, PhD. C.Psych.
Trinity Western University
Langley, BC, Canada
The paper examines the nature of bereavement
grief and recognizes the complex pattern of emotional, cognitive,
existential and spiritual coping reactions to the disruption of
personal meaning systems. It proposes a process approach towards
grief work, which encompasses several interrelated processes, such
as mourning the loss, adjusting to the loss, accepting the loss
and transforming the loss. It also recognizes different levels of
acceptance and the paradoxical nature of transformation. Finally,
it describes how grief can be transformed through meaning management.
Grief is an inevitable, universal experience,
more commonly experienced than death. So much of life is about loss.
Going through life is to endure a series of losses, which include
the loss of health, roles, identity, homeland, and loved ones through
betrayal or death. Grief is the normal emotional response to loss.
This paper focuses on bereavement grief.
Sooner or later everyone will experience bereavement.
Those blessed with longevity are burdened with multiple losses as
they outlive their friends and loved ones. Since it is not possible
to avoid all human relationships and attachments, there is no escape
Although grief is common, it is highly specific
for each individual because of the unique relationship, personal
history and circumstances surrounding the death. The fact that we
have experienced the death of a parent does not necessary mean that
we can understand what another person has gone through in losing
his or her parent. Grieving is something very special for each person.
Therefore, when we comfort a grieving person and try to empathize,
be careful not to say: "I know how you feel."
Grieving is hard work because it touches every
aspect of the person's being. In the case of losing a child, even
with many years of grief work, the parents may never fully recover.
The death of a child can be like the death of a family, because
it means the loss of meaning for living and the shattering of one's
fundamental assumptions about life (Janoff-Bulman, 1992).
The impact of grief can be very intensive and
extensive. The battle against postmortem grief is often fought on
two fronts - internal and external.
Internally, apart from the emotional tumult,
mental disorientation and flooded memories, the death of a loved
one may also trigger an existential crisis and a spiritual quest.
Therefore, religious and philosophical beliefs play a role in the
grieving and recovery process.
Externally, the bereaved often has to take care
of the aftermath of the death of a loved one and cope with the many
demands of life. Funeral arrangements, settling the estates, taking
care of the personal effects of the deceased, dealing with relatives
and re-igniting past conflicts are all concomitant stressors.
Another external source of stress comes from
colliding cultures. Conflicting cultural prescriptions for funeral
rites and mourning rituals can become a fertile ground for conflict,
especially when family members involve inter-racial marriages and
different religious practices. Thus, death may divide rather than
unite the family.
The nature of grief
Strictly speaking, grief is more than an emotional
reaction to loss. It also involves a complex pattern of cognitive,
existential, spiritual coping processes in reaction to the disintegration
of existing structures of meaning. This loss of meaning with respect
to relationships, life goals, and daily living creates an existential
crisis. To the extent that death of a significant other disrupts
one's continuity with the past, grief also entails existential struggles
regarding the meaning of one's own identify. From this broader perspective,
grief work necessarily involves the transformation of meaning structures.
Normal vs. pathological of complicated grief
Normal grief is supposed to be resolved within
two years, while complicated grief may last for many years and involve
clinical depression, anxiety disorder and other emotional and behavioral
disturbances, similar to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Such complicated,
pathological grief requires grief therapy (Rando, 1993). However,
more recent research has shown most do not find complete resolution;
there is always some residues, especially at an anniversary or during
special occasions. Rando (1988) has reported that significant temporary
resurges of grief reactions may still happen for many years in normal
healthy grieving. For example, the loss of a mother may be grieved
by the daughter for her entire life (Edelman, 1994). But over all,
in time, there will be a decrease in the intensity and frequencies
of waves of grief.
Anticipatory vs. bereavement grief
Anticipatory grief occurs in anticipation of
the death of a loved one or one's self. Unlike bereavement grief,
anticipatory grief is not socially sanctioned. Therefore, there
is a reluctance in talking about the anticipated death of a love
one or one's own eventual demise. However, research has shown that
a period of anticipatory grief can soften the blow of bereavement.
More research is needed because anticipatory grief is so common
and yet so little understood.
Grieving the loss of self vs. others
Grieving the dying self is often a private affair.
It is closely linked to one's inner struggle with death anxiety.
However, grieving the death of others often evokes death anxiety
and grieving regarding one's mortality. Grieving the dying of self
often has the salutary effect of evaluating one's priorities and
devoting the rest of one's life to something meaningful.
Multiple losses and the accumulation of grief
On the one hand, prior experience in grieving
may prepare one for future loss. However, multiple losses and the
accumulation of grief may sensitize one to any future loss. It is
an empirical question when habituation or sensitization will occur.
However, I feel that it may be a cause for concern when people become
blasť about the loss of human lives. Just as each individual is
unique, each death is to be considered as of special value and significance.
