© Heba Malaeb
2012-2018


Heba Malaeb, "Exhibiting Absence: Communicating Grief through Dress, Decor, and the Digital" from SVA MA Design Research on Vimeo.

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Exhibiting Absence:
communicating grief through dress,
decor, and the digital

Of the few things in human experience that can be said to be universal, death is perhaps the most elusive; it’s tabooed for the anxiety it often arouses in us – pushed aside and feared, avoided until absolutely necessary. And following close behind it, death’s devoted consequence, grief, makes itself universal by association—and tabooed, too, by association.

So what happens to grief in a society that shies away from it, if not rejects it outright?

Tens of articles, ranging from scholarly studies to think pieces, have been written on American society’s obsession with happiness—and its fear of negativity. Studies have even been done into the economic benefits of happiness, and much has been written on the causal relationship between increased happiness and increased worker productivity, thus providing a strong economic impetus for society to encourage, value, and strive towards, happiness.

Grief doesn’t make efficient workers. Grief is not a productive feeling; it cannot be used in favor of furthering society’s larger goals of “progress” and “development”. It’s inconvenient, unpredictable, and takes up a lot of energy.

The set of societal conditions that discourage “negativity” make the display and communication of any kind of suffering, especially emotional or mental, difficult, for the discomfort it causes in people, and the lack of social infrastructure in place to support an ailing person’s needs. So when it comes to grief—a pain that is doubly tabooed for both its “negative” connotations as well as the death-associations it carries—communicating becomes even more difficult.

Part i: HEART ON A SLEEVE – signs of loss

After a death comes the work of announcing the loss, be it to a village or to a friend, in a newspaper or on an Instagram post. And just as the feelings left over from the relationship don’t fade, the loss holds longevity: it lasts beyond the funeral, beyond the fabled five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), and beyond the years. So what factors can make it possible for the legible act of grieving to continue evolving alongside the duration of grief?

For some people who are grieving, their emotional states might come to be physically reflected in their living space – potato chip bags begin to fill the corners of the room; takeout containers may be sitting around; the bed might stay unmade; a cocktail of washed and unwashed laundry might coat the floor… but none of this arrangement of the environment is deliberate; that is, none of it is facilitated through design. This display of grief then is a passive, unintentional activity, and not an active process of design; it’s the result of the entropy of sadness and the inertia of grief; just a consequence.

This passive consequence stands in contrast to a different kind of display: the active shaping of one’s surroundings to reflect a loss. It might seem counterintuitive for someone to decorate their space or their clothing to communicate sadness or grief, as those feelings are perceived to be private, and, for reasons previously mentioned, discouraged by society. But a quick glance at the history of mourning attests many examples of this outward display of emotional state: wearing black after someone dies, or pinning a black ribbon to one’s clothing, or even, on a national level, flying a flag at half–mast.

Many signifiers exist to communicate grief to an outside observer; the simplest example is wearing black clothing to convey a state of mourning, a common practice in many cultures. In cities around the world, “ghost bikes” can be seen in public spaces: bikes painted completely in white and installed at the site of a bicycle accident, to memorialize someone who lost their life on a bicycle. Similarly to the bikes, the mere presence of flowers deliberately arranged in a public place instantly implies that someone has died, and is being commemorated.

Thus the act of announcing, or publicizing, the grief takes place in many forms and at a variety of scales: from the scale of the body (tattoos to memorialize the dead; clothing to signify mourning), to personal space (decorating a room with a photo of the departed), to a larger, more public scale (unofficial street memorials like the ghost bikes, or like wayside shrines, most commonly installed at roadsides where car accidents have claimed a life).

This announcement of loss puts the private, highly personal experience of mourning on display, making it readable by an external audience. In involving other people in the mourning process and demanding to be witnessed, however superficially, grieving people assert the right to their grief.

This presents a tension: one between experiencing a private, irreplicable pain, and displaying it publicly, or at least openly. In a culture that shies away from (if not outright rejects) “negative” emotions as something to be fixed, grief presents a conundrum: when a death has occurred, it’s extremely difficult to “look on the bright side”, as contemporary positivity culture might want to instruct us. But grief is a testament to the depth of emotion in a relationship that has been irrevocably transformed by the absence of one of the participants; hurrying grief or dismissing it fails, then, to honor the very real loss that is being mourned.

