VR for Bereaved Parents

I began to cry before the film started.  The documentary detailed the making of a virtual reality experience in which a bereaved mother encounters a simulation of her deceased daughter. The  mother, Jang, plays herself in the scenario, while a production team created a lifelike 3-dimensional image of her 7 year old daughter, Nayeon, who passed away in 2016.

The creative aspect was impressive; the team used imagery from a park that Jang and her daughter had often visited and added symbolic elements to heighten emotion. An illuminated white butterfly initially flutters close by Jang, serving as an auspice, preparing her for the “arrival” of her daughter. Surrounding the area is verdant foliage, warm light, and a table set up for a private birthday party, complete with balloons and cake. The film is aptly titled “I Met You”, as the VR experience features virtual Nayeon meeting her mother in the park, dancing happily and speaking in familiar intonations, while leading her through a series of special moments designed just for the two of them.

The language barrier was insignificant as the tones of the mother’s voice and the grief apparent in her body language conveyed unmistakably over Korean subtitles. At one point, Jang begins stretching out both of her haptic-gloved hands, grasping desperately toward, around, and through the space where the illusion of her dead daughter appeared to stand before her. Tears drip from her chin. It was beyond doubt that, on some level, Jang thought her daughter was present.

Someone might say this kind of experience is no different than having a dream about a loved one. After all, Jang did reference dreaming when she spoke about the experience, saying, “Maybe it’s a real paradise. I met Nayeon, who called me with a smile, for a very short time, but it’s a very happy time. I think I’ve had the dream I’ve always wanted.” Who can blame a mother with empty arms for desiring such a dream? Another writer remarked, “Harnessing the power of various immersive hardware, MBC made the dreams of one grieving mother a reality. If that’s not the sign of revolutionary technology, I’m not sure what is.” 

Still others may say it’s a harmless fantasy, meant only to comfort. Princeton neuroscientist, Michael Graziano, commented, “Since you know the person is gone, you accept the virtual equivalent for what it is — a comforting vestige.” He added, “There is nothing wrong or unethical about it.”

Ethical concerns are mentioned in various articles, but downplayed overall. The commentaries fall short because they predictably fail to communicate the truth about a VR experience —it’s not real. A man-made dream isn’t a dream at all, it’s an illusion. Dr. Garziano also misses the point, for when a death has been fully accepted, a VR experience should be recognized for what it is and hold little temptation. It’s the bereaved parent who cannot accept the death of their child who would easily fall prey to the misleading claims of the industry. Plus, to be a virtual equivalent is to be less equivalent than a photograph or a home video. Those media contain actual representations that correspond to moments in history and have a truth dimension to them, while VR is imitation from start to finish.

Unfortunately, the industry couches its advancements in misleading verbs: revisit, recreate, reunite. However, nothing is being re-anything. Even if they were to reuse voice recordings of the deceased child’s voice, it still wouldn’t be the child speaking into the headset. It’s an impressive combination of technology and art, but the goal is misguided. The temptation to meet the dead could become as inexorable as death itself for those who lack a biblical understanding of life after death. When the lines between reality and fantasy become blurred, the unchanging wisdom of the Bible provides guidance.

The Bible sets boundaries for our protection and spiritual health.  One boundary that God has established is the boundary that separates the living from the dead, and we must honor that divide. Moses commanded the Israelites in Deuteronomy 18:10-12:

There shall not be found among you anyone who…inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see prohibitions against sorcery, mediums, divination, and necromancy. The New Testament carries the prohibition forward into the Christian church when Paul writes to the Galatians in chapter 5, vs. 19-22:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 

It is true that Jang’s experience did not engage a sorcerer, per se, to conjure the spirit of her daughter, but the production team did contrive to bring up images and sounds in order to make the little girl seem to have come back from the dead temporarily. The virtual simulation could be compared to an incantation, attempting to connect the physical world with the unseen. Additionally, Jang was being controlled by these forces acting upon her, as was evident by every aspect of her behavior. Sadly, when the headset was lifted off and the haptic gloves removed, Nayeon was still dead and her mother remained heartbroken. The only thing that truly seemed recreated was Jang’s sorrow and pain. It could be argued that those who deceive themselves and others with an alternative reality are enacting a 21st century “inquiry for the dead”. Perhaps Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation, in their zeal for technological innovation, is doing what ought not to be done.

For the same reason I gave in my last article, this technology should be avoided by grieving parents. Hope for the bereaved is the hope offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not in the deceptions of sorcery (Revelation 18:23). Jesus is the Door, and apart from Him, we have no hope of being reunited with our loved ones. God desires to give us complete reality, where mothers and their prematurely deceased children might be united together in heaven forever.

I cried during the film because I’m a bereaved mother. I would give almost anything to hold my little boy again: to kiss his soft cheek, to see his spiky hair sticking up, to hear his sweet laughter. But I’m not willing to give up reality for a few moments of fictional reunion, nor am I willing to trade the truth for a man-made dream that would seek to distract me from the ultimate goal. We need not settle for programmed imposters. The Bible tells us the spirits of our children are with the Lord, and when we are reunited with them in heaven, it will be better than any VR encounter (I Corinthians 2:9). We must repent, believe, and put our hope in God. Then, after this life is over, we’ll see them again.

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