The Power of Virtual Placemaking: A Transformational Memorial


The Transgender memorial in Second Life

The Grounds of the International Transgender Hate Crimes and Suicide Memorial

The power of virtual immersive platforms becomes really clear when you find a place in a virtual world that really uses the environment effectively. The International Transgender Hate Crimes and Suicide Memorial provides an excellent example of such a space.  To start, the memorial is a peaceful, visually appealing place: a beautiful building and surrounding green space, with the sound of waves crashing at the shore. The dark granite walls, reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, lend a somber tone to the space and the feeling of being in a protected enclave.

Upon entering the building you encounter an alter filled with pink and blue candles.  This is the memorial for transgendered people who have died from suicide. Each candle has a name associated with it and when you click on the candle a description of what happened to that person comes up in the chat. I clicked on quite a few of the candles: the tragedy of these deaths comes through loud and clear. Nearby the altar is a box where you can submit a request to light a candle for someone.

 

The alter with candles inside the memorial

The Altar with Candles

Outside there are headstones, each one representing the homicide of a transgendered person. Once again, as you click on each headstone a description of how the person was murdered is shared in chat. The horror of these deaths is palpable. There are two large pillars on either side of the memorial which have names etched in brass, listed by year. Currently there are names going as far back as 1998, but one of the memorial creators, Random Demin, told me they have names going back 40 years.

Its hard to describe the emotional power of this place. I felt a deep sadness and anger: the candles, headstones and list of names all come together to drive home the violence, loss and utter senselessness of these deaths. The information here–about the violence our society perpetuates against transgendered people–is not new to me. But this information is delivered with a powerful punch: the names of people and the stories about their death personalizes the information in a way that statistics can’t.

Stepping back from this experience, it’s helpful to consider how this place might be helpful in a healing process for some people–clearly not all of what’s needed, but certainly presenting an opportunity for transformation:

  • Suicides often invoke shame for survivors, and shame isolates people and grows stronger in isolation. Certainly there is a lot of cultural shame that is levied on transgendered people. Standing in front of those candles–yes, even standing as an avatar–one can sense the power of numbers. All of a sudden it’s no longer about one suicide…it’s about many suicides and it’s about a world that hurts people for who they are, hurts them so much that they feel they have no choice but to leave it. This awareness of the larger context can help support a transformation of shame into anger: anger at the conditions that make it a hostile world.
  • You can memorialize someone you’ve lost with a candle or a headstone by contacting the site’s creators. This is a powerful symbolic act for many people in real life and virtual life. It burns perpetually, both in memory of the loved one and bearing witness.
  • It’s hard to come to this memorial space without seeing the larger context: a society that is hostile to a group of people. Understanding this larger context provides a deeper level of understanding and potentially can become the impetus for taking social action. Taking action is taking power back, and powerlessness is part of the core of what is so difficult when a loved one is lost to a traumatic death.
  • Building this memorial space is both a healing act and an act that challenges our larger society to take stock of such senseless deaths and challenge the people and culture that perpetuate this violence.

    Statue in the Courtyard

Random Demin was able to give me some background on this project. She and Gwen Collins created the memorial in 2007 and held their first 24 hour vigil there that year on the International Transgender Day of Remembrance, November 20th. This Day of Remembrance was established in 1999 by Gwendolyn Ann Smith. Moreover, the project has a larger long-term goal of creating a memorial in real life. In the mean time, Second Life provides a good substitute that can fill some of the functions of a real life memorial in a safe place.

This memorial is a wonderful example of the power of virtual placemaking in terms of healing grief, raising awareness about injustice, and facilitating community. You can visit the memorial in Second Life at http://slurl.com/secondlife/Hejira/228/27/21/ As in past years, they will be holding a 24 hour vigil there on November 20, 2010. You contact Random Demin through Second Life or through the Foundation for Advancement of Transgender Equality,  F.A.T.E. International.

