Beyond Dying: A Look into How Technology is Reshaping the Grieving Process

Victoria McCarty

Victoria McCarty

Victoria McCarty
Capella University, Graduate Student
vmccarty@philasd.org

Grief is defined as an individual’s affective experience that occurs in response to the death of a loved one (Stroebe, Hansson & Schut, 2008), and the grieving process is the way in which the individual responds to and deals with that grief.  The most widely known and accepted model for the grieving process is the Kübler-Ross (1969) model which details the grieving process in five stages of experience/emotion: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Although these stages do not always move in a linear fashion and can be experienced in a variety of ways, all paths lead to acceptance. If acceptance is to endure without protest, this stage of the grieving process can be understood as the actualization of the death of a loved one and the alleviation of the other stages.

There are normative behaviors in bereaved individuals, such as denial and blaming others, as well as a general understanding that the grief will subside, allowing the bereaved to re-engage in life with the deceased (Jordan & Litz, 2014). There are disorders, however, that are associated with prolonged, severe grieving experiences. Complicated Grief Disorder is an atypical response to the loss of life in which the bereaved experiences prolonged and extreme symptoms, such as being in a loop of grief (Shear, Simon, Wall & Zisook, 2011). This loop is perpetuated by the frequent use of media-mediums to connect with the memory of or even communicate with the deceased; thus, the ability to achieve acceptance slips farther and farther away from younger generations.

So, what is a media-medium? For the purposes of this article, think about a medium as a connecting point between two places.  In a conversation about death and dying, a medium can be considered a way to connect the living with the dead. A media-medium is any medium form that allows the living to connect with the dead and even build grief networks around the dead. These media-mediums may also preserve the life/spirit of the deceased by freezing them in time and memorializing their page. A number of websites and start-up companies are committed to preserving the lives of those who have died as shown through their mission statements or to policies on deceased members including Eterni.me, LivesOn, Facebook, and Legacy. In response to the ways society has integrated more and more into the digital world, a new form of medium has developed. I call this new development a media-medium.

Bridging the physical and technological medium, Living Headstones is placing QR codes directly onto the tombstone so that those visiting the gravesite may scan the code with their smartphones and be redirected to the deceased’s obituary, photos and stories shared by loved ones. This completely changes how information surrounding the deceased has been circulated in the past (Gries & Yancey, 2018). While in these cases the deceased are frozen in the time and place upon their death, social media captures the deceased in a frame of life. For example, a Facebook or Instagram profile was created and maintained by the deceased while they were alive; whereas in a legacy or tombstone website, the page was created by the bereaved in remembrance of their loved one. This means that the threads of the network of grief begin before the death of an individual and carry far beyond the time of death, making the network impervious to the limitations of time and space and essentially making the individual, as part of the network, virtually immortal. This enables the individual’s natural resistance to accepting the death of a loved one and even encourages the individual to create inorganic connections between the bereaved and deceased.

The language surrounding the grieving process through media-mediums creates what can be understood as a rhetorical network of grief.   A rhetorical situation can have a concrete audience, and also be a combination of many audiences, making it more fluid than static in nature (Warner, 2002). When a text is circulated among the masses, the traditional sender/receiver model of communication becomes complicated; therefore, the meaning of the message is continuously transforming. Edbauer (2005) developed the theory of Rhetorical Ecologies to explain the complexity of rhetorical circulation and how publics and audiences have become a network of changing, moving parts.  This can be applied to the grieving communities we see on the internet to explain the ways in which the spirit of the deceased and their relationships are constantly growing and changing because of the use of technology in the grieving experience.

This practice of keeping the deceased in mind as an active entity is part of what is creating the barrier between the earlier stages of grieving and the stage of acceptance. Through sharing memories and media of the deceased in a public, virtual space, they are enabling those with Internet access to get to know the deceased or deepen their relationship with the deceased. They continue to hold a place in conversation within their communities and families and even inspire new connections and relationships, similar to introducing one friend to another.   This virtual space for grieving has become a Rhetorical Ecology all in its own; therefore, the deceased appears as a member of a living, changing community of rhetoric.

The idea of letting go has long been associated with accepting death and the grieving process, but today people seem less concerned with letting go and more focused on the preservation of the essence of the individual who has been lost.  This leads me to question whether or not the purpose of the grieving process has become outdated, and should, therefore be reconsidered to reflect more modern social practices with the use of media-mediums and the existence of the rhetorical network of grief in mind.

References

Edbauer, J. (2005). Unframing models of public distribution: From rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecologies. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 35(4), 5-24.

Gries, L.E. & Yancey, K.B., (2018). Tombstones, QR Codes, and the Circulation of Past Present Texts. In L. E. Gries & C. G. Brooke (Eds.), Circulation, writing and rhetoric (pp. 61-80). Louisville, CO: Utah State University Press, University Press of Colorado.

Jordan, A. H., & Litz, B. T. (2014). Prolonged grief disorder: Diagnostic, assessment, and treatment considerations. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 45(3), 180–187.

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.

Marques, L., Bui, E., LeBlanc, N., Porter, E., Robinaugh, D., Dryman, M. T., Simon, N. (2013). Complicated grief symptoms in anxiety disorders: Prevalence and associated impairment. Depression & Anxiety, 30(12), 1211–1216.

Shear, M. K., Simon, N., Wall, M., Zisook, F. (2011). Complicated grief and related bereavement issues for DSM-5. Depression & Anxiety, 28(2), 103–117.

Stroebe MS, Hansson RO, Schut H. (2008). Handbook of bereavement research and practice: Advances in theory and intervention. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Warner, M. (2002). Publics and counterpublics. Public Culture, 14(1), 49-90.

 

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