The task of grief work
Lindenmann (1944) first proposed the idea of
grief work that is based on three major tasks: severing the ties
with the deceased, adjusting to one's new environment, and creating
new bonds with others. Some people consider these three tasks as
three stages of grieving: release, readjustment and reinvesting.
Rando (1988) proposed a process model. The basic
ideas are: (a) the goal of mourning is to a adapt to the loss of
the loved one, while maintaining a connection though memory, (b)
the process involves three main phases: avoidance, confrontation
and accommodation, (c) the grief process is not linear, but rather
circular. According to Rando, healthy accommodation is not defined
by the absence of grief or mourning, but the ability to accept the
reality of death and move forward.
I am proposing that grieving involves several
interrelated processes, each of which follows a different path of
Mourning the loss
This involves primarily the affective process,
which begins with numbness and shock, moving thorough the roller-coaster
ride of intense emotions, and finally settling into a subdued and
serene sense of sadness. This process is not linear; however, the
cycles may become less frequent and less intense. Recalling and
reliving the positive moments may mitigate against the feelings
of loss. Often, grieving involves many emotions, such as guilt,
anger, shame, regrets, hostility and sadness. Clarifying emotions
is part of the process. Sorting out and reconciling conflicting
feelings contributes to recovery.
Accepting the loss
This is the most basic and most complex task.
To accept the finality of the loss, the process occurs not just
at the cognitive level, but also at the social, behavioural, existential,
spiritual and emotional levels.
Cognitive acceptance involves more than an intellectual
understanding that death is final; it also requires some level of
cognitive resolution to reduce instances of intrusive thoughts and
Spiritual acceptance may involve establishing
a spiritual connection with the deceased and experiencing an inner
vision of a spiritual union.
Emotional acceptance may be most difficult to
achieve when the initial emotional attachment is very strong, even
when there is a replacement for the attachment. One can truly let
go, only when one has achieved acceptance at the emotional level.
Adjusting to the loss
This involves the process of making a series
of mental and behavoural changes to adapt to the new dynamics within
the family and in the larger social network. It also involves working
through personal and interpersonal issues, such as forgiveness of
self and others, resolving interpersonal conflicts and re-establishing
Transforming the loss
This process is fundamental to recovery. It
moves from struggling with the loss to incorporating it into the
new reality and future plans, such as redefining one's self-identity
and life goals.
This process will involve reinvesting one's
psychological energy, making new friends, developing new plans,
and engaging in productive activities, Basically, it involves the
discovery of new meanings and the reconstruction of existing meaning
structures. It requires the re-authoring of one's life story. This
transformation is necessary for resolution, restoration and personal
The paradox of transformation
The transformation process is complex and paradoxical.
However, when it is managed properly, both the process and the outcome
can be very rewarding. Since complete recovery is not possible,
it can be part of the on-going process of meaning transformation.
Meaning management is essential to this transformative
process. We are meaning- seeking and meaning-making creatures. Thus,
how we react to loss depends on the meaning we attribute to the
loss and the meaning of life without the deceased.
In order to move forward, we have to somehow
reconstruct our meaning-systems in order to adapt to different set
of realities. This evolution of meaning in response to loss continues
so that we can maintain some sense of coherence in the midst of
change and loss.
- Healthy grieving is transformed grieving.
- The pain will never go away
- Positive and negative transformation
- Positive changes through the transformation
- The dead are weaved into the fabric of life
- The past is integrated with the future as
the basis for self-identity
- The present is transcended by a vision as
the basis for personal growth
- Tragic optimism and post-traumatic growth
Finally, I want to emphasize that grief has
a transcendental function. It awakens one's spiritual and existential
yearnings, and spurs one to rise above the painful experiences of
mourning. Recovery always involves the reconstructing of painful
and sorrowful experiences through the transformation of assigned
One can never go back to the past. Therefore,
recovery does not mean a return to the normal life before the bereavement.
True recovery actually means that the bereaved person has found
a new meaning and propose, which enables the person to reach a higher
level of maturity.
C. S. Lewis (1960) A Grief Observed documents
the transformation from overwhelming grief and anger at God to a
new understanding of God and life. Such transformation can happen
to any one who is open to the spiritual reality beyond the physical
Edelman, H. (1994). Motherless daughters: The
legacy of loss. New York: Dell Publishing
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered assumptions:
Toward a new psychology of trauma. New York: Free Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1961). A grief observed. New York:
The Seabury Press.
Lindenmann, E. (1944). Symptomatology and management
of acute grief. American Journal of Psychiatry, 101, 1, 141-148.
Rando, T. A. (1988). Grieving: How to go on
living when someone you love dies. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Rando, T. A. (1993). Treatment of complicated
mourning. Champaign, IL: Reseach Press.
*Keynote address given at the Conference on
Life and Death Education, National Changhua University of Education,
Changhua, Taiwan, December 15, 2002.