Exploring Remembrance and Social Support Behavior in an Online Bereavement Support Group

The "Circle Chat" in the website we developed allows members of a bereavement support group to share mementos and online resources alongside traditional chat.

The “Circle Chat” in the Besupp website we developed allows members of a bereavement support group to share mementos and online resources alongside traditional chat.

When dealing with the death of a loved one, attending a community support group can sometimes be helpful for the bereaved. Through partnership with Bereaved Families of Ontario – Toronto, we built a website called Besupp based on the characteristics underlying their most successful groups:

  • Like-loss. Members of a support group have all experience the same kind of loss.
  • Peer-facilitated. The only people allowed into a group are those who have suffered a loss themselves. No doctors, clergy, psychologists, therapists or other professionals will tell you how to “fix your grief.”
  • Screened. Everyone in the group is placed there by a trained facilitator, and is at a state where they are able to participate in the group.

Three support groups used Besupp for a period of 10 weeks. Based on system logs and interviews with participants, we found out some interesting things.

  • Mementos have limited usefulness. Digital mementos were helpful for getting to know one another, but had limited usefulness after that. They sometimes drew participants backwards to negative emotions, as opposed to helping them cope.
  • Giving support can be as important as receiving it. Several people used Besupp because they wanted to share the benefit of their experience as a bereaved person, not because they actually wanted support back from their group.
  • Don’t confuse grief, mourning, coping, and remembrance. These are all different activities that often conflated in websites for the bereaved. The places we visit to feel close to loved ones are often different than the places where we talk about our grief, and that’s a good thing.
  • Small, quiet communities can be interesting too! The Besupp community was small and participants didn’t use it nearly as much as we thought. Even so, building Besupp gave participants a valuable place to vent, and yielded significant insights about how to better design for the bereaved and about their values.

For more, see the full paper, Exploring Remembrance and Social Support Behavior in an Online Support Group.
Michael Massimi, Microsoft Research Cambridge

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About Michael Massimi

Michael Massimi is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Socio-Digital Systems group at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, UK. His research focuses on technology’s role during life-changing events such as marriage, parenthood, and the death of a loved one. His work has explored the role of technologies for social support, communication, and memory as they relate to these transitory times. He was awarded the Noah Thorek award for contributions to Bereaved Families of Ontario – Toronto. He is an alum of the Health Care, Technology, and Place doctoral training program at the University of Toronto, where he earned a Ph.D. in Computer Science.

2 thoughts on “Exploring Remembrance and Social Support Behavior in an Online Bereavement Support Group

  1. Hi, Michael! Really interesting work.

    I was wondering if, in a future iteration of Besupp, you had considered the benefits or drawbacks of splitting into a more forum-like structure, with subforums for specific topics? For example, you mention in this overview that users/designers shouldn’t “confuse grief, mourning, coping, and remembrance”, and in the paper discuss a mother who had a ‘fun’ memory of her son’s love of the song Mambo #5. Could you have appropriate sub-chats for different categories (grief, remembrance, etc), or would that take away from the benefits gained from posting in the primary Circle Chat section?

  2. Hi Erin – Thanks for your question! I do think that splitting into more specialized subtopics would be helpful for those looking to talk about a specific kind of loss. The difficulty with that is that in order to maintain a high level of trust, this results in even smaller groups, and correspondingly slower replies.

    Having subchats according to function (remembrance, grief, humor, etc.) as opposed to subtopic (bereaved single parents, widows under 40) is an interesting approach as well. Participants said that they liked having separate spaces for bereavement from their daily lives, but at the same time, overprescribing the purpose of a site can make it offputting (as with the ‘grief work’ quote you mention). Systems for social support face the problem of balancing these two tensions — hyperspecialization vs. flexibility in contribution.

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