From virtual reality afterlife games to death doulas: Is our view of dying finally changing?

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Everyone dies. And while it will happen to all of us, we rarely talk about it with ease. But that's starting to change, from video games about the afterlife to TV shows that help prepare you to pass.

Although death remains a painful and mysterious part of life, experts say new technologies, grieving options and professions related to end-of-life care are shifting society's comfort levels around discussing it.

"If we don't talk about (death and loss), we're basically ignoring it. By ignoring this fact, it only serves to deepen the pain," says Ron Gura, co-founder and CEO of Empathy, a platform that helps families navigate the death of loved ones.

This cultural shift is happening at a historically deadly time. With COVID-19 killing nearly 1 million people in the United States, the pandemic has made us all too familiar with death. This propelled conversations about mortality to the forefront of our collective consciousness, especially before vaccines arrived.

"No matter how old you are, no matter where you come from – tomorrow was never a given," says Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, an internal medicine physician and founder of the nonprofit EndWell, which aims to make conversations about grief, death and illness less taboo. "That's always been the case, certainly, but I think when you talk about an infectious disease that's killing people of all ages ... it gave people much different perspective on living and dying."

When you feel your mortality, you're more likely to face hard truths.

"Living with this perspective on death, it's sort of a recipe for keeping you awake to your own life, and asking the hard questions of: What matters most to me? If time were short, how would I want to be spending that time?" Ungerleider says.

Awareness and support around dying has led to things like prolonged grief becoming a distinct, diagnosable disorder as well as employers recognizing the need for bereavement support services.

But we've just begun to scratch the surface. When it comes to talking about grief, Ungerleider says, there’s a lot more we need to be doing.

What is helping shift the conversation around death?

We use apps every day to connect with friends and order food, but we didn't have one to help us through challenging moments like loss and grief – until now.

Gura describes Empathy as "the friend you wish you had when you lose a loved one," combining the emotional and practical needs families have when winding down a loved one's affairs.

Empathy is a platform that helps families navigate the death of loved ones.
Empathy is a platform that helps families navigate the death of loved ones.

Technology can not only help people through the process of loss but also spark conversations around death, says Dr. Candi Cann, Baylor University death scholar and researcher.

She has been tracking the rise of the intersection of mourning and gaming, pointing to a virtual reality game released last year called "Before Your Eyes," which shows the perspective of a soul's journey on its way to the afterlife.

"It's really interesting because it makes you think about the way you're living your life and how your conception of the afterlife might or might not affect that."

Another game called "That Dragon, Cancer" was developed by two parents who lost their young son to cancer. In the game, you are parents in a hospital trying to help your son get care. While the storyline can feel depressing because the outcome doesn't change, Cann says, the purpose behind the game is positive.

"A lot of people have said that game really helped them... when their loved one was dying," she says. "They realized they weren't alone in that experience."

Ungerleider also works to bring these complex issues to a different type of screen. She was involved with two Academy Award-nominated Netflix short documentaries about the end-of-life experience: 2016's "Extremis" and 2018's "End Game."

"We really want to see the entertainment industry tackle this subject more," she says, which includes more accurate portrayals of hospice and conversations with patients. "It's so necessary to be able to normalize these kinds of conversations."

Shows like "This Is Us" and "Human Resources" are other examples of TV tackling end-of-life topics. Most recently, Peacock ordered a reality show titled "The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning," which aims to help people prepare to die. It's based on the 2017 book by Margareta Magnusson, which discusses Dostadning, a Swedish phenomenon in which the elderly and their families get affairs in order.

Death doulas and ash diamonds

There also has been a rise in personalized care and grieving options. Take death doulas – people who help people at the end of their life with dying, just like birth doulas help at the beginning of life.

Dr. Jamie Eaddy Chism, director of program development at the International End of Life Doula Association (INELDA), has seen an increased interest from people who are seeking death doulas and those who wish to become death doulas.

Our views of traditions surrounding death, like funerals and other ways to memorialize loved ones, also are shifting.

Take this viral TikTok by user @yes_lorelei that imagined a drag-queen-hosted funeral, which garnered more than 673,000 likes. The comments were flooded with admiration for the switch from somber to celebratory.

"Love this! It's so beautiful to see people having more end of life options ... plus sounds like a fabulous party," one commenter notes.

Or turning your deceased loved one's ashes into a diamond with companies like Eterneva, which turns ashes or hair into fine jewelry.

Whether you belong to a religious community with prescribed rituals for death, dying and bereavement or not, Cann says, personalized ways of dealing with grief are powerful.

"Being able to access this rich trove of possibilities to remember and honor the dead is just great," says Cann, who studied how memorial objects can help with grief journeys. "They give us a wealth of options to process our feelings and find community with others who have gone through similar experiences."

More: Riley Keough, eldest grandchild of Elvis Presley, completes training to become a death doula. Here's what that means.

Why is this talking about death so important?

These conversations can benefit everyone involved, Ungerleider says, despite varying comfort levels.

"It's this idea of just cracking open the door to what we perceive to be this dark place," she says. "But when you get more comfortable with it, you can actually find that there can be moments of joy and humor and deep connection with people."

Cann sees talking and preparing for death equally beneficial for your loved ones, pointing to living wills as a way to take stress away from your family during an already painful time.

Being more open about grief can also help prevent mental health struggles down the line.

"Conversation is really important because then we know that we're not alone in that experience," Cann says, adding that mourning alone can result in your sadness turning inward, leading to issues like depression or unresolved grief.

Money is also a factor that makes these conversations vital, Gura says, explaining families who don't talk and prepare often pay thousands of dollars after a loved one's death, sometimes unnecessarily. Tht can cause more stress for families already in pain.

"We all lose by not talking about it," he says.

Contributing: Callie Carmichael, USA TODAY

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Death, dying becoming less scary? Thank ash diamonds, doulas and more