In the wake of personal loss, individuals are turning to digital platforms for solace and support, powering a curious new economy of loss.
“When I lost him, I was miserable. It’s almost an understatement to say that because the feeling was so intense and filled with immense helplessness,” said Tanushka Dutta, a journalist with a leading media organisation in New Delhi, who lost her grandfather only eight months ago. Not wanting to burden her family with her emotions, she bottled up her grief. Not many could understand what she was going through. Even her friends, whom she expected to relate to her, could not grasp the intensity of her emotions.
She did consider grief counselling, but it cost too much. It was then that Tanushka discovered groups like parent loss support groups and grief support groups on Facebook. The personal stories of others in these spaces somehow validated her grief.
“There was a weird sort of comfort in knowing that this is a miserable feeling that I’m not facing alone, that there are unknown strangers on this planet who are going through it too,” she told Frontline. After some time, she mustered the courage to write about her feelings, and many strangers offered their support in the comment section with simple phrases like “It will get better”. One of the pages that helped her immensely was Untangle Grief on Instagram, she recalled.
Tanushka is one of thousands of people in India and abroad who engage in what sociologists call the grief economy, which includes services and products for those grieving. The grief economy, especially its digital side, has received a boost during and after the COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted many people to seek help to cope with their losses. Furthermore, there has been a concerted effort to understand the socio-economic impact of grief across the globe.
For instance, an estimate by the US-based research group Grief Recovery Institute shows that grief is costing the economy $75 billion in productivity losses every year. In addition to offline services, which include clinics and other support groups, hundreds of pages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and many other platforms are now offering ways to cope with grief, in the form of flashcards featuring impactful quotes, short videos carrying advice and experiences, memes, and more. In India, the market, though in a nascent stage, is finding takers of late, thanks to increased levels of awareness about mental health and the rise of social media platforms.
With thousands of readers, listeners, subscribers, and followers, the market for products and services related to grief is continually growing. The grief economy aims to build and monetise a support system that transcends time and geography. Offering accessibility, privacy, and affordable subscriptions, it either serves as a precursor to therapy or, in some cases, a satisfactory alternative to counselling.
In just 21 days of October 2023, Amazon has published over 36 books (both paperback and Kindle versions) in its “Grief and Bereavement” and “Self-help” section. Spotify, the popular music player platform, hosts more than 100 podcasts related to grief, such as The Good Mourning Podcast, GriefCast, Shapes of Grief, The Good Grief Podcast, What Now, and The Grief Awakening. The Google Play store offers more than 20 apps to assist those on their grief journey. Additionally, over 50 pages dedicated to discussing and expressing grief have emerged on Instagram, such as Option B, Grief to Light, and Grief Case.
Creators of these shows, handles, and pages, many of whom are grieving themselves, provide self-care guidance, step-by-step guides, podcasts on coping with grief, and shared experiences to reach out to people. For instance, the chart-topping Good Mourning podcast, run by Sally Douglas and Imogen Carn, opens with a poignant line: “We, unfortunately, joined the club that nobody wants to.” Sally Douglas and Imogen Carn, authors of the book Good Mourning: Honest Conversations about Grief and Loss, have cultivated an online community through their podcast and other content, aiming to help people understand grief and alleviate the sense of isolation among grievers. Having both lost their mothers unexpectedly in their early 30s, Sally and Imogen struggled to find adequate grief support. Their products—a podcast, a bestseller, and live events—aim to create a space for discussing the realities of loss.
In recent years, as therapy has shed misconceptions associated with it, products designed to help people deal with grief have gained acceptance and popularity. Emily Cummin, the founder and CEO of Untangle Grief (a Bereavement and Grief Support website and mobile application), launched her products intending to reach more people and help them navigate their grief. Untangle Grief, one of the many grief support apps available on the Google Play Store, boasts over 35,000 users from around 148 countries. Curated by psychologists, nutritionists, fitness experts, and content developers, the app offers users a space to share their experiences or relate to others who have gone through similar situations.
Cummin stressed the importance of providing spaces for understanding and expressing grief, saying, “Sometimes it is hard to discuss grief within one’s own family. Untangle Grief, which is very popular among users in India, offers a non-judgmental space for them to talk about their feelings. It lets them know that they’re not alone.”
Conservative estimates suggest that the global market for products and services related to grief amounts to more than $16 billion now and is expected to reach about $30 billion by the end of this decade. However, like any product dealing with abstract concepts, it raises several concerns. Do these products genuinely help individuals cope with grief, and are they sufficient? How far can these products go in assisting grievers, and why are they becoming a preferred option over professional counselling? “Many such apps and pages seem to endorse techniques suggested to people dealing with grief by psychologists. These include activities like doodling, talking, and self-expression,” said Priya Dhandapani, a counselling psychologist and PhD scholar in Chennai.
However, professionals emphasise the need for proper therapy. Rakhi Sengupta, a practising psychotherapist specialising in trauma and grief, said that grief is never a singular emotion; it encompasses a range of emotions. “As grief therapists, our work involves addressing each emotion associated with it, such as sadness, anger, and denial,” she explained. She also noted that how a person navigates their grief varies from individual to individual, influenced by personal factors like childhood experiences, past traumas, and their growth environment.
Counselling and therapy are ongoing processes, experts say. Grief therapists help grievers examine their trauma, understand their loss, and acknowledge it at their own pace and in their own time. In the first six months after losing a loved one, known as the acknowledgment period, individuals must recognise their grief and come to terms with their loss.
According to Rakhi Sengupta, products like podcasts and apps serve as coping mechanisms that support grievers during the initial six months by reassuring them that they are not alone. “Grief manifests in the body and the mind. In a way, these products are commendable as they help individuals deal with grief. However, they are insufficient in untangling every emotion, as they lack a personalised understanding of what each person is experiencing.”
She added, “After the acknowledgment period, the griever has to process things. Podcasts or apps can’t offer much assistance beyond the first six months. At that point, the individual needs to work through their grief with a grief counsellor or therapist.”
Creators must consider numerous factors, with the most important being the “connection”, said Priya Dhandapani. “There is a gap between digitising services and addressing the psychological components attached to them. Therefore, creators must explore the ‘connection’ factor more.” Experts warn that consumers of such services should be aware of their data privacy rights, and the companies and creators engaged in such activities should respect and abide by data privacy laws and ethics.
Soumali Bardhan, a clinical psychologist based in Kolkata, recommended that digital spaces address the psychological aspect carefully by providing contact information for psychologists or counsellors to guide grieving individuals on their journey. Many apps are trying to do just that. Untangle Grief’s Emily Cummin said that they want to integrate their “services with the NHS in the UK, but we’re just establishing ourselves.”
Such support has been either costly or seen as taboo, at least in countries like India, leaving room for any available assistance. There is some satisfaction in the offerings of these digital platforms. While their monetisation remains a decision made independently by the creators, some of these products assist users in at least coping with grief. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to grief, there is always something that can be done about it. These products provide a starting point for people looking to navigate their grief, much like Tanushka did.