How technology can support grievers via reflection and meaning-making

Colin LeFevre
Health and HCI
Published in
5 min readMay 8, 2024

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This article was co-authored by Colin LeFevre and Christina Chung, and is a summary of our research paper from the 2024 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Grieving the loss of a loved one is a challenging process. As people grieve in an increasingly digital world, there is a growing opportunity to support them with technology. We know from past research that technology can meaningfully support grievers. But, to meet griever’s diverse support needs, we need more approaches to providing support with technology.

In our study, we explore how technology can use reflection to support grievers. Specifically, we suggest that bereavement meaning-making — a practice from constructivist grief therapies — could be an approach to support grievers with technology. Meaning-making builds on a griever’s reflection, and helps them process their loss by understanding their bereavement in a new light.

Bereavement Meaning-Making: Finding new meanings within a loss which rebut nihilistic perspectives on bereavement (Neimeyer et al, 2010)

Our Study

To learn how technology could use bereavement meaning-making to support grievers, we wanted to study how people interacted with an existing technology that encouraged reflection and bereavement meaning-making. There were many potential types of technology we could have chosen, but we ultimately chose the digital game GRIS by Nomada Studio.

The character Gris running through a desert, jumping across treetops, swimming through an ocean, and smashing through a rocky floor
A collection of GRIS gameplay

GRIS tells the story of Gris, a young woman who has lost a loved one. Players of the game accompany Gris on an abstract grief journey, learning skills and overcoming challenges along the way. We chose GRIS for two reasons:

  1. We know that digital games like GRIS can engage with reflection, emotional challenges, and sensitive topics like bereavement
  2. GRIS provides an interactive experience focused on grief that players can interpret, relate to, and find meaning within

We studied how 11 grievers played the game GRIS, and how it helped them reflect on and understand grief in new ways. This involved an orientation interview where we learned about their experiences with bereavement, six short surveys they completed while playing the game, and a follow-up interview where we learned about their experiences playing the game.

Our Findings

In our study, we learned that the majority (n=8) of the grievers we interviewed reflected on their grief experiences while playing GRIS. These reflections fell into three categories:

  1. Revisiting prior grief experiences (n=1)
  2. Rediscovering old insights on grief experiences (n=3)
  3. Discovering new insights on grief experiences (n=4)

Importantly, these grievers reflected by connecting their own grief experiences to the character Gris’ grief experiences within the game. For example, Participant 10 (see quote below) compared losing her own voice while grieving to Gris losing her voice at the beginning of the game — that connection helped the griever think more about her grief experiences.

“[She lost] her voice and… it resonated with me… [during my grief] I was crying so bad. Like, I was dry heaving and I lost my voice.” — P10

We also learned that the majority of the grievers who reflected also engaged in meaning-making (n=7). For example, Participant 11 (see quote below) reached a new understanding of their habits while grieving by reflecting on a gravity-based puzzle in GRIS. He noticed that just as Gris switched back and forth between gravities, he himself switched back and forth between helpful and unhelpful habits while grieving. This perspective on grieving was entirely new to him, and helped him see his grief experiences in a new light.

“You ha[d] to switch from the one gravity to another gravity, kind of like back and forth… I felt like, I did that same kind of mistakes, when it comes to my [grieving] process.” — P11

Design Recommendations

Overall, our findings suggested that technology could potentially support grievers by focusing on reflection and bereavement meaning-making. The technology we used, GRIS, was able to help grievers reflect and find new meanings within their grief experiences. To help flesh out this novel approach, we created three design recommendations to inform the design of future technology.

1. Engaging with Individualized Bereavement Experiences

An important part of grievers’ reflections while playing GRIS was connecting the game’s abstract narrative to their own personal, unique experiences with grief. Participants reflected by interpreting the narrative as matching their experiences, and then thinking more deeply about their experiences. Conversely, the participants who couldn’t connect with the narrative did not reflect.

Because of this, we recommend carefully balancing abstractness and specifity when trying to facilitate reflection and bereavement meaning-making. If the representation of grief is too abstract, the amount of interpretation required might be offputting to grievers. Similarly, if the representation is too specific, the details might contradict grievers’ personal experiences and, again, be offputing. Finding the right balance of abstractness and specificity is critical to encouraging reflection on grief experiences.

2. Embedding User Agency within Reflection.

While reflecting on their grief experiences, grievers very much benefitted from the freedom afforded to them by GRIS. The technology didn’t require them to reflect at any point; instead, it gave them opportunities to reflect, and let them choose when and where to reflect on their grief experiences.

We recommend implementing a similar level of freedom into future technology for bereavement support. Grievers’ reflection and meaning-making occured because they were able to make connections they found meaningful, and were not forced to reflect on aspects they did not find meaningful. Reflection and meaning-making ought to feel like a collaboration between the technology and the griever, not like a didactic lesson from the technology.

3. Focusing on Novel & Anti-Nihilistic Reflections

Grievers’ reflections led to bereavement meaning-making when they were novel insights and contained positive, anti-nihilistic perspectives on bereavement. When reflections weren’t novel or weren’t anti-nihilistic, they didn’t qualify as bereavement meaning-making and, according to constructivist grief therapies, weren’t as helpful for the griever.

We recommend that technology aiming to provide bereavement support via meaning-making specifically focus on novel and anti-nihilistic reflections. This could take the form of presenting users with various perspectives on bereavement, and incorporating positive and hopeful portrayals of bereavement journeys.

To learn more, please refer to our full research paper. Alternatively, feel free to contact us! We can be reached by email at clefevr@iu.edu (Colin LeFevre), and at cfchung@ucsc.edu (Christina Chung).

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