May 13, 2020

Finding ways to mourn online, as the coronavirus keeps us apart

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Some people are using new tools to express their grief, including those in Nintendo's Animal Crossing.

The death toll from COVID-19 is approaching 300,000 worldwide. In the United States, more than 80,000 people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. People can’t mourn those losses, or deaths from other causes, together because of stay-at-home orders and the risk of spreading the virus further. People are turning to digital spaces instead to gather and remember loved ones who’ve died.  

In some ways, this is pushing the tech industry to acknowledge death in a way it hasn’t before. I spoke with Sarah Chavez, executive director of the nonprofit group The Order of the Good Death. She told me Nintendo’s Animal Crossing video game is becoming a surprisingly poignant memorial space. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Sarah Chavez (Photo courtesy of Chavez)

Sarah Chavez: So many people have been playing Animal Crossing, myself included, as a way to cope with the isolation and the grief and the anxiety that we’ve all been experiencing. What I find particularly fascinating is the many different ways that players have been using the game to create memorials for their loved ones. People have created altars, shrines, cemeteries. They’re all really beautiful and poignant and personal — all qualities or things that we really hope to evoke when we honor someone we love in a real-life funeral experience.

Molly Wood: You wrote this wonderful piece about all the things that we can do on that note to mourn without gathering in person, because we may have to for a while. I want to hear about the ideas in that piece, one of which was to create a digital altar.

Chavez: I’m Latina, so each year for día de los muertos, we create an altar that’s dedicated to our dead. On it we place photos and messages and offerings. One of the things that I’ve been suggesting to others is to create their own virtual altar for their person. People can return to leave offerings or messages on special days that are difficult, like birthdays or deathiversaries, or when they’re really missing their person. Seeing other people’s contributions can really help others feel less alone in their grief.

Wood: Social media has been pretty clumsy about this. Facebook in particular is just brutal. We are seeing some of these platforms make small changes now, to try to help people memorialize people better. Do you think that helps? Is that at least a start toward recognizing that this is a reality?

Chavez: I think it’s important for people to preserve these digital spaces as memorials because they’re important records of our lives and legacy. But in those digital spaces, a day will probably come when the number of deceased users outnumbers the living. You mentioned Facebook — the cheerful birthday reminders of a loved one that died, images and profiles of the deceased being used for advertisements. Preserving these spaces are important, but there’s no practical thinking about how the users are really experiencing them and interacting with them. 

Wood: Animal Crossing is, I think, one great example of a somewhat organic response to a moment that we’re in now. At some point, we will resume in-person funerals and mourning. Are there things that are happening now in the way that we’re memorializing people that you actually don’t want to lose that you think should stay around?

Chavez: I think that it’s really important that we continue to use these platforms. By taking things online, people that are often left out, who can’t attend funerals or memorials or events, they’re being included right now.  I hope that we can continue to find a way that will serve all of us in the future.

Wood: Why do you think that Facebook is so clumsy at this? Why is this not something that could have been anticipated by the tech platforms that we use? I mean, everybody dies.

Chavez: It’s true everybody dies. Even somebody who deals with death on a daily basis, like myself, you can’t prepare yourself in some ways. Death always, when it’s expected, it still even comes as a shock. We still adhere to so many myths like the five stages of grief. There are still so many myths out there about grief and death, and we find it so difficult and uncomfortable and awkward to talk about it. We just don’t. So we come up with things that are, we think, really cool and innovative and will be helpful and useful. But in reality, they’re not.

A character from the Nintendo Switch video game Animal Crossing visits loved ones at a digital burial site. (Photo courtesy of Stefanie Grosekemper)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Last month, Instagram pushed out an update ahead of schedule that adds memorial accounts, so that when someone dies, their family or friends can request that the account get a banner that says “remembering.” Also the account and photos won’t be deleted, but it won’t show up in search results. Facebook has had a similar feature since 2015 that lets you designate an heir for your Facebook account. At least as of last month, Twitter told BuzzFeed News it did not have any updates on its plans to create memorial accounts for users who die.

Also watching

On the social media front, Facebook will pay $52 million to current and former content moderators as compensation for the mental health issues many of them suffered as a result of that horrible job. As a reminder, The Verge reported last year that Facebook had hired thousands of contractors to look for and remove harmful content — and by that, I mean the worst videos and images imaginable of rape, murder, suicide and even child abuse. In many cases those moderators were low paid, received no mental health support, and several sued after developing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the settlement, each moderator will receive $1,000 and will be eligible for more based on whether they’re diagnosed with PTSD or other mental health issues related to the job. Facebook will also roll out tech tools to make images and videos less disturbing for moderators and offer access to mental health support and therapy.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer