This article is part of an ongoing guide for safety in social VR. You can find the other topics here.
Loss in an immersive space can be hard to grapple with. Virtual reality is something that is sold to people with a friendly premise; you put the headset on, and you're greeted with tons of people and places to get to know and explore. Making friends happens so quickly, it can almost happen too fast and the proper time to bond with others can be overlooked. Before you know it, it's a year out and you find you never knew those friends as well as you thought.
The result? Big fights, and big group splits. You could lose a group chat where you've shared precious memories, or familiar hangouts you no longer feel comfortable visiting. You'll spend time navigating a sea of unfamiliar spaces afterwards, and unknown users who stand in intimidating crowds around you.
The time after loss in social VR isn't unlike what happens when you lose a group of friends in physical reality, but the line of questioning that follows after (was any of it ever real? what really is real around here, anyway?) adds an extra layer of confusion to it all--one that is very important for academics and psychologists to take note of.
The loneliness after a social rift in immersive space is what I've come to call "The Tunnel".
The Tunnel Is Real, And It Sucks
I'm no medical professional, but I have used VR and social MMOs for a long time. They're a fun way to explore human creativity and the human psyche. Sometimes what you find in immersive spaces can be beautiful beyond words. Other times, it's a minefield birthed by our collective insecurities and unresolved trauma.
It's almost inevitable you'll meet a group of friends who will, one day, be unable to survive group conflict. Even if it's only one or two friends you make, a road of challenges can lay ahead for you. Some of these friend groups will consist of people who are mature enough to navigate those challenges, gifting you with companionship that can last for years. Some people get busier, and drift away from your game of choice as life takes over.
And others will die. Your grief will be nonlinear. It can take years to put your sorrow to rest. And even then, the memory of your loved ones will remain like a painful scar.
The Only Way Out Is Through
If you're reading this guide as someone who's already experienced loss in social VR, it's time to gear up emotionally to sort through the pain.
Here are some suggestions:
Let yourself grieve. Be angry. Be sorrowful. Sit by a mirror alone and cry. Ask yourself if you will ever have friends like this again. Read this guide on processing grief, and know that your grief doesn't have a time limit. Process it and let it last for as long as you need it to. Yes, all of this is real. You are not grieving imaginary friends. What you feel is valid and you must face it.
Practice being around others when you're ready again. It doesn't have to be for long. Yes, those first few steps are going to be awkward. The sea of unfamiliar names on a map with a place you're visiting for the first time? One day, some of those people might be your friends. Take it easy and try to have a good time. Read this guide on knowing when your grief is lessening.
Don't rely on drinking or drugs to get through this. That's the quickest way to gain an addiction. You won't find any friends like that. In fact, you might chase even more people away.
Beyond The Tunnel Is Life Again
Something happens after a while of being brave and taking those first steps towards recovery: you find joy again. You'll hear music playing somewhere, start dancing, and forget your problems. You'll take up a hobby and find you really enjoy it. You'll meet someone and talk about your pain together. You'll visit some random map in VR that expresses what you feel so eloquently, yet so silently, that you feel understood and can finally exhale.
You will take off the headset with a new feeling of freedom. You will go about the rest of your life with this feeling, knowing the next challenge won't be easy but that you'll be ready for it.
After walking through The Tunnel for what seems like forever, you'll find the one person on the other side who will finally have the happiness you're looking for: yourself. You will be confident, even if your life isn't perfect. You will be stronger and more resilient.
And you will be able to take on anything.
Each step you take today in darkness will bring you that much closer to the life you want on the other side. But it takes just that--one step at a time. While it seems impossible now, once you get going, you'll get there in no time.