Loss is a common theme in our lives today. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 separated us from friends and family, and for many, relocated us into isolation and quarantine. We grieve changes to our schedule, daily routines, and collegial connections. We were forced into virtual education and graduations. We were forced to find ways to work remotely. We were forced to discover creative ways to be social with our friends and family. Many were even forced to order necessities virtually. The grief so many are experiencing is a manifestation of so many changes imposed upon us. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has changed most of our lives, forever, leaving many of us experiencing the stress, high charged emotions, and feelings of loss.

This overall grief is affecting our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. COVID-19 deaths exacerbate it, and a spike in suicide, homicide, and overdose deaths adds to the list, anxiety, fear, and loss of life to COVID-19.

As mortality numbers are increasing dramatically, families are facing increasing distress over these mortality trends. Consider the “multiplier effect,” that for every death, studies suggest that approximately nine family members will survive having lost a grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child.

In the past, a death loss brought friends and family together to honor and remember the decedent. Historically, this timeless tradition brought about much comfort. However, today, many are no longer able to have these types of gatherings, nor can we receive the traditional comfort from those wanting to be supportive in the days, and often weeks that follow. So, when physical connections are most needed, how do we now serve those bereaved? How do we take advantage of the digital world?

Let’s look at past trends. The age of Facebook brought the opportunity for ways to connect with family and friends from around the world to share day-to-day moments, as well as our life’s milestones. Individuals even shared about life’s traumatic events, such as a loved one’s death, and posted their grief in daily feeds. But for many, this became controversial, arguing that Facebook was not the place to share death or display such intimate expressions of grief.

As this controversy continued, some sought an alternative solution and found it through virtual memorials. Virtual memorials offered that “appropriate” space to share with family and friends from anywhere in the world, a person’s death. It also provided a means for others to honor and celebrate the decedent too.  Many virtual memorial sites offer an opportunity to write condolences, add memories, and upload photos adding to the decedent’s legacy. Some memorials were used as a tool for journaling as if one were writing to their person in cyberspace. For some, this became a cathartic means of comfort.

With the growing use of technology, there are now many sites offering virtual memorials. Also, many groups are providing virtual communities. For example, Compassionate Friends and Soaring Spirits host private Facebook Groups. Then there are sites such as Talk Space, offering unlimited messaging therapy.

Today’s pandemic has had a significant impact on the traditional bereavement care model. Often referred to as grief support groups, bereavement care has been forced into the digital world. Bereavement care professionals are now challenged to provide online virtual support through video conferencing platforms. However, many professionals struggle with the comfort levels of providing care this way.

So, what are the concerns about using technology for bereavement care? Some may argue that those providing the care do not have an opportunity to observe participants the same way one could with in-person groups. Others may argue online groups are not as personal as in-person groups. There may also be concern that groups are not a controlled environment and that it would be difficult for bereavement care professionals to intervene in the event of a crisis. And, then there’s concern about ensuring participant’s confidentiality—all being worthy concerns. But, they can all be addressed and mitigated with thoughtful preparation and implementation. Yet, most overall is the concern over its effectiveness to provide quality bereavement care compared to in-person support groups.

In 2012, an Australian study was conducted on an online support group’s effectiveness for community members with depression. These were the findings:

  • The group showed a significantly greater reduction in depressive symptoms at 6- and 12-months.
  • They found a secondary impact on self-esteem, empowerment, and perceived quality of life.

In 2014, another study on internet-based versus face to face cognitive-behavioral intervention for depression. These were the findings:

  • No significant difference between groups
  • Significant symptom changes in both groups.
  • Conclusion: Internet-based intervention for depression is equally beneficial to regular face-to-face therapy.

And a most recent study in 2018 on the effectiveness of internet-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (iCBT) reveled:

  • The benefit was evident across four disorders (major depression, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder).
  • The conclusion was that iCBT for anxiety and depressive disorders is effective, acceptable, and practical health care.

Another approach recently introduced is Apps. Today, this is the most modern-day approach in bereavement care. Much of the traditional support group’s success is the connection to others experiencing a similar death loss. This connection reduces the sense of isolation and offers a safe space to share, be heard, and feel understood. Anecdotal evidence suggests this method to be a persuasive means to a healthy post bereavement growth. A well-developed bereavement care app does just that. It provides a community of individuals who seek to connect with others who are also having a grief experience because they are also bereaved. Through an app, they can do that and do so digitally and 24/7. Some apps include resources, feeds, and notifications too.

What does grief look like today in the age of a digital world? Just that, digital. For many who don’t have the means or ability, perhaps because of physical handicap, to attend a brick and mortar location, this may come as a relief, as they too might seek the connections and support only a digital world can offer them. And for the generations growing up in a digital world, apps have become a familiar tool to connect and have their conversations. So, for them, this modern-day approach to bereavement care might be welcome.

We invite your perspective. What might your opinion be? Are we losing sight of the power of the one-on-one connection, or are we opening the opportunity to serve more? Will this be our future after COVID-19?

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