Creating Community in Times of Grief: Facebook in Action


Social Networking Sites like Facebook Offer Powerful Ways to Bring Together People Who are Grieving

In my last post I talked about some of the web-based tools that can provide a platform for people to share their grief.  Now I would like to explore a bit when a social worker or a some other type of therapist might consider suggesting these tools to clients. Clearly, using an online platform only makes sense if someone is online and generally comfortable in these environments. But more and more this is the case. A recent Pew study of American Internet use found that large numbers of people are online from levels of 93% for teens and young adults to 38% among adults age 65 and over.

A Simple Truth

Let’s start with the simple assumption that human interaction is helpful for people who are grieving, especially when it’s interaction that provides support and opportunities to remember the deceased. While our culture provides face-to-face opportunities for this human interaction, it tends to drop off quickly once the formal mourning rituals are complete. And people may have limited access to these real-world rituals because of distance, or relationship to the family of the deceased.  Having alternate ways of sharing grief becomes especially important if people have limited access to the real-world rituals, but in a culture that provides little time and space for grieving, these ways can be helpful to many people.

Of course, the strength of Web 2.0 tools is that they bring the means for creativity, collaboration, and connectivity to everyone on the Internet. So it only follows that Web 2.0 could be helpful to anyone who is grieving and is comfortable online. As was noted in Grieving in Virtual Spaces, there are range of online platforms that could be helpful to those who are grieving. However, the increased popularity of social networking sites suggests that these are the best places to begin.  The Pew Internet Survey found that among those who were online 73% percent of teens and 47% of adults were using social networking sites like Facebook.

Facebook pages can be created as an individual profiles, where people add someone as a friend; as a community page where someone joins the page by choosing to “like” it; or as a group, where someone chooses to join it. These last two situations lend themselves well to creating memorial sites.

Creating Community

Creating a meaningful memorial Facebook site could be a remarkable healing project. In addition to providing a chance to pull together photos, videos, and music, there is the chance to share memories, poetry or notes with other members of the community. Moreover, similar to what can happen at a wake, people can learn about all the sides of who someone was through the memories and thoughts that others share. Over time, a sense of community can develop that can provide some ongoing mutual support as people comment on each other’s contributions.

One advantage of using a community Facebook page as a memorial site is that it is an enduring place for people to go over time. At a time when mainstream U.S. culture is ready to take the focus off of grieving after the funeral, an enduring virtual page acknowledges that grief continues.

A Community Alter--Members are Invited to Share Remembrances: Facebook Can Mirror This

As noted above, sometimes the page doesn’t start as a memorial site but is transformed into one after it’s creator dies. I have a friend who periodically will go to her deceased child’s Facebook  page and leave the child notes. It reminds me of the experience I had of writing letters to my dad after he died, or the letters I have asked my clients to write to the people they have lost, except that these are shorter notes, probably closer to the snippets of  conversation that can continue  in our heads with someone who has died.  Of course the other big difference is that this is public within the  community of people who follow her child’s page.  In this way, it is a very different ritual of grieving that has the  advantage of letting a community know that grief continues (something our culture forgets) and that relationships beyond death in the hearts of those who cared for  the deceased. It also allows a community the information they might need  that would encourage them to reach out to a member who might be struggling. In this way, this tool creates new options for grieving–options that didn’t exist before Web 2.0.

One important factor to consider when evaluating a venue is who will have control over the healing environment. For example, if the Facebook page started as an individual’s personal page, then it’s possible that at some point in the future the family might choose to remove the page–and, of course, the administrators of a community page  or a group might choose to do the same, although at least there are more options to share the administrative roles for these pages with a group of people. Clearly if something is really important to someone they should select a virtual space that ensures they will have access–either because they have the direct control themselves, or because they know that others share their goals. For this reason, a site that is set up to memorialize someone has the definitive advantage of a clarity of purpose that makes it more likely it will be around for a while.

Photo Credits: How to Build Community courtesy of Niall Kennedy.  Dia de los Muertos, courtesy of Michael Redman.

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.