For precisely this reason—that is, that grief impacts one’s life in such a large way—people are vying for a societal shift where grief is treated with sensitivity, or at least consideration. In 2015, Angie Cartwright, a woman who experienced immense grief at different times in her life, and was hugely impacted by it each time, organized a change.org petition that garnered almost 20,000 signatures, to declare the 30th of August “National Grief Awareness Day”. Thousands of signatories offered personal testimony in addition to signing:

“I am signing because I had a hard time dealing with the death of my 9 month old granddaughter. People need to be patient with others.” – Maradie Wehner

“My husband needs a day set aside to grieve for his Father's timeless death in an accident so many years ago. Instead of it eating his soul as it does now. Knowing my husband is going through this makes me know there are millions of others that need this day as well”
– Bronwyn OBrien

“To support those who have lost their loved ones tragically & way before their time. Grief, not something that you ever get over...you learn to live with it and move on but [it] is always there.” – Jennifer Bradshaw

Part ii: OBJECT PERMANENCE – pre–packaged grief in a consumer society

Whether or not a lack of awareness around grief is a design problem, there are certainly some designed solutions out there.

In the aftermath of a loss, the bereaved are left to their devices – quite literally. While the most common way for grieving people to find comfort is through community, therapy, or religion, the world of consumer products has given those of us who lack the luxuries of friends, Freud, and faith a different way to grieve: the path of grief that externalizes itself in the form of objects.

Philosophies of inclusive or universal design advocate the notion that design should account for the extremes in terms of user, and not the average—by encompassing the largest range of human experience, design gets closer to being as universal as possible (OXO designer Dan Formosa has said, “If we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.”). This approach to design is most often employed in ergonomics, when designing for a range of bodily abilities. But the peculiar paradox of grief’s simultaneous universality and hyperspecificity mirrors that of the human body, and presents a tension: can design account for each person’s specific and unique experience, while providing a universal enough “vessel” onto which to impart the experience?

In the way only an American product landscape can make possible, a huge variety of consumer products exist that might provide a solution to the previous question—by answering it with sheer quantity. If there are a million different ways to grieve, then perhaps a million products is the answer?

From Barbara Kruger’s adage, “I shop therefore I am”, comes the extrapolation that we construct ourselves through the objects we collect. Our chosen belongings then often unwittingly communicate information about us; an identity can be pieced together with the help of the assumption that there is personal agency motivating our acquisitions of things. For example, an Eames chair in someone’s home might connote an interest in design, as well as a certain level of financial ability that makes the acquisition of the chair possible; a Toyota Prius is a different kind of status symbol—one that might imply environmental consciousness and deliberate consumer choice.

But what about the design objects whose main purpose is to explicitly, and not implicitly, relay information—in this case, the communication of grief?

Before the maxim “there’s an app for that”, there was (and still is) the reality that there’s a gadget, a gizmo for that. An array of products exist that aim to facilitate the display of grief; some examples are: memorial picture frames, printed or inscribed with poems or sayings about death and memory; memento candle–holders with similar pre–scribed sentiments (“In Memory of a Life So Beautifully Lived”); man–made stones etched with a grief–themed message, that can become part of a garden’s footpath. From these objects, a bereaved shopper can select a range of objects that mediate and facilitate mourning.

These objects allow the user to highlight the importance of the loss of their loved one, by incorporating the loss into the very landscape of their life. This is not so different from people who choose to get tattoos of their deceased loved ones, as a way to commemorate them, as well as to assert and preserve them as a permanent part of daily life.

The examples of the mourning objects range in scale, type, and price point, but a typology can be created by grouping together objects that share a common thread: the presence of words. On some objects, the words are poems or sayings of remembrance; on others, they are more specific and specialized designations of purpose, such as, “In memory of Dad”.

