Digital Grief Counselling – How do we digitize human(e) contact?

Nothing is what it used to be when we are confronted with death and grief. In times like these, it is important to be able to rely on social contact with people who are close to us. They represent social anchors, who give us stability and help us to surmount difficult times. The reality of the Covid-19 pandemic significantly restricts this contact. And thus, we find ourselves in a situation, in which we need to reinvent the foundations of human behavior. Digitally. Remotely. Contactless. And yet: can the “new normal” in grief counselling and therapeutic work show us a new path with novel possibilities? In a collaboration project between Breitenstein Consulting, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and a centre for grief counselling in Munich, an interdisciplinary team developed a concept for online grief counselling.

Change management and grief counselling go hand in hand. The emotional phases elicited by a change process are often compared to the stages of grief model by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: A phase of shock is followed by denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance. For this process, we need enough time and space. The centre for grief counselling follows a philosophy, in which contact with other people is imperative. Next to offering a secure and safe space the centre values regular sessions, personality development and group-based support. As the centre is specialized in grief counselling for children it is emphasized that children tend to grieve differently compared to adults. They jump in and out of their grief and express it in very different ways. Tending to this dynamic process is important. It became very clear that digital grief counselling cannot replace direct human contact. In order to develop a concept for online group therapy our project team needed to conduct a sensible and thorough analysis of therapeutic group work with all its individual characteristics and possibilities.

To allow participants of grief counselling sessions to feel safe and secure as well as self-determined in front of a screen a clear agenda and a moderated room with specified rules for communication, introspection and active phases are needed. In addition, the development of the “digital self” is key to a successful therapeutic experience. Participants need to feel socially integrated and thus, their own physical environment as well as that of the other participants need to be as present as possible. The physical environment is thus introduced and shared with all participants. Objects surrounding the participant, such as their bed, sofa or carpet can be spaces of grief and are integrated into the therapy. With this approach the participants are embedded in a digital, yet physical space of grief. This space offers new possibilities as personal and therapeutic spaces are integrated.

The development of this concept represents much more to us than a digitalization project. It shows us that the digital world offers new possibilities, which, in times of Covid-19 receive more attention than ever before. The “new normal” affects all of us. Whether we’re sick or healthy or whether we’ve lost someone important to us – this is the new reality. It is all the more important to accept this reality and to work together with experts in order to create possibilities and to transform seemingly untransformable human topics, such as grief.