you need to have counselling because it’s so not part of our life. And yet it’s the only one destiny everybody on earth shares.”
Mills says he felt both obligated and willing to share the last moments of Andrea’s life. He says it felt “cruel” not to update the channel’s followers and that many were grateful when the live streams offered closure. “People were really thankful that they could see her too because they were grieving for her,” he says, explaining that many were happy to see Andrea’s body so they could view her at peace, not in pain. “People were telling me that they were crying all day, and they can’t sleep and they can’t eat. They were every bit as broken up as I was, and it was actually really cruel to not include them… I don’t understand how people who’ve never really met us could be so sad. They’re grieving her as much as I’m grieving her.”
Mills adds that Andrea consented to being filmed throughout her sickness. “We’d already talked about it: that as much as we had births on our channel, we wanted to have her death on there too, because this is what life is really about. We’re not just doing a vlog, it’s literally our life in pictures.”
The Mills are not the first family vloggers to deal with death. In 2015, 13-year-old Caleb LeBlanc, the eldest child of family vloggers the Bratayleys, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Forums were flooded with negative comments erroneously calling the boy’s death “mysterious” while others criticised the family’s decision to live stream the memorial service. Nonetheless, the family continue to film and now have over 7.3 million subscribers. More recently, the mother of vlogger Roman Atwood passed away after a scooter accident in May 2019; Atwood returned to social media month later and posted a video entitled “I miss her so much.” which was viewed four million times.
The parasocial relationships between online creators and fans mean many of the latter feel entitled to share in the darkest moments of YouTubers’ lives. After sharing births and birthdays, many feel they should be allowed to witness a family’s grief. Mills doesn’t mind this too much (although was shocked that women tried to message him in a romantic manner very soon after Andrea’s passing). In general, he feels it’s therapeutic to share grief with his fans in the grieving vlogs he calls “Glogs”.
“I don’t have anybody else to talk to, Andrea was the one person I had talked to,” Mills says. “And so now I have 70,000 people to talk to, and I’ll be live there and there’s like 1,600 people all talking to me, and it just helps.” Mills says commenters share their own personal stories with him during live streams, writing to him about their own family members passing. “I got a bajillion comments saying ‘It’s helping me’.”
“We’re not just doing a vlog, it’s literally our life in pictures.”
Yet for every positive comment, there is a negative one. Mills screens all the channel’s comments, meaning he has to approve them before they appear under the videos. He deletes negative messages but he still sees them, and is also aware of negativity on gossip forums.
“I got voicemails on this line — I don’t know how they found it, they must’ve done homework,” he says. “I got voicemails telling me I’m a terrible man, I’m a terrible father, I gotta take my sick wife off of there, and you’re the worst disgusting human being… We got comments all over the place, messages on Facebook, and trolls. There was a lot of people really upset.”
The Mills family are no strangers to controversy — they have previously been criticised because the family all dress in the same colour, and the Bible plays over speakers in every room in their house. In the past, Andrea has also shared conspiracy theories and talked about alternative herbal medicines. Mills says the first video that propelled his wife to viral stardom was about how the family fit five sons in one bedroom, which caused controversy. “A viral thing is something people love and love to hate,” Mills says.
Hate comments have not discouraged Mills from his decision to carry on with the family vlogs. “Every single person doesn’t really think they’re going to die. It’s really sad,” he says. “I think that’s what it comes down to: death is so sanitised, it’s so negativized, that people just absolutely can’t believe it that I would do that… If death is so far removed from them, it just seems offensive to them… Other people, who’ve been through death, I think are more understanding.”
Though the channel was never monetised while Andrea was alive, it has been since she passed, while the family have also raised an additional $70,000 on GoFundMe to pay for medical bills. Samaritan Ministries — an insurance-like company the family paid monthly money to — is likely to reimburse the money spent on bills, so Mills plans to spend this on a home and yard expansion Andrea had mapped out on a piece of paper before her passing.
“I have a full time business and we also full time home-school our nine kids, and now I’m the dad and the mom,” says Mills, who runs a computer repair company. “It’s been very hard and I’m starting to work less so I’m home extra days a week now to help the kids. Mainly the motivation is being able to have a little more income so I can stay home and not have to worry about not making money while I’m doing that.”
Beyond the therapy offered by sharing grief with fans, Mills says he continues to vlog to create a legacy for his grandchildren. “After we’re dead, we’ll still be able to affect our grandkids, we’ll tell them and teach them things.” He hopes the family will re-watch old vlogs of Andrea as they grow. “Especially the young ones, we have a baby, 18 months, and she misses her mommy really bad. She’s never gonna know her, but she will with the YouTube videos — she’ll be able to know everything she believes and everything she wanted to be.” At Andrea’s funeral, the family played one of her vlogs in which — after her own mother’s passing — she talked about how to cope with grief. “It was awesome because she was telling us how to handle death of a loved one.”
Despite Mills’ personal reasons for continuing to run the channel, it is unlikely criticism will cease. Some commenters are merely trolls, and some make insensitive comments about unsubscribing because Mills’ editing is different from Andrea’s, but others are genuinely concerned about the most appropriate and healthy way for a family to grieve. Mills says if he’s having “a particularly bad day” or feels “really alone” he doesn’t vlog, and thus grieves in private as well as public. His young children arguably have less of a say in how their family is shared with the world, but this is the case with most family vloggers, regardless of personal tragedy. “We started doing our family game night [on YouTube] live also, and people really get to see the kids because there are a lot of people sure the kids are all devastated, and it’s nice to see them having fun and laughing and enjoying themselves,” Mills says.
For the foreseeable future, Tom is going to carry on with the channel. “Andrea would always say: ‘We’re growing God’s kingdom, one heart at a time.’ That’s in our channel intro and it was meant to refer to our kids and how we were growing God’s kingdom by just having more kids. Now it’s growing God’s Kingdom with hearts in YouTube-land.”