One place to find a congregation of these bereavement objects is, of course, on Amazon.com. One product is a picture frame sold by Banberry Designs. The frame is printed with a poem of remembrance and the words, “In Loving Memory”. Reviews of the frame vary between thankfulness for the existence of the object, to complaints about shipping and quality; but one thing is consistent throughout these reviews: the sign of a search for something that might offer some kind of comfort from, or control over, grief.

It is [a] perfect way to express love of a lost one By David on October 15, 2017
“When my wife [passed] away, I wanted something to express my love for her. When I saw this frame, I thought it was perfect for both me and her mom and dad. I got two. The frame is a solid frame that displays so well. It is a frame that sits in our curio cabinet [which] holds the memory of my wife. I love her and this frame helps show that love to everybody that sees it.”

The ritual of selection of the right frame, or the right candle holder, the right ceramic angel (with a message of remembrance inscribed in it) to hang on the wall, becomes an extended part of the mourning process. Differently from the pragmatic value of storing the ashes of a loved one in an urn, the selection of these superfluous items is an active choice on the part of the bereaved, a choice made perhaps only with emotion in mind. The use of a physical object to symbolize the loss keeps the mourning in the present tense, representing a state of constancy: the loss may have passed, but the object is a lasting monument to the loss, as it becomes inextricable from grief and from the memory of the loved one who died.

In her work, grief researcher Margaret Gibson compares personal mourning objects, what she calls “melancholy objects”, to what child psychologist Donald W. Winnicott termed “transitional objects”. According to Winnicott, a transitional object is an object in a child’s early development stages that stands in for the child’s relationship with their mother, to assuage the child’s anxiety when she is away. Gibson’s concept of a “melancholy object” is analogous to this; it represents the relationship between the mourning individual and the person they have lost. Similarly, objects someone buys for the sole purpose of representing or commemorating a loss can also behave as melancholy objects, whereby they come to represent not only the loss, but the mourning period as well.

Something of note is that almost half of the Amazon reviewers for the picture frame bought it as a gift. All of them wanted to bring comfort to their grieving friends, or teachers, or family members. That the frame (and other products like it) serves as an avenue for the expression of sympathy reveals the usefulness of having a tool that can help address the insurmountable topic of grief. This kind of product eases the discomfort caused by a taboo—in this case the looming spectre of grief and mortality, and helplessness in the face of it—by recontextualizing in a way that renders it non–threatening and digestible for people not experiencing it firsthand. In fact, it makes it graspable—and from that, giftable.

A more commonplace example of how grief is neatly pre–packaged (and commercialized) in American society is in the sympathy card, a greeting card meant to communicate sympathy for someone’s loss. In a greeting card store, the section devoted to sympathy cards is always the smallest, and usually located in the back of the store. This could be read as symptomatic of American culture’s attitudes towards death, grief, and difficult emotions: hide it away until absolutely necessary, and when necessary, make the emotional labor required as small as possible.

A 1995 study by Charmaine Caldwell, Marsha McGee, and Charles Pryor looked precisely to sympathy cards to glean cultural attitudes in American society around the topic of death and grieving. The study was a follow–up to an identical one conducted by McGee in 1980. The biggest change noticed by the researchers was in the aesthetics of the cards – in 1980, most sympathy cards were adorned with photos of candles, while in 1995 flowers made a larger appearance. Among the other findings was the insight that in a survey of 137 sympathy cards chosen and written by people of different ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds, the word “dead” was used only once. So while the aesthetics of the cards evolved, the cultural attitudes towards death and the explicit naming of it remained virtually unchanged: still avoidant, and still hiding behind the safety of euphemisms.

In this way, sympathy cards serve as a kind of prosthetic for the emotive organ; they are demonstrative tools used to mediate the expression of sympathy, while simultaneously circumventing a direct confrontation with sorrow, suffering, and mortality for the person expressing sympathy on the loss of those mourning.

