Home Stretch | After mourning

The death of a loved one is always intensely difficult to cope with, and a small proportion of survivors find it difficult to get back into the swing of daily life even after a prolonged period. Spurred by this knowledge, the Taiwanese PhD candidate Wan Jou She designed a web application to estimate at an early stage who might be at risk of long-term psychological problems after suffering this life event.

Roughly ten percent of people who lose a loved one go on to develop lasting psychological problems - also referred to as Prolonged Grief Disorder - whereby they no longer function normally. While this diagnosis can be made only after twelve months, patients may be greatly helped by psychological support at a much earlier stage of the mourning process, explains Wan Jou She. “Loss is part of life, but at some point afterwards we can start to enjoy life again. It is important to convey this insight to people who are grieving the loss of a loved one.”

Relationship

She is speaking from experience: her fascination with mourning developed during her academic studies in Taiwan, when her relationship broke up. “For a long time afterwards I struggled with that, but finally I was able to deal with it well. It became my motivation for devoting a doctoral project to the subject.”

The end of a romantic relationship is not the same, of course, as losing a loved one through death. Yet there are big similarities in the psychological impact of the two events, explains She. “The feeling of loss arises from the fact that you can no longer be with your loved one. This may be due to death, but it could also be due to the end of a relationship or physical distance. I once stood before a room full of students to talk about mourning. Half of them came from abroad and were missing their family and friends. That too creates a form of mourning.”

Psychological help

To determine early on whether someone is at risk of Prolonged Grief Disorder, the PhD candidate decided to design a web application specially for people who have recently lost a loved one. Using a number of questions about the loved one's background, the relationship to the deceased, and the cause of death, the website indicates whether it would be wise to seek psychological help. “As I am a designer who has no medical or psychological training, we worked on this in collaboration with American psychotherapists at the University of Memphis. In addition, they had access to a database of test subjects, six hundred of whom eventually answered the questions online.”

Extensive research into risk factors preceded the website they ultimately produced. “It appears that people who lose their partner are particularly likely to develop psychological problems. And discovering the body in case of a violent death is also a big risk factor, as well as having a history of mental illness.”

Memories

While the web application itself has no explicitly therapeutic function, She was pleasantly surprised by the hundreds of spontaneous reactions left by the test subjects. “Some of them shared personal memories of the deceased, and how they coped with their grief. Others let us know that the website had helped them to better understand their own feelings. That they had reached the conclusion that they needed to seek help or, conversely, that their feelings were in fact entirely normal.”

All in all She is enthusiastic about the findings, and will further develop her online tool. “I would like to add the opportunity to share stories, so that users can offer each other support. Fortunately the psychotherapists with whom I collaborated on this project are also keen to carry on the work. That is a nice compliment.”

Photo | Bart van Overbeeke

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