Design on My Mind

Psychology as design tool.

Mourning Dawns Online: Creating Virtual Space for Grief

Let's pioneer creative ways to grieve and heal online.

How do we talk to our children and to one another about the horrific mass shootings that now seem part of our daily dread? Bloody nightmares streaming through TV/other media haunt us, yet mass media - - especially the Internet, also can help us mourn. I’m not a grief counselor but I know the importance of sharing and expressing grief in real life or . . . virtually.

Forty years ago when my father was slowly dying of heart disease, the “grief rules” (1) demanded that we all pretend not to know there was anything wrong. Instead, we sat in the den watching TV, acting “normal.” At fourteen, however, I was old enough to realize that there was an elephant in the room. Since no one was talking with me (or with my father, for that matter) about “the secret,” I wondered, “Am I just imagining, fearing that he is going to die?” “If I talk with anyone about this, will that make my worst fear come true?”

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After his funeral and the usual condolences, my teenage friends and family felt reluctant to bring up my loss and thereby upset me. I realize now that this lack of acknowledgement resulted in not only a kind of “disenfranchised grief.”(2), but a self-disenfranchised grief (3) since I, myself, resolved to keep quiet and remain “strong” rather than recognize the depth of my relationship with my dad and the significance of my loss. (4) The result? Only recently have I begun to unlock the fear of loss that has plagued me for years.

No longer do we need to be strong, silent “closet mourners.” New attitudes encourage us to openly seek support from grief counselors, family and friends. Furthermore (this instant) via our computer-ready fingertips, information and “virtual hugs” are Internet-accessible for the bereaved: Google-in “grief counseling for children tips,” for example. Up comes: http://www.dougy.org/grief-resources/how-to-help-a-grieving-child/ and other helpful sites.

One recently-published book, Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe (5) provides a welcome and fascinating tour through such virtual space for counselors and educators. In its chapter, “The Net Generation: The Special Case of Youth,” for instance, the author discusses the appeal of “e-grieving” for teenagers. (6) Research suggests that “because this generation has been reared on technology, . . . it seems only logical that teenagers turn to cyberspace during times of grief, sometimes immediately following the news of a tragedy. . .” Among other things, cyberspace offers youth a private space at home (7) where they can ‘sit’ in a virtual living room and express their sadness.

The Internet likewise offers an opportunity for creative, participatory expression for both younger and older bereaved. (8) See: “Thirty Steps for Handling Grief” : http://teenadvice.about.com/od/deathgrieving/Death_Loss_Grieving.htm

The Open to Hope website for ‘Finding Hope After Loss,’ the most widely visited site for grief support (9) contains a section dedicated to ‘Art and Hope’ which offers opportunities for healing through music, writing, and even photomontage. http://www.opentohope.com/category/special-topics/art-hope-healing/ Contrary to the traditional psychoanalytic model, Open to Hope encourages both therapeutic practitioners and grievers to share their own grief stories since they believe that such personal service/sharing can be healing in and of itself. (10)

Exploring even newer frontiers for the bereaved, therapist and client can also engage in ‘cybertherapy’ as they sit across from one another in the virtual therapist’s office via Skype. Such interchange can involve not only ‘talk,’ but creative visual/ ‘phototherapy’ whereby images (readily accessible on the internet) are sent from therapist to client like electronic postcards to be used as a catalyst for healing. Discussing her own participation in such ‘Grief Therapy in a Virtual World,’ therapist Gail Noppe –Brandon reflects:

As I continue the work of healing those confronted with loss (of self or others) in my own practice, I see that work not within the confines of a particular room, on a particular day, but as something that can be shaped and reshaped in infinite ways. . . . as infinite as the imaginations of the two human beings who have come together to explore and master the mystery of attachment that is unique to our species. (11)

While opening up new opportunities, dealing with death and grief online also can have its limitations: (12) A virtual hug is not a real hug. Online conversations with strangers aren’t the same as loving conversations that strengthen real family or community bonds. When already isolated people bury themselves alive in front of a computer screen rather than face the world, they can emerge crazed and, at worst, behave in ways that end in death for them or for their community members.

While keeping such limitations in mind, let’s pioneer creative ways to grieve and heal online. In fact, I’ll let you in on my “secret”: Throughout the year, writing this “Design on My Mind” blog about healing spaces for Psychology Today (13) has helped me explore, share and resolve online my previously unexpressed grief. I am now more able to love and trust with an open heart in a way I never was before.

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1. Carla J. Sofka, Illene Noppe Cupit, Kathleen R. Gilbert (eds.) Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2012) p. 120.

2. Ibid., p. 120.

3. Ibid. , p. 121.

4. Ibid., p. 121.

5. Carla J. Sofka, Illene Noppe Cupit, Kathleen R. Gilbert (eds.) Dying, Death, and Grief in an Online Universe (New York: Springer Publishing Company, 2012).

6. Ibid., p. 49.

7. Ibid., p.48.

8. Ibid., p. 48.

9. Ibid., p. 154.

10. Ibid., p. 157.

11. Ibid., p. 115.

12. Ibid. As a Postscript, Noppe-Brandon comments:

Though it can provide an accompaniment and can model flexibility, virtual treatment alone, for someone who was not “held” in the experience of grief for the first time around, can begin to feel insufficient and even re-traumatizing at the time of the next major physical loss. I continue to favor narrative re-construction as a way of making sense of life and loss but, in hindsight, I feel that treatment also must offer, or be augmented by, a literal “holding environment, especially for those of us who had once been left to grieve alone as children. p. 118.

13. My creation of the Robe to Wellness www.robetowellness.com and Oasis by Design spaces www.oasisbydesign.net also have been part of my healing process.

Toby Israel is an environmental psychologist who studies design psychology.

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