Grieving in Virtual Spaces

Vietnam Wall

Vietnam Memorial Wall in Second Life

So many of the cultural practices involved in grieving are healing because they bring people together to share their grief. The sharp edges of grief are softened when we come together with others to grieve together. Recent events in my life have left me thinking a lot about the power of virtual spaces in helping people grieve.

Certainly coming together face to face is vitally important. But this is always time limited and it’s also not always possible. Virtual spaces can provide a way to extend the reach of a community.  There are many forms that these spaces can take: forums and listservs, virtual condolence books, memorial websites,  and Facebook pages are some simple examples.  A more complex example of a virtual memorial can occur in 3-D space, creating memorials in virtual worlds.

  • Forums, Listservs, Chat Rooms: a virtual bulletin board or email listserv can both become a form of virtual group when a shared grief experience emerges, or when they formed with the purpose of providing a safe grieving space. They function very much like a group, except they are asynchronous, that is, the members are interacting from different points in time and space. Chat rooms, on the other hand, are synchronous virtual groups, which requires that all members be on at the same time. These are harder to organize, as a result, although you can find them online. I haven’t seen any dedicated to grief issues, but they may well be out there. There even can occur within virtual worlds like Second Life, where avatars will get together at a common place and time to discuss a shared topic; in this case it’s the getting together with other avatars that forms the core of the grieving experience, not the space itself. While members of forums, listservs, and chat rooms might end up grieving the death of an individual member, most often they are groups devoted to some shared type of grieving experience, e.g., parents of murdered children, etc.
  • Virtual Condolence Books: At the simplest level, these places can provide an opportunity to convey condolences, thought, and memories to the family of the deceased, often across a distance: virtual condolence books serve this function well. I just shared some thoughts with my cousins on the loss of their mom, my aunt, someone I haven’t seen since I was a child. I wasn’t able to make it to the memorial service that was being held many states away from me, but it was a way for me to convey some thoughts about my aunt to them. Certainly, sympathy cards can convey this too, but there is something powerful about seeing all the condolences together. I was disappointed to see, however, that the site only stays active for one month, although there is the option to buy a year, a “forever” website, or a bound book for the family.
  • Websites:–or a simpler option, Facebook pages–also offer a chance to share condolences with the family. However, this medium allow for richer sharing opportunities, a virtual memorial space that invites diverse members to share, not just those who were the closest to the deceased, as is the case in real world memorial services. I just started a memorial Facebook page last week for a colleague/friend, a psychologist, who died suddenly in a biking accident. In addition to the information about memorial events and the photos that have been shared, a friend of his posted a link to music (Into the West, from Lord of the Rings 3) as a tribute, and a couple who had received treatment from him shared their thoughts, as well. This type of virtual space has the potential to allow people to go one step further and  interact with one another. In this way it it can facilitate the development of some sense of community, a group of people coming together to share their grief. At the same time, people are free to “lurk,” that is, choose not to participate but to experience the site at a private level.
  • Virtual World Memorials: My last example of a virtual grieving place are memorials created in 3-D, virtual worlds, like Second Life. A quick place search on “memorial” yields a long list. I visited two: Transgender Hate Crimes and Suicide Memorial and the Vietnam Memorial Wall, a reproduction of the real world monument. The first illustrates how virtual worlds can provide an opportunity to create memorial spaces that are unique to those platforms–the latter demonstrates the ability to create representations of real world places that have significant meaning. There’s so much more to explore when it comes to virtual world spaces that I will pick this up in a future post.

    Transgender Second Life Memorial

    Transgender Memorial in Second Life

All of these examples illustrate some ways in which virtual spaces can mimic “real-world” grieving rituals. But I think the real power of these spaces lies in their ability to provide novel ways to facilitate grief work–options that haven’t been open to us previously. For example, an event memorial website provides a grieving space for a much larger community than one would ever have ready access to in the real world. These can spring up “ad hoc” in the comments around news stories of terrible events. But they are more enduring when they become sites devoted to the event/tragedy. This September 11th Memorial is one such example. The International AIDs Candlelight Memorial is another. These sites offer opportunities to share grief with people all over the world. Just taking a moment to look through the 12250 dedications (as of 8/8/10, 6pm EDT) at the AIDS site one sees dedications to individuals, and some to much larger groups of people. These sites offer an opportunity to link to a global community around an important issue or event. The AIDS site, in particular, links to many sources of updated information about the AIDs epidemic, providing a good example of an effort to transform grief into some action that will bring meaning to the loss. This same opportunity arises with virtual world memorial sites, but in addition to providing all the opportunities that a website might provide, they can provide unique opportunities for interaction among individuals within the environment, or between individuals and the environment.

I would love to hear any thoughts/experiences you have on this topic in the comments.

Future blog posts on this topic: virtual spaces can create new rituals for grieving,  how social workers might use these tools with their clients.

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