Feeling Space in Emotion and Bereavement

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rainbow window with emotional feeling

Feeling: experiencing – sensing – reacting – touching – emotion

It has been seven years since my sister passed away.

I still have her phone number in my contact list. But I know that I can’t ring it and I can’t talk to her. Because she is no longer here.

With bereavement the hardest thing to get used to is the fact that someone you love no longer ‘exists’  that is: in earthly terms and physical terms. 

I have three people on my phone contact list who are no longer alive. 

They are listed alongside people who are still present in my life as a name and a number on my phone. They were part of my life and continue to be part of my life.

With death, there is a finality to life.

For the bereaved there is an ongoing feeling that you are  ‘missing’ something from your life, because that someone is no longer here.  That is especially true when it is someone who did not reach old age.

Leaving the hospital after my sister died, it felt very, very  strange that the world was still moving: people going to work, the usual traffic, pedestrians, vehicles. The world was behaving like nothing had happened. But for us, the very worst thing imaginable had happened.

It’s not a very cheerful thought, but at some point, death will come to us all. 

Before that happens, we will all experience the loss of family members and friends. This is one of the things we can expect to experience more as we get older. We learn to suffer and deal with ‘loss’ because it is part of life.

In the last few months before my sister died, whenever I would visit her at home, I would stop off at M&S food store to see if there was anything I could buy her that she might be able to eat. 

I would scour the aisles, my eyes on high alert, looking to see what might jump out as a possible ‘treat’. Eating and swallowing was difficult for her and food tasted ‘funny’. 


And so, all the time I was in that M&S food store I was thinking about her and her needs.

My mind was actively focused on (maybe) finding something that she would enjoy, or at least be able to get down, and keep down. I would search through all the food items to identify something that might appeal to her, as someone with very special dietary needs.

On my first return visit to that store my mind sprang back in an instant to that same level of alertness and intense consciousness of her and her needs.  My thoughts of her were as if she was still alive – and ill. 

In my bereavement and loss this emotion was strangely comforting and reassuring. Being there, I could feel close to her. But only in that one particular M&S store.  

After that first shock that feeling was somewhat less powerful each time I visited. And yet, this strong emotional connection was something that I came to expect would kick in. It was a feeling that I could savour and look forward to – like when you dream of someone who is gone, and yet they seem so alive, and so themselves. 

And then, M&S changed the design of the store. 

The shop looks completely different.  It is much bigger, there are new graphics and display cabinets and the re-designed layout means you move through it in a very different way than before. 

Because the spatial nodes are no longer where I ‘remember’ them to be it does not trigger any emotional feeling or response. There is nothing about it that feels the same and so I no longer have that connection to her in that space. It is gone. Lost in the re-design.

It’s just another M&S shop.  

In the last year of my sister’s life my consciousness and senses were on over-drive.   My focus was intense because it was driven by my deepest fears – and the fact that there was very little I could do for her. My whole experience of my sister was of her always being there  – all of my life.

It is inevitable that things (people, places, spaces) do not stay the same. 

Interior design, driven by new marketing, continually looks to change and reinvigorate retail so that people are not lulled into a sense of ‘not seeing.’ They want people to be aware of their surroundings and take-in more, see more and ‘be’ present in the brand. 

Body memory is something that reliably helps us to ‘remember’ where things are  – without having to think – but it also makes it a more perfunctory experience.

In retail, interior design uses visual triggers to connect people to the brand and to the space. This creates a sense of recognition that is designed into the space: cleverly, pointedly and subliminally. 

Retail design exploits feelings and emotions to engage people with the space through ambience, visual cues and body movement. This is to ensure that people will think of it as a positive experience.

So they will remember this brand… and they will talk about it to their friends…..and come back again. 

But there are some feelings and experiences that cannot be designed.

People come with a frame of mind reflecting whatever is going on in their lives – good and bad. As they cross the threshold of a store will this space make them ‘feel’ different? Happier, more relaxed more energised? Or nothing at all – because their mind is elsewhere.

Spatial design is a total and immersive experience.

Designers develop and use stringent user journeys to yield data from which they can improve the customer experience. In interior design this is concerned with body movement, personal interaction, eye contact, holistic ambience, physical and  emotional connectors. 

