by Dan Cunningham, Psy. D
Western culture impresses upon many of us the need to exert personal control over the process of dying and grief in general, that is to say we must do everything we can to prevent the inevitable. In many cases, this futile individual effort continues even after a loved one has died. Meanwhile surviving family members and the structure that endures remain relatively unexamined or underappreciated.
In the United States, the progression toward death most often occurs in hospitals where family members, doctors, nurses, social workers and/or other hospital staff become closely involved with family members in their charge of caring for their patient. Grief exposes us to deep attachments and reminds us of our innate social interdependence. Prevailing culture may be seen as turning a blind eye to the bereaved and, when people are in a period of great need they may be left to process their loss individually despite the collective loss (Shapiro, 1994).
The shared trauma of familial death exposes families and their ingredient structures to the same objective reality which immediately and profoundly informs the individual’s subjective reality. Families accustomed to open communication and sharing may move to narrower or more closed communication styles in an attempt to protect individual family members from debilitating emotional pain.
The risks here are numerous; repression of sadness and the implication that family and friends are unable or unwilling to collectively grieve. More plainly, it is the strong desire to retreat from grief that implores us, if unconsciously, to essentially lean into the pain, to sit with and examine both objectively and subjectively what we have lost. Our larger goal is to integrate the loss into our lives.
Bereavement requires a thorough and sometimes painful exploration of who and what has been lost and what remains, including resources and stressors that may be relinquished and those which are created and built upon (Stroebe, Schut, & Stroebe, 2005). The range of loss may include health, livelihood, security and more that may move through families, businesses, communities, and even cultures for months or years (Neimeyer, 2002; Lin, Sandler, Ayers, Wolchik & Luecken, 2004).
Loss of intimate partners, family members or close friends may erode, on a foundational level, a person’s self-definition since no one any longer holds the unique relational stance toward them needed to call forth and validate the unique cache of shared memories that had sustained a person’s sense of who they had been (Neimeyer, 2002; Cait, 2005).
Life crises and traumatic events, while nearly always involving painful emotions, may serve as an impetus for personal growth (Schaefer & Moos, 2001). It is not unusual for individuals and families to emerge from life crises with improved personal and social resources and new coping skills. The difficult truth is that any form of grief is inherently sad, difficult, and exhausting.
While there may be any number of self-help books available, there is no ‘right way to grieve’, nor is there a timeline. Whether or not we believe in Kubler-Ross’s model of Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance, we each navigate our grief at our own pace.
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- Shapiro, E., (1994). Grief as a Family Process. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
- Stroebe, M., Schut, H., & Stroebe, W. (2005). Attachment in Coping with Bereavement: A Theoretical Integration. Review of General Psychology, 9(1), 48-66
- Neimeyer, R.A. (2002). Traumatic Loss and the Reconstruction of Meaning, Journal of Palliative Medicine 5(6), 935-942.
- Schaefer, J.A. & Moos, R.H. (2001). Bereavement Experiences and Personal Growth. In Stroebe, Hansson, Stroebe, & Schut (Eds), Handbook of Bereavement Research: Consequences, Coping, and Care, (pp. 145-167). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.