In a short clip from a South Korean reality docuseries, grieving people were offered the chance to meet with their deceased loved one in a virtual reality setting. Even if you haven’t experienced such a traumatic bereavement, it would be hard to watch this and not feel deeply moved by a bereaved mother’s reaction and grief to seeing her daughter through virtual reality. We’re wired for connection and relationship, because of this, the terrible truth about death that, at our core, we find it almost impossible to make sense of.
However, virtual reality (VR) is now used as a therapeutic tool and it has been used successfully to treat phobias and PTSD.
It’s use as a tool for those experiencing “persistent complex grief”—a clinical term used when the bereaved person’s reactions are sustained over a long period and at an intensity that leads to social impairment and poor mental health—is fairly new. To those of us less familiar with the grief-work landscape, it seems pretty radical, unsettling even.
Dr Erin Hope Thompson, founder of The Loss Foundation, an organisation which uses VR in its work to support those who are bereaved, calls the technology “the compassion machine” because it enables users to confront their fears around trauma in a safe and realistic setting.
We have many options to support us on our grief journey from specialist counselling, medications and over the counter supplements and if we are really fortunate our employers will allow us some leave to begin the mourning process. Rituals such as funeral services and memorials can help give shape to our feelings and reactions while digital technology and social media can allow us to remember and commemorate loved ones. Hopefully, our friends and families will support us as we find our own path through the grief, but, sadly, many of us find that our reactions to the grief and trauma are unacceptable to those around us.
Perhaps our doctor thinks we’ve been grieving for too long, or our sister gets frustrated when we cry, or our partner thinks we are too sensitive or irritable, or our colleagues find our pragmatism cold and unfeeling. When we mourn we mourn with our whole selves, not just our feelings. Grief affects our cognitive, social and spiritual functioning—we can feel foggy or easily overwhelmed, we might withdraw from people or avoid going home to a quiet house or we might feel an existential emptiness or rage at God.
Grief, and grieving, are complex and need to happen at a pace and in a manner that resonates with us, not with society’s unspoken grief rules.
Denise Turner, a British academic who has experienced the death of a young child, has produced some really interesting work around the behaviors and responses expected from grieving parents. As her research and experience show, it is possible to survive terrible loss. Perhaps you know this at a cellular level too. The inner work required may be some of the most challenging work one may ever do, but it is possible to live well following a traumatic loss. The key to building this resiliency is that the bereaved person needs to be guided by their own instincts, not by the expectations of those around them.
Digital technology and social media are impacting every area of our lives so it is not a surprise that our cultural practices around mourning and grief are expanding and perhaps even reconfiguring. If a tool such as VR can help people to actively manage what grief has brought into their lives, then perhaps we should welcome it?