These are all useful indicators to help understand (and prompt)  human behaviours in space. But of course, humans don’t come in one shape or size or way of thinking. You cannot ‘design’ and create a ‘total’ experience to suit everyone.  

Beyond the brand and managed touchpoints there is lived experience.  

People will always bring something to a space. That is: their experience of other spaces, cultural/educational/social background  and  their frame of mind. Their ‘experience’ of that space will also be heavily influenced by how they felt the first time they saw it,  or if it is somewhere they visit every day.

Loyalty cards reveal detailed data on personal consumption patterns. Beyond that, even the experts in retail behavioural science and design cannot ever ‘know’ what individual people are going through, and how they are feeling.

Commercial retail design is not a socially-driven service. But it could be

Retail draws people from their homes. There is a purpose for them being there – which also includes browsing and killing time. It is the place that sells what they need and an environment that is pleasant (ambience) inspirational (new styles/products) and informative (what’s in/ what’s out). But people also may just want to be around other people (people-watching).

Marketeers may be able to calculate their exact brand demographic but statistics and charts only go so far to explain who these people are. It may be easier to think of them as a typical persona. 

Jenny is 25, she is a manager of a boutique. She likes Instagram and fashion. She enjoys holidays  and walking her dog.

But that may not be the whole story.

Jenny is 25, she suffers from bulimia –  but nobody else knows. She wants to break  up with her boyfriend but has nowhere else to live. Last week her granny went into hospital because of Covid.

When I visit a large retail store I often wonder about people’s stories?  Not just the customers but also the staff. Some seem obvious. People are having a good day if  they are all smiley and courteous, or a bad day if they are rude, tense and obstructive.  But that could just be a front. Or just how they are.

You don’t know other people’s back story, or their current frame of mind.  

In smaller retail stores the customer connection is traditionally more about social engagement and regular habits. But it is still possible to ‘know’ a customer (their habits, family members, choices, preferences etc.) and yet not know their name.  

Graveyards and religious environments may be the usual places we think of in terms of bereavement – rather than an M&S foodstore. But being in a state of bereavement unconsciously triggers strong associations with certain brands and products. These are the things  that someone that we have lost may have used and liked and which we will forever associate with them. 

We carry bereavement with us wherever we go. There may be happy places that we associate with our loved one where we can ‘feel’ their presence because we remember them here, with us. And what that felt like. And what they said and did.  

Revisiting these places helps to make us feel connected. Music, smells, sounds and tastes all trigger feelings that flood back into our consciousness. They heighten our senses to create a deeper access to memories that may have seemed relatively unimportant at the time. When these feelings appear unexpectedly, the impact can be profound. 

Feeling is part of who we are. Which makes us very different from robots or any kind of artificial intelligence. 

There is no doubt that AI will impact on many aspects of our lives – particularly in the development of a new personal/retail relationships. Currently, AI tends to be used to push products based on understanding customer preferences.  This ostensibly makes the customer’s choices easier, but it is for profit, and brand recognition, rather than altruism. 

As AI infiltrates our lives there is a huge opportunity for it to change how we relate to space. But rather than simply manipulating feelings purely for profit, retail, as a public space, AI  is perfectly placed to enable customers to ‘take a moment’ and pause so they can think about how they are feeling. 

If spaces can be more intelligent, then why not more sympathetic?

Humanising space? There’s a thought.

These are not normal times. For most of us, at this time of Covid, shopping in ‘real’ spaces is a very tense experience. Our emotions are running high. We are all experiencing levels of fear, panic and anxiety combined with deeper elements of sadness and loneliness. 

Human interaction in (and with) public space has totally changed. We are not going out as much – because there is nowhere to go and we cannot meet up with friends and family. 

Through this, food retailers (and brands) have gained massive prominence in our lives. It makes this the perfect opportunity for them to become more user-friendly and empathetic. Indeed, what could be possibly be more important to a brand than to create a space that is responsive to how customers are feeling.

With a shift in thinking, more imagination, and an inspired use of technology, brands could go beyond the hard act of selling to show they are not just there, but also – there for us.

Brand values and spaces that are about valuing people. It is the way forward.

Follow Nuala Rooney:

I am designer, educator and researcher with 25 years teaching/research experience delivering human-centred insights across the social/spatial sphere. My passion lies in exploring people's personal relationships with space across different life stages: design as lived experience.

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