Telling grief I

Author: joe

Tuesday, 27 March, 2012 - 15:04

From a train

My supervisors asked me a question I had been absent-mindedly anticipating - was there a reason or reference in my personal background for choosing to look specifically at bereavement in my doctoral research into cyberspace, rather than other experiences of mental distress or physical illness? My anticipation had been only brief, not a worry, but rather a cynical lookahead to the predictability of this question and the trivial dismissal I would be able to respond to it with. Perhaps I was not that off-hand about it, but I certain didn't expect the question to linger as an issue after it had been dispensed with.

When the conversation did come around I was surprised by my answer and the way I worded it. Roughly, I remember saying that I had had an experience of loss and bereavement which meant that I felt a sort of insider knowledge about it - I'd be a native rather than an interloper in the world of grief. My father had died several years ago, I said, and understood some of the reasons why people might need to use 'outlets' that were not available in 'the real world' grieving is something that people are supposed to do in moderation, and in private; it doesn't belong in social environments or workplaces, and bringing it into those worlds makes people feel very uncomfortable, unable to handle you, even annoyed that you've disrupted their normality by bringing death and the pain it has caused you into a sphere where its vocabulary and shifted emphases are alien. You find out who your friends are, who is willing to tolerate and even welcome your bereft one-dimensionality, your inability to put the events of the everyday into any kind of perspective, and who also is not able to cope with the reminder of anguish and finitude that your very existence provides. I could very well see why, when expressions of grief are so excluded from the vernacular worlds we usually inhabit, that mourners might find themselves using the Internet to speak to the immensity of the invisible world, the big other, the amorphous, unindividuated audience of the universal 'you' that listens at the end of the modem, to push out the sounds and shapes of words and images that always fail to capture the extent of the loss. "And did you use any online spaces yourself when you were bereaved?" was the innocent question. And my answer, from which I reeled for some time, came back: "No. I didn't use the Internet to express any aspects of my grief. I felt it would somehow be a diminution of my father. I guess I think that using online spaces is a last resort - something that people do when they have no other support - a poor substitute."

I spent a long time trying to work out exactly what I meant when I said that. My supervisors, both trained clinical psychologists, exchanged glances. I thought, "what did I just say?" The conversation moved on. A thought drifted around - I should clarify that comment, it sounds as though I think that people who look for online support during bereavement are losers, and that I'm not that much of a loser. "That's definitely not what I mean!" Certainly at the time I was trying very strongly to resist a certain pressure I was feel as a practitioner and maker of online artefacts - to build websites that replace functions normally carried out by humans who are physically co-present - teaching and learning, therapeutic situations, dating, collaboration, social interactions, friendship. Every time I developed a project which I felt augmented already-existing practices, I felt the purse-holders wondering if it could supercede those already-existing and expensive practices and eventually replace them with a cheaper alternative. I wanted to fight against the kind of logic that said "create online lectures, pay for fewer professors", or the dismal evidence that points at changing relationships due to the "text more, speak less" culture of the mobile phone. The digital seems to offer a postponement of emotional contact, giving the illusion of control over interpersonal relationships, but actually only facilitating narcissism - the use of others as resources which can be switched on and off at will (Turkle, 2010). This is real tension in the use of technology to mediate our emotional lives - the space for affective experiences that it creates, but also the buffering against or even disconnection from difficult emotional feelings that it tempts us with. But that doesn't get to the kernel of the "tell" I had spoken: why would a use of the web to articulate my grief be somehow a disservice to my father and to the depth of my feeling, or a diminishment of him, his life and the still living memory of him among his loved ones, his mourners?


Categories: phd, bereavement, grief, mourning, emotion, digital, Sherry Turkle,
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