But it’s undeniable that there is an attractive safety to participating in grief and grieving in these highly prescribed, programmed ways. This is why models of grieving such as the “five stages” model (that describes grief as having five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) are so popular; Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler–Ross had originally proposed the model to refer to the grief of terminally ill patients, but the stages quickly got co-opted to correspond to the grief associated with mourning a death. And even though it has been criticized for being too rigid and implying a “correct”, linear way to grieve, the five stages model remains popular in people’s understandings of grief.

Part iii: VIRTUAL VENTRILOQUY – death dialogues in digital

The pain of loss is pain that holds longevity: grief is not a feeling that goes away quickly; in many cases, it lasts lifetimes. And although people have tried to make sense of the grieving process by turning to pre–programmed models of grieving, grief remains messy and deeply individual, with no predictable or programmable end. This is further complicated by the contradiction inherent in grief: grief is extremely painful, but grieving is essential for working through a loss; and the person grieving might not want their grief to end, because the grief, like the melancholy objects, represents the relationship being mourned.

This long and complicated lifespan of grief stands in contrast to the way we have evolved to process information: hundreds of articles have been written detailing how the Internet and its accessories have made our attention spans shorter. It’s no inconsistency that grief is inherently opposed to the hyperspeeds of the information age: grief needs attention, and needs it for long periods of time. So in a cultural context where someone experiencing loss is implicitly pressured to “get over it” faster, it naturally follows that a grieving person would struggle to find a space in society where their grief is allowed, let alone welcomed.

Even so, in the way that only the Internet can, the Internet has served as a place where huge communities have formed that are devoted solely to grief and grieving. For example, on the discussion website Reddit, the “grief” subreddit (or forum) is populated by thousands of posts from bereaved people expressing pain, sharing photographs, asking for advice, processing their emotions… and always with a chorus of support in the comments, from at lease one person who can relate.

Angie Cartwright, who organized the change.org petition for grief awareness, also founded a Facebook group by the name “Grief the Unspoken”, from which more than a dozen specialized sub–groups developed, like “GTU Grief Group For Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual,and Transgender”; “GTU Men's Grief Group Closed Men Only!”; “GTU Grief Due To Losing A Loved One Over A Drug/ Alcohol Overdose”. Through this process of segmentation and specialization, the Facebook sub-groups start to account for the contradiction between specifics and universals when it comes to grief. And Grief The Unspoken is only one of hundreds of grief–related groups and pages that can be found on Facebook.

Different from Reddit, where the mechanism of sharing and posting is decentralized, Facebook operates in a way parallel to a retail environment like the ones discussed earlier—in Facebook groups, there is a centralized source of “consumer products”, or the content posted in the Facebook group. The group admin plays the role of the retailer, creating and posting the consumer product, which in many of these groups are grief-related “memes”: images (usually stock photography) overlaid with heartfelt expressions of what it feels like to be experiencing grief (for example, a close-up photo of a sneakered foot, with the words “I would walk a million miles to be with you again”, in a curvy font, superimposed on the image).

But the memes in these groups, in contrast to the frames and cards, are not monetized or commercialized. This allows any member of the group to claim ownership of the memes; the act of “sharing” a meme to your timeline re-contextualizes the meme as part of your online identity, lending you a tool of expression and communication that’s similar to the sympathy cards and the frames in the way it functions; just like living rooms that hold memorial picture frames or ceramic angels, there are Facebook timelines populated with “grief memes” that perform a similar function: announcing grief to an external audience.

These memes operate as a kind of mirror to sympathy cards: The Facebook user has a choice in picking which expressions of grief resonate with their own experience; and in the act of “sharing” the content on Facebook, the user flips the direction of communication: rather than receiving sympathy and comfort, the sharer of the meme is projecting outward an expression of grief and discomfort, asserting the right to a truthful, outwardly expressed experience of grief.

CONCLUSION

In the end, grief, no matter its externalizations, remains a constant negotiation with absence. Through these peculiar designed objects, this absence can be acknowledged and incorporated into daily life, concretizing loss in the form of a legible communiqué—be that digital or decorative. This aired–out grieving actively puts on display a disappearing act that, through buying, sharing, tattooing, decorating, speaking, writing, displaying, and remembering, people in mourning refuse to let disappear.

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