Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I’m a writer for my high school’s award-winning newspaper and I’m writing an article about the unpredictability of grief. I would love if you could answer some of my questions regarding the subject, because a lot of the students at are school have lost people recently. Here are my questions:
Sofia [note below Sofia’s questions are italicized, Dr. Neimeyer’s responses not]
- Does the way someone grieves vary from person to person?
There are both universal and highly individual dimensions of grief. Of course, we usually feel profound sadness when we lose someone or something we greatly love, and we tend to draw into ourselves and away from others at such times. But how we grieve is a function of who we are, how we cope, who we have lost, and how we have lost them. When we have plenty of personal resources for managing difficult changes, when we show resilience in the face of adversity, when those we have lost have not been the most central people in our lives, and when the deaths are expected, as in later life through advanced illness, we tend to move through grief with less distress and extended anguish. But when we ourselves are anxious about our connections with people, have struggles coping in other areas of our lives, lose people who are very central to our life stories, and lose them tragically, prematurely, and suddenly, then our course of grief can be far more difficult.
- Are there benefits from learning about death earlier on in our lives, as children, or should we “shield” children from death?
We should not try to shield children from death and hide them from the reality of loss, but we should be loving companions to them as they experience the natural losses of people, pets, and possessions in the course of their young lives. Small losses can provide teachable moments for mastering later and larger ones.
- Are there clear-cut stages of grief, such as in the Kubler Ross model?
The popularity of stage theory aside, there is little evidence for it. Instead, there are many differences in how we grieve, as a function of gender, culture, and the sorts of factors I have mentioned above. Sometimes our psychological models are much simpler than our emotional realities.
- Does grief ever end? Why do we grieve even years after the death of a loved one? How does grief in the long run look different from grief right after a loss?
In a sense, grief does not end, but it can and usually does change. So a heavy sense of despair and depression in the early weeks or months of grief may mellow into a sweet nostalgia or feeling of gratitude as months turn into years. Grief is how we love someone after they die, but it does not have to be anguishing and life limiting.
- Is there an “acceptable” or expected grieving period in society? How does the process of grief look when someone begins grieving later than the expected grieving period?
There are widely different norms in different cultures and subcultures about how long visible grief is expected or tolerated, but a general principle would be that our private grief typically lasts longer than the social role of being a mourner. There’s not really much evidence for the concept of delayed grief, but of course a mourner can tend to avoid and minimize the impact of a loss early on, usually with an evident form of anxious inhibition or running away from the associated feelings. Of course, there are also many losses that simply do not touch us deeply, and so our grief may be minimal.
- Even though you mentioned that there aren’t necessarily clear-cut stages of grief like the Kubler Ross model suggests, is denial a common reaction someone might experience after, or even during the death of a loved one? What might denial look like?
Outright denial that a loved one has died is rare when the evidence of death is clear, although a subtle psychological denial of the implications of the death may persist. For example, a spouse who loses a partner could avoid some of the difficult decisions that will follow from this, such as whether to remain in the home they previously shared, to give away the loved one’s possessions. