What and how might grief be – studying changing grief practices

When speaking of death and /or digital death within the frames of a research project like DiDe, we are not (only) speaking of death as an abstract idea or a phenomenon but of death as something social, cultural, historical, emotional, affective and existential: Somebody has died. Someone has lost a child, a spouse, a parent, a colleague, a neighbour, a friend. Someone is grieving. In grief, we may perform rituals, arrange funeral services, produce memorials and share the memories of our deceased loved ones with others. If the dead was very close to us, we may engage in identity work, through which we try to understand what it means to our self-understanding and place in the world now that we are no longer a part of this relationship in the same way, and we may perform various practices that help us alter our everyday life (practically, emotionally, socially etc) with and without the deceased. Some of these practices may be performed online and using digital material and devices in different ways, while others are physical. Some may be performed once, while others are performed repeatedly on special occasions and/or in everyday life.

In the Danish part of the DiDe project, we take a special interest in the grief practices that individuals perform in various sociocultural arenas. We produce ethnography and autoethnography on specific grief practices in order to analyse how various practices may form a person’s grief repertoire and how these are, or are not, related. We look at how people do things alone, with known others, with or strangers and how they make sense of such practices. Furthermore, we are working on framing these practices by applying conceptual frameworks from, amongst others, grief studies, ritual studies and anthropology. A core focus of these analyses is critical evaluation and reflection on existing grief norms, both in society and in grief research. The aim of this is to be able to be as curious and open as possible to the specific practices that people hold (the ethnography) and to use these practices in a dialectic process of empirical and theoretical studies, thereby contributing to the study of (digital) death more generally: how do grief practices begin?; how are they negotiated in the sociocultural arenas that the bereaved is part of?; how do they reflect developments in society (e.g. digitalization, globalization)?; and how are we to conceptualize them? For instance, in most grief literature, it is presupposed that grief is mostly about reworking the relationship with the deceased, with the aim of transforming and continuing the bond to the dead. But not all practices are about continuing bonds: many contemporary practices are oriented towards transforming the self-narrative of the bereaved and their place in the world, while others are about leaving the dead behind in order to take up new paths in life. So, on the one hand, our work is to be inclusive in the way we see grief practices while, at the same time, remaining continuously critical to the way we apply and develop our conceptualizations: if everything is grief, nothing is grief. 

Why is this important? Because research is a constant dialogue that aims at open-minded exploration, such as how, in this case, grief evolves and changes. That is, rather than seeking to confirm pre-formed ideas, we are curious about how grief might be. We seek to ask openly, how are we constructing grief as a phenomenon in these digitally saturated times? Where grief is not something known, prescribed, and which exists ‘out there,’ separate from those who experience it, but as a socially situated phenomenon in a state of constant forming, embedded in a large number of sociocultural realms. When culture evolves so does grief.