The pandemic created particularly fertile ground for complicated grief. Funerals are meant to kick-start the process of integrating loss into our new reality, but for two years, “we couldn’t be together to hug and cry and sob,” she says. Lister thinks experiencing the pandemic has actually left people more avoidant of discussing death.
To explain the promise of processing grief in VR, Lister paraphrases wisdom from Mr. Rogers: “What’s mentionable is manageable.” When avatars file into Death Q&A, “what those people are doing is having an experience where they’re putting what’s deeply, deeply painful inside of them into words,” Lister says, turning raw torment into something workable.
Social isolation makes it more likely that the loss will harden into complicated grief. But mourning invites estrangement. Everyday conversation can feel unbearably trite when your loss feels so much more piercing, but “after a while people don’t want to hear it because they can’t fix it for you,” Nickel says. Death Q&A hands a mic to that pain and supplies an eager audience; Lister says having that community is great for promoting a healthy progression through grief.
A VR support group might suit you better than a traditional one because “there’s protection,” she says. “You can control what’s seen about you.” Sharing through an avatar, to people you never have to see again, creates a digital veil that liberates people to be shockingly honest and vulnerable.
Indeed, this echoes how Matte describes her VR experiences. “I would come and say some pretty bad things in a matter-of-fact voice, and often [Nickel] would say—’Whoa, you know, let’s stay with this a while,'” Matte says, noting how Ted worried about being a burden. Some days I really don’t know how I went without walking around the house bawling all the time… so I told myself: Get your shit together. Airing her devastation in VR helped her focus on making his death as comfortable as possible.
By 2021, Jeremy Nickel felt his nonprofit organization had reached an inflection point. EvolVR says 40,000 people had participated in its events since 2017. At that point, “we can either stay this sweet little thing that’s serving a couple hundred people,” he figured—or “we could make a play and try to share this with a whole lot more.”
He opted to create spaces where people can practice this new way of mourning and process in huge numbers.
In February 2022, he sold EvolVR to TRIPP, a Los Angeles–based company, for an undisclosed amount. TRIPP, which raised over $11 million in funding from backers including Amazon the previous year, has offered VR-guided meditations since 2017; The sessions have people do things like visualize their breath as stardust, coming in and out at the ideal pace to meditate.