Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

A Child's Life

Volume 25 Number 2
Spring 2003

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The Web for Grief

by Lauren J. Bryant

Demand for Kathleen Gilbert's "Grief in a Family Context" class is steady, even though she rarely sees a student.

"Grief in a Family Context" is taught entirely online through the World Wide Web. Gilbert, associate professor of applied health science at Indiana University Bloomington, began building the course in the mid-1990s, before such virtual classes were widespread. It was a lot of work—"it really was the monster that ate my sabbatical," she says—but the finished product has been so successful that Gilbert must now limit enrollment.

To receive the minimum passing grade, students must apply what they are learning in the class in various ways, including responding to at least one comment posted by another class member each week. But in fact, such requirements aren't really necessary, says Gilbert.

"Students tell me they can be more honest in a classroom where people don't see them," she says. "It's amazing. By and large, the online postings are more in-depth than anything students would do in the classroom."

Student interaction in Gilbert's course is stimulated, she says, by the mix her virtual classroom makes possible. The class enrollment typically includes some traditional-age students from IUB, but an equal number are "students with life experience" from outside the campus, including nurses and counseling professionals. Life experience or no, nearly all the students are eager for the same thing, according to Gilbert█a place to talk in a culture that doesn't deal well with death.

"There is an incredible fear of death in America," Gilbert observes. "We think we can protect ourselves by not knowing anything about it. If we 'cover up our ears and sing very loud,' then people won't die, and grief won't happen." She notes that in the decision-making section of the course, which takes up issues such as living wills, euthanasia and assisted suicide, and organ donation, students discuss online whether they have written a will. "Just writing about it is highly stressful for some of them," Gilbert says, "They don't want to 'tempt fate.'"

The course's Web-based format allows students from around the world to enroll. Recently, Gilbert has had students from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Argentina. This diversity prompted Gilbert to significantly expand the course's focus on cross-cultural attitudes toward, and definitions of, death. Students have helped Gilbert build an impressive list of "multicultural links" to sites on beliefs about death in Buddhist, African, Islamic, Japanese, and Hmong cultures, among others (see

Gilbert will offer the course again in fall 2003. For more information, go to the course's main page at or e-mail

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.