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Thanatechnology: Dying in the digital age

by Mary Hamill

Much has been researched and written about modern technology and the potential impact it may have on education, entertainment, communication and almost all aspects of our daily lives. Technology not only impacts on how we live today, it also impacts on dying and grieving, and our traditional death system is evolving and transforming at a significantly fast pace.

The thanatechnological death system is comprised of virtual mourners in virtual funeral chapels where they are neither geographically nor time bound. Objects associated with death now include virtual candles and virtual flowers at virtual cemetery plots. Holograms of headstones are available for the home and QR Codes can be attached to actual headstones which when scanned, link a mobile device to a family memorial site containing personal representations of the deceased and their loved ones. Symbolic representations of death once included the colour black, flags at half-mast and the wearing of black arm bands. Virtual reality, as inherently symbolic translations of people and objects into digital renditions, now uses emoticons, holograms, Snapchat and many other technical resources to represent death.

News of a death is now almost instant across multiple time zones with access through cell phones, computers and the many hand-held devices. Cyberspace is the place to go for the elements that comprise today’s death system.

Until recently, dying was often hidden from view in hospitals or homes. Today, terminally ill patients can turn to blogging family and friends, and sometimes limitless audiences, to tell the story of their journey. With current technology, they can interact with distant friends and family ‘in person’ who similarly can ‘be with them’ while residing anywhere in the world. Increased levels of communication and information about illness and death impact on the dying person and their dying in many ways, and also impacts on coping for the loved ones left behind. As digital natives, never having lived without the Internet, teenagers and young adults use social network sites (SNSs) like Facebook and phone apps such as Snapchat and Instagram, as part of their everyday interactions. Telling their life story in a digital format is now a way of life. They naturally turn to cyberspace following the news of a tragedy as a means to overcome feelings of powerlessness and to join in a community of bereavement. News of a serious illness is now responded to by Internet searches for information on the latest treatments and procedures or any hopeful solutions. Referred to as the ‘Google Stage of Grief’, searching for information about an illness or condition is recognised as a means to alleviate fears and anxiety.

For both the slightly older population known as digital emigrants and the younger digital natives, there is more to consider about dying today than ever before as having an on-line presence in life gives rise to the need to consider the issue of a ‘digital legacy’. With vast on-line records of our lives, the question now arises of how much will endure after we are gone. With technological ease of use and inexpensive storage capacity it is easier to accumulate digital external memories than it is to delete them. Services are now being offered to create images, videos and voiceprints of a loved one prior to their illness, to preserve their memory. Technology has now transformed the previous issue of ‘how to remember’ into today’s costly matter of ‘how to forget’. The echo of Freud’s theory of letting go of the relationship with the deceased in order to resolve the grief and move forward in life, resonates for me amongst these technological changes.

Elaine Kasket (2012) has researched technological changes in the death system and in particular Facebook as a medium for continuing bonds in the age of social networking. Continuing bonds theory of bereavement (Klass, Silverman & Nickman, 1996) is an alternative to Freud’s belief that holding onto connections with the deceased was pathological. Continuing bonds theory accepts that while relationships with the deceased do change, they do not necessarily end. This is seen as both adaptive and comforting for the surviving loved ones.

Facebook, while appearing in 2004, only became accessible to anyone with an email address in 2006. The result is a current lack of research on the phenomenon of mourning on SNSs, however research by Carroll and Landry (2010) produced some findings that indicate: a) young people are more likely to use Facebook than read obituaries; b) Facebook facilitates connection to the deceased person, to memories and to the community of mourners; and c) an emerging phenomenon of the persisting digital self. Web memorials are not new and date back to 1995. However, research by Kasket (2012) identified significant differences, particularly in the area of continuity, between mourning on Facebook compared to dedicated memorial sites or virtual cemeteries. Facebook mourning takes place in the same ‘space’ or ‘place’ (i.e. their Facebook page) rather than relocating to a new site. As there is no need to create a new ‘eulogised’ representation of the deceased, interactions can continue with the same co- constructed representation of the person, created during the person’s life.

Features, functionality and types of interactions standard on Facebook led to other interesting themes identified from Kasket’s research. These included: modes of address; beliefs about communications; experiences of continuing bonds; and the nature and function of the Facebook community. Direct, second person address (i.e. ‘you’) was evident in 77% of posts, compared to 30% found in earlier research on virtual memorials. Emerging norms include belief in messages reaching the deceased and frequent visits to profiles (Kasket, 2014). Belief about the communication being received by the deceased was expressed explicitly as the following samples provided by Kasket demonstrate.

I know u can read this, it just sux that u can’t talk back….
I know you are reading this.
Sorry I haven’t been around in a while to say hi.

(Kasket, 2012: 65)

While there was no expressed expectation of receiving a reply from the deceased via Facebook, the posts indicated an expectation that replies would be received via natural phenomena, dreams and a sense that the loved one remained a guiding presence in their lives.

