Grieving in the Virtual World

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

Losing a loved one at any time can be an emotional experience, but losing someone during a pandemic can be even more devastating. As humans, we grieve by leaning on friends and family, by having a traditional service, saying our goodbyes and going through the stages of grief.

But how do you deal with a loss when no one is allowed to meet in person?

Back in April, I experienced this with the sudden loss of a long time friend. For the nearly 20 years I have known this person (we'll call him W for short), we have eaten, drank, laughed, and traveled our way through the world. Together with his lovely wife, we formed a social network and bond with group of people and met socially quite often. A few years ago, W and his wife decided to retire to one of the beaches in Florida. Of course this came as a blow to our social circle, but distance doesn't separate you from the ones you love so we stayed in touch and visited as often as we could.

Then came a series of health setbacks for W. The worst of which culminated in a stroke which ultimately took his life. All this seemed to have happened so quickly that many of us were not only caught off guard, we went into "social shock".

How could our beloved W be gone?

How can we see his wife to give her our condolences and comfort her?

Will there be a service? What would it look like since no one is allowed to travel?

While all of us struggled to cope with this sudden loss, I started to think about what I could do to help W's wife cope with all she had to do, while properly celebrating a man who given the world so much. After much deliberation, I called W's wife (we will call her P) and made my plea.

What if we planned a Virtual Celebration of LIfe for W? While W specifically mentioned that he did not want any fan fare in the event of his death, I made a compelling case (albeit gently) that given that we were in a pandemic, we should do at least SOMETHING for W. He had such an extensive network of contacts, surely people would want an opportunity to grief his loss and say a few words during some kind of Virtual Service? P said she would think about it and get back to me.

About a week later (it's now late May), P called me and said she had thought about it and thought it was a good idea to plan something small and intimate for W. I, of course, offered to assist and we set out on our Virtual Celebration of Life journey together.

In her professional life, P was an accomplished meeting planner, so she knew a thing or two about how to organize and event. What she needed help with is navigating through all the virtual technology that had suddenly popped up as a result of everyone having to pivot to virtual meetings. We looked at the options, and decided to use the most popular, Zoom.

Starting our Virtual Journey:

Set the framework with your Goals & Objectives. Here is what we decided on:

Invite List

  • EMAIL: The easiest way to invite W's contacts was by email. P had W's phone and downloaded his contacts.

  • SOCIAL MEDIA: We needed to gain access to W’s Facebook account. Once we got access we setup an open event and invited all his contacts to the celebration using the event feature. We also encouraged his contacts too forward to their contacts. We then posted his obituary to his FB. I also suggested we turn his FB page into a “Tribute Page” for a determined period of time. We then posted his bio as a life event. It was amazing at how many people reacted to this. W has such an unusual and long career, I personally was only aware of a small portion of it. The Facebook event had the Zoom call information on it with a link and instructions.

Pre Event

  • Tribute Video: P set out to collect as many pictures of friends and family as she could so I could put together a Celebration of Life Video.

  • Emcee/Facilitator: With a video call, I suggested we pick a facilitator (we called her our shepherd) to help keep things moving and prevent people from talking over each other (a very common thing with video calls). I served as the "control tower" and made sure everyone was on mute when the celebration was in full swing. This cut down on the amount of ambient noise so people could focus on the event.

Celebration of Life Structure:

  • Once we had gotten all the details wrapped up, P picked a time and date for the tribute. I suggested 2 weeks out to give people time to schedule.

  • We sent email invites and published on Social Media.

Zoom Call Structure

  • 48 hours prior to the call, we did a rehearsal to make sure that P and our shepherds equipment was working correctly. We also finalized the script and outstanding action items.

  • 2 days and 1 day prior, we sent out instructions for how to get on the zoom, along with the link again.

  • 30 minutes prior to the call, we all logged on to Zoom to make sure the technology was working.

  • We used the "waiting room" feature in Zoom so we could talk and make sure we had everything we needed before we activated the video call.

  • Once we activated, we posted a picture of Woodrow until most people were on. Rule of thumb is to wait about 5 minutes. The shepherd came on each minute or so to remind people that the event would start soon. This allowed people to get situated, etc.

  • The Zoom call was recorded so those that could not make it would be able to look at the video at a later time.

  • Our shepherd (aka facilitator) opened with a few words, outlined the agenda, then P said a few words.

  • We rolled the tribute video. Note: Not a dry eye in the house.

  • After the video, our shepherd continued by reading a bio with highlights of W's life. The shepherd and P had this pre-scripted so they alternated to give perspective and balance. To back up the bio, we had specific pictures of W shown on the screen to visually represent specific times in his life that were noteworthy.

  • The shepherd then asked attendees to use the chat feature if they wanted to say a few words. She called on people by name and asked them to unmute themselves.

  • We then concluded with 2 slides featuring poems that W had written in his younger years. This was in keeping with his personality as he always like to have the last word.

Post Event

As with live events, virtual events also need some post work done. This included:

  • Posting the tribute video to W's facebook page.

  • Editing the Zoom Video (cutting out the fluff and the beginning and end) and adding an intro at the front and his poems at the end. Posting this to W's facebook page.

  • We loaded the video's on a shared google drive so P could email the links out to all his contacts who were interested.

  • I downloaded the video's along with all the pictures to a portable hard drive and mailed it to P for her files.

  • After about 2 months, P gave me the green light to shut W's Facebook page down.

During this entire process, I learned quite a bit. As someone that is now involved with an association devoted to Virtual Meetings & Events, it was evident to me that people still want to see your face and look in your eyes. This Celebration of LIfe gave W's friends and family the ability to say their goodbyes and have some form of closure. Afterward, P and I spoke several times and she thanked me for pushing her to do this. It was not easy for her and I had to learn patience along the way and to let her plan at her own pace so she wasn't overwhelmed.

Everyone defines what their legacy might be in a different way, but when we leave this earth, we all want to know that we made some sort of impact on someones life. W definitely did.

Check List at a Glance:

1. Pre-Event

a) Invite Lists - both email and social media

b) Establish a facilitator

c) Consider a tribute video or photo album

d) Write the Script/Run of Celebration

e) Reminder and instructions for attendees on technology

f) Schedule time for rehearsal

g) Turn Facebook page into a tribute page with bio and/or obituary

2. During Event

a) 48 Hours prior, check equipment and technology

b) Meeting Host should place attendees in a waiting room

c) All attendees should be on mute unless speaking to cut down on noise

d) Facilitator should guide everyone along

e) Meeting Host should be sure that everyone remains on mute

f) Record the call to be easily archived.

g) Any multi media should be archived (such as the video or photo album)

3. Post Event

a) Post any videos or photo albums to facebook page as an archive.

b) Consider establishing a shared drive for easy share of event archived items

c) Send the surviving spouse copies of all archived items

Lance Hornecker, CMP, CMM

Virtual Meetings & Events Association

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