To be a female psychologist studying death and technology is to be totally out of your lane. In fact, if that describes you, we've probably already met. That's how few of us there are. Two years ago, a journalist got in touch with me because she was writing a story about women in death tech, but after initial contact, she never wrote again. She probably couldn't find enough women to interview. In 2018, only 16% of American funeral directors were female, and technology teams comprised 22% women, dropping to 12% for technology leaders.
There may be more female psychologists but therapists and technology are old enemies. I once did a research study on counseling psychologists' views about online interaction. Every single practitioner — regardless of age or gender — assured me this form of therapy wasn't "real" relating.
Given all that, I was statistically unlikely to do anything about it when I first stumbled upon a "Rest in Peace" Facebook group way back in 2007. My immediate fascination with mourning online was so strong that I applied for ethical approval to research it that very afternoon. I wasn't in large company, partly because social networking was too new for many of its users. This didn't stop me from eventually writing a whole book about it, but for a long while, my death-and-tech focus was perceived as rather niche.
During COVID-19, every stage of life plays out on the online stage.
It is a niche no longer, and not just because the citizens of the digital age are aging. In lockdown, even the most technology-averse are spending half the day video conferencing, including my skeptical colleagues. My 80-year-old mother learned PowerPoint (sort of) so she could give her grandchildren art lectures online. I was knee-deep in my own personal tech-lash before the pandemic, but now, like so many, I'm logging on for hours a day to prevent physical and social distancing from meaning the same thing. During COVID-19, every stage of life plays out on the online stage.
Every stage of life means cradle to grave. Babies are still being born, their proud parents introducing them to the world via social media and video calls, but it's the other end of the life cycle that's really on our minds and in our media. Unable to physically visit the hospital or care home, we're FaceTiming people as they lie sick or dying. Online memorials and live-streamed funerals, once unusual, are now the norm during the coronavirus pandemic.
You may have noticed a distinct split in the conversations we're having about this new culture of living and dying online. Some are doubling down on the stance "online isn't real life." Speaking about the "false intimacy" of video calling in the FT, Gianpeiro Petriglieri uses the word "grief" to describe his response to working on Zoom. In response to an article I wrote about online connection during the pandemic, a commenter told me off for daring to be positive about the situation because of the central importance of the oxytocin: the "love hormone" which flows more readily with physical contact. When it comes to death and dying, I have seen the words "horrible" and "terrible" used more times than I can count when people predict what it might be like to arrive via Zoom link to a dear one's death bed or to arrange or attend a virtual funeral.
Your attitudes, behaviors, assumptions, and personality determine how you experience online connection in life, death, and mourning.
People with these opinions may be low on what cyberpsychology researchers Jenna Clark and Melanie Green call PROI — the Perceived Reality of Online Interaction. People who are high on PROI — or who have actually had these experiences — often see things differently.
As a long-time expatriate whose connections to family are usually virtual, I was fairly high on PROI already. During COVID-19, it's been fascinating to watch the surprise, interest, and gratitude of many formerly low-PROI folks as they use technology to be with others. One of my long-time clients reluctantly agreed to a Zoom session, having given up on waiting for the day when we could physically meet. After connecting online, he eagerly asked if we might be able to continue meeting this way even after lockdown.
When Dr. Sebastian Yuen's father died of COVID-19, the family was able to "be there" through video. "It felt like we were together," Dr. Yuen said on the BBC. "It was really rich, it was really real... I'd not really experienced that before." Extraordinary deathbed connections and virtual memorials of great beauty and richness are happening every day.
Many people are discovering first-hand what many researchers already know, which is that the online environment can be excellent at facilitating meaningful social support, deep connection, and "real" relating. Just because it can be, though, doesn't mean it always is. Different people experience online connection to be more or less intimate, close, or emotionally fulfilling. The difference isn't primarily down to the technology, although the presence or absence of privacy, distractions, and good audio and video does matter.
What really makes the difference is you. Your attitudes, behaviors, assumptions, and personality determine how you experience online connection in life, death, and mourning. When we believe and behave as though it's the tech rather than us, we feel out of control and we artificially narrow the horizon of possibility. To expand your perspective, ask yourself: "What is important to me? What do I want? How can I best use technology to help me get it — or some part of it?"
Connection is hugely important to me. As a psychologist, deep relating makes my work possible. As a woman, society has shaped towards the communal and relational, and I embrace that. As a scholar of death, I'm constantly aware that life comes to an end, and connection is what makes my life worth living. All of that motivates me to use technology to feel close to others, and to help others do the same, across a whole life span. That perspective makes being a woman in death tech feel just right.
WRITTEN BYElaine Kasket