The continuing bond experience via Facebook can be seen in many ways from how mourners update the deceased with their daily activities long after the death, to the frequency and persistence of posting messages. Emotional release was found as a main motivation for posting comments with the functionality that allowed others to ‘like’ or ‘comment’ in response, allowing the deceased’s network to mourn together (Willis & Ferrucci, 2017).

Traditionally, remembering is communicated face-to-face and does not crossover or impact other networks. With today’s technology people can interact with the deceased in ways that simulate the living. Many posts indicate a deep fear of losing the bond between the mourner and the ‘persisting digital self’ which is experienced as real. In addition to the bond with the deceased, mourners also find solace from other members of the community, by reading their posts. Kasket’s (2014) research participants described the comfort they received by having a place to visit to share memories and the hope that their posts would be helpful to someone else. Death has personal meaning unique to each individual. Sharing that meaning with others is how we validate our perspective within our community and culture, consolidating the shared concepts about death. Where previous societal norms, incorporating a medical model, believed that social interaction ended with physical death, the current technological changes are challenging this view about death and grieving (Sofka, Cupit & Gilbert, 2012).

Integrating the deceased into the lives of survivors requires a shared and reasonably accurate image of them. This image is acquired through conversation and interaction with other people who knew the deceased. SNSs have radically changed this interaction by removing the constraints once imposed by time, geographical separation and social division. The biography that a priest or a funeral director is required to construct and convey to the community, already exists as a ‘person-in-context’. Instead of visiting the cemetery to look upon the gravestone people are choosing to visit virtual memorial sites and more frequently, SNSs, that provide a more vivid presence of the deceased individual and facilitate a deeper sense of connectedness. While continuing bonds theory is often understood on an individual level and in terms of an inner experience, Klass identified the missing element as the social and communal component of continuing bonds and referred to how we adjust to bereavement through our conversation.

In our study of grief we need to include the cultural narratives in which conversations with both the living and the dead are set.

(Klass, 2006: 852)

It appears that Facebook now provides the platform for these conversations.

Like it or hate it, SNSs and Facebook in particular are changing the way people mourn and technologically facilitated mourning will become more widespread with the rapid evolution of technology. For professionals involved in providing effective bereavement support in the digital age, an awareness of this fast-changing phenomenon is required to provide effective support.

Even a bereavement professional who is theoretically aligned with continuing bonds theory may have a lack of exposure to, lack of understanding of, or even a deep prejudice towards social networking, and this can affect how he or she responds to a grieving individual’s maintenance of an online connection with the deceased person.

(Kasket, 2012: 69)

While technology is affecting the traditional death system and mourning practices are changing for digital emigrants, for the younger populations in the countries of the developed world, including Ireland, the Internet is now established as a normal place for remembering the dead. For digital natives, SNSs, and in particular Facebook, are already embedded in their experiences of death and mourning. A recent exploration of this phenomenon in relation to adolescents, in an attempt to identify the potential risks and benefits, led to some interesting findings.

Adolescents face many challenges as they journey through their psychosocial development. The experience of loss at this time can further complicate their development and their lives in a way not generally experienced either earlier or later in life. Bereaved teens often experience heightened sensitivity to ‘being different’ and established friends can withdraw, unsure of how to respond. Teenagers are most likely however to use SNSs like Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram to share their grief and seek support. Linking with other adolescents who understand and share similar experiences of loss is essential for adolescents whose dependency on family is normally declining. SNSs provide peer support and a form of independence, “a private space even while they’re still at home” (Pascoe, 2007:3). A support site for bereaved young people identified positive outcomes as: a means for feeling less isolated, knowing they were not the only ones to have lost a loved one and offering an opportunity to talk about feelings without face to face interaction (Salter, 2004).

Today’s adolescents are familiar with memorials on SNSs where people can leave tributes, comments and share feelings and concerns. Having a place to centre their attention and express their feelings, friends connect with others who can relate to their experiences (Oltjenbruns & James, 2006). Where mourning was once contained within the immediate family, virtual memorial sites facilitate the disenfranchised mourners that so often included children and adolescents. The death of a young person can be traumatic for a family, and parents struggling under the strain of their own shock and grief, are often emotionally unavailable to the other children. Support on SNSs is available for these children and close friends of the deceased, who may be struggling with the loss of an important and meaningful peer relationship.

On-line forums also provide support for adolescents through sharing of coping strategies (Sofka, 1997). Message boards and chat rooms facilitate a fast response from peers further along the grieving process offering informal mentorship and encouragement. Adolescents, now thinking in the abstract, often hide the reality of who they are from the real world and cyberspace can accommodate socially shy individuals by avoiding face-to-face interactions and remaining anonymous. Parents and bereavement professionals are advised to open discussions with teenagers about how they use these resources, help them process these experiences and in doing so, alleviate their own concerns about any possible negative impact (Sofka et al., 2012).

