Over 8 million Americans experience the death of a loved one each year.
Nearly half of American women older than 65 are widowed, in addition to one in six American men of the same age.
The Grief, Loss, And Social Stress (GLASS) Laboratory at the University of Arizona is dedicated to examining psychological and physiological aspects of grief and other forms of profound life stress.
In addition, the GLASS Laboratory uses a clinical science approach to examine and improve psychological support to help people cope with grief.
The death of a spouse in later life has been linked to impairments in mental and physical health. However, research shows that losing a spouse is not the sole cause of these impairments.
Rather, poor mental and physical health following bereavement in later life is associated with the social isolation that accompanies widowhood for many individuals.
Scientifically based grief-support groups have been shown to help widows and widowers cope with their loss, though for older individuals, obstacles such as geographic location and physical immobility can make it difficult to attend in-person support groups.
Thus, we sought to bring the grief support into widows’ and widowers’ homes by creating a virtual-reality support group that allows group members to interact in real time.
In the virtual-reality support group, the group leaders and a small group of bereaved individuals appear on a computer as computer-generated avatars, or visual images representing each person, that can walk and talk on the screen.
With grant support from the Retirement Research Foundation, we developed the virtual-reality support group and a grief-education website for older widows and widowers and compared them with each other in a small-scale preliminary study.
Thirty bereaved adults over 50 years of age were assigned to one of the two study conditions: the virtual-reality support group or the grief-education website.
The virtual-reality support group used a free, easy-to-install and simple-to-use software program called Second Life.
Participants chose an avatar to represent them in the virtual-support-group setting and learned to move their avatar using basic keyboard arrow commands.
The virtual support group met for one hour twice a week for a total of eight weeks (16 sessions) in a private living-room setting owned by the principal investigator.
The group leaders and members communicated with each other by typing into a group chat box.
The first session of each week was led by a licensed mental-health-care provider and consisted of scientifically based education on topics related to coping with spousal grief.
The second session of each week was moderated by a well-trained research staff person and consisted of reflection on educational topics and social interaction.
The other study condition consisted of weekly readings on a grief-education website without interacting with other widows and widowers.
Importantly, the grief-education website and the virtual support group covered the same scientifically based education topics including physical health maintenance, mental well-being, relaxation techniques, dating and parenting, social re-engagement and dealing with the personal property of the deceased.
In this novel pilot study, over 88 percent of participants completed participation in the virtual-reality support group or grief-education website.
Participants rated both interventions as highly acceptable, with 94 percent of the virtual-reality support group and 100 percent of the grief website group reporting that they would recommend the intervention to a friend.
Specific to the virtual-reality support group, members reported a high level of immersion in the support-group environment and a high level of feelings of support from their fellow group members.
In follow-up assessments at the end of the eight-week study period and two months later, we found that participants in both groups showed self-reported improvements in grief, stress, loneliness and sleep quality.
However, only participants in the virtual-reality support group showed self-reported improvement in symptoms of depression.
Although these results are preliminary, it is possible that the social support provided by the group in the virtual environment, along with its interactive nature, decreased depression in the virtual-support group compared with the grief-education website.
A next step in this line of research on novel interventions for grief is to compare the virtual-support group, grief-educational website, an in-person support-group intervention and the simple passage of time to clarify what is effective in these simple and accessible grief-support resources.
The American and global aging populations make this an especially important area of research.