The Rise of Tech-Enabled Grief Care

A proliferating number of startups is developing tech solutions and services to support bereaved families, employing a range of business models — including partnerships with hospices.

This budding industry includes a number of rapidly expanding companies of varying size and scale. Some, such as the tech firms Empathy and Betteleave, have millions secured in investor backing. Others have emerged from the grass roots.

In either case, the ubiquitous accessibility of smartphones has enabled several to scale globally quickly.

“There’s never going to be enough hospice bereavement coordinators to make sure every single person gets what they need. There are things coming onto the market, in a bit of a flurry right now,” Emma Payne, founder and CEO of Grief Coach, told Hospice News. “Four years ago, I knew about 20 tech companies doing end-of-life work. Now I know about 450. There’s tons of people innovating with end-of-life and caregiver support.”

As with many who work in the hospice field, a contingent of these companies’ founders were inspired by personal experience.

Payne conceived of Grief Coach following the death of her husband and his close friend.

Grief Coach is a mobile service that sends advice and supportive messages via text to bereaved individuals, created by a group of grief experts from a variety of disciplines. Some of these are tailored to subsets of that population, such as those who have lost siblings, spouses or parents.

Payne founded the company in 2018 after selling her house for startup capital. Now the company has grown to include 13 employees, and bereaved families worldwide access the service. Grief Coach has major roll out in the United Kingdom slated for next month.

The service is also expanding in scope to address anticipatory grief.

“Grief begins a long time before the person stops breathing,” Payne said. “I’m actually super excited about bringing lots of different expert contributors, working with us to help us flesh out all the different ways we can talk about emotional and anticipatory grief support for those caregivers, while their person is on hospice and receiving care. ”

Previously, Payne spent more than 20 years buidling web and mobile solutions for a variety of purposes, includiing suicide prevention, crisis intervention and youth voter engagement. Also for the past decade, she has done volunteer work in grief and loss crisis intervention.

Like many in the emerging bereavement tech space, Grief Coach is collaborating with a number of hospices, though they also offer the service through a wider range of clients.

Those partnerships are similar in structure. Grief Coach offers hospice providers 13-month subscriptions that they can share with their patients’ loved ones. The timeframe corresponds with the US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) requirement that hospices provider bereavement care for 13 months following a patient’s death.

“The texting capabilities provided by Grief Coach are particularly meaningful during the COVID crisis, a time when many of the more traditional ways of providing in-person grief support are on hold,” Bill Finn, president and CEO, Hospice of the Western Reserve, indicated on the Ohio-based provider’s website. “Our bereavement team now has the ability to offer personalized, text-based support to the thousands of hospice families we care for each year. This service adds a valuable new communications channel to the care we currently provide.”

Due to a number of societal factors, the time is ripe for tech-enabled bereavement care.

This includes the pandemic, which forced people to find new ways to connect virtually and use more long-distance communication to address their needs, including health care and grief services.

But a more longstanding factor is the ascendance of millenials and members of “Generation Z.” These are the first generations for whom the internet and cell phones have always existed. Generally speaking, many of them grew up with routine, instantaneous access to information and other resources.

As more members of those age groups are now becoming the health care decision-makers for aging loved ones, the emergence of tech solutions to help them navigate that process seems like a natural evolution.

For Reid Peterson, developer of the app Grief Refuge, it began with the loss of both his father and his stepfather, several years apart.

Though he found some solace in counseling and bereavement groups from a local hospice, he recognized that people need additional support, often on demand, in between those encounters.

“Grief hit me much harder than I anticipated. I did get support through hospice, but I kept thinking, what do I do in between? I’m meeting with my counselor once a week, meeting this group once a week. So two out of seven days a week, I do feel supported,” Peterson told Hospice News. “That planted the seed for grief refuge. Grief Refuge has always been intended to be a source a resource to help people feel more supported during the in-between.”

Prior to launching Grief Refuge, Peterson’s career was very much oriented around education. He taught in public schools, and eventually pursued a graduate degree in psychology. In time, his professional life changed direction, and he found himself developing content for medical and health care training programs.

A smartphone app, Grief Refuge offers materials and activities designed around common needs of the bereaved. Users can journal on the app, use a self-assessment tool to track their feelings from day to day, and access audio recordings, among other features.

Peterson began marketing through social media, and word spread quickly. Grieving people now access the app around the world, though for the time being the service is only available in the English language, according to Peterson.

Soon after the launch, Peterson also set about forging partnerships with organizations that serve the bereaved, including hospice providers.

“We see ourselves as a business that provides complementary service to the hospice,” Peterson said. “We’re finding is that Grief Refuge gets recommended as a resource when a bereft person is either too far away or when different circumstances prevent the community member from being able to utilize the hospice’s services.”

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