Fear of glorifying suicides or pathological behaviours is a concern with on-line sub-culture support, along with cyber-bullying. Safety and privacy issues must be balanced against the many benefits, as according to Maddrell the Internet facilitates,

space for action, narrative work, meaning-making, expressions and negotiations of continuing bonds with the deceased and virtual support networks.

(Maddrell, 2012: 46)

Embracing the opportunities that an SNS can offer to the grieving process, facilitates freedom of expression and an opportunity to reflect on the relationship with the deceased, both core aspects of bereavement counselling.

Of importance for professionals working in this area, Hartman (2012: 461) claims “concrete losses may be less necessary to mourning than forms of access that resignify them.” Mourning no longer involves a move from holding on to letting go, rather from one version of a cherished experience to another, and this phenomenon sits well with both ‘continuing bonds’ and ‘dual process’ models of grief. SNS users relocate the deceased to this digital space and professionals working with bereaved adolescents and adults need to consider the possibility of re-traumatisation through removal of profiles and the need to assist with anxiety associated with losing this connection.

On-line immortality and digital afterlife has the potential to extend mourning indefinitely and we are entering new terrain on an almost daily basis. Facebook pages remain active after the person has died and without contact from the legal next of kin will continue to send notifications of birthdays, anniversaries and other such events. Technology is currently being developed that hopes to achieve immortality by downloading the human brain. Preserving the memories and personality of a loved one is now becoming a reality with avatars (on screen representations) that can respond with personal values, attitudes, mannerisms and beliefs as social and predictive software improves. Fear of losing a loved one has motivated some questionable developments in this area. One software developer has created an artificial replica of her partner called Bina48 and was recently featured by Morgan Freeman in a documentary about the search for God. His interview and other services on offer can be viewed on the site www.lifenaut.com and make for some thought provoking consideration. The future appears to hold many challenges as to how we will negotiate life and death, loss and grief.

As a digital emigrant who came of age in the world before computer technology, I have gradually accommodated technology in terms of websites, emails, texting and enjoy the benefits of many aspects of technological advances. My inherent reluctance to engage with the more interactive, and what I consider intrusive aspects of the on-line world, that for me included Facebook, has now been challenged by the findings that have emerged from this recent research. Providing a third space between absence/presence (Maddrell, 2012) virtual memorials and Facebook in particular, with a range of interactive and dynamic features, can facilitate the relationship between the living and the dead and in doing so, provide a therapeutic space for the negotiation of continuing bonds and continuing life.

Mary Hamill MIAHIP is in private practice in Dublin and is a member of the Irish Childhood Bereavement Network (ICBN) with a special interest in experiences of loss during childhood. Mary can be contacted on 087- 6317497 or email: mary@mbhcp.ie.

Carroll, B., & Landry, K. (2010). Logging on and letting out: Using online social networks to grieve and to mourn. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 30(5), 341-349.

Hartman, S. (2012). Cybermourning: Grief in flux from object loss to collective immortality. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 32(5), 454-467.

Kasket, E. (2012). Continuing bonds in the age of social networking: Facebook as a modern-day medium. Bereavement Care, 31(2), 62-29. doi: 10.1080/02682621.2012.710493.

Kasket, E. (2014). Supporting bereaved children in the digital age. Irish Childhood Bereavement Network Conference. Retrieved 15 January 2017 from: https://youtu.be/f08p9HmgBRU.

Klass, D. (2006). Continuing Conversation about continuing bonds. Death Studies, 30(9), 843-858.

Klass, D., Silverman, P.R., & Nickman, S. (Eds.). (1996). Continuing bonds: New understandings of grief. Washington: Taylor and Francis.

Lifenaut.com. Retrieved 15 January 2017 from http://www.lifenaut.com/bina48/.

Maddrell, A. (2012). Online memorials: The virtual as the new vernacular. Bereavement Care, 31(2), 46-54. doi: 10.1080/02682621.2012.710491.

Oltjenbruns, K.A., & James, L. (2006). Adolescents’ use of the internet as a modality of grief support. The Forum, October/November/December

Pascoe C.J. (July 17 2007). FRONTLINE Interviews C.J. Pascoe. Retrieved 24 January 2017 from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline/interviews/pascoe.html#6.

Salter, A. (2004). Death sucks. Bereavement Care, 23(1), 3-4. doi: 10.1080/02682620408657591.

Sofka, C. (1997). Social support ‘Internetworks,’ caskets for sale, and more: Thanatology and the information superhighway. Death Studies, 21(6), 553-574.

Sofka, C.J., Cupit, I.N., & Gilbert, K.R. (2012). Thanatechnology as a conduit for living, dying and grieving in contemporary society. In: Sofka, C.J., Cupit, I.N. & Gilbert, K.R., (Eds.), Dying, death, and grief in an online universe. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Willis, E., & Ferrucci, P. (2017) Mourning and grief on facebook: An examination of motivations for interacting with the deceased. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 0(0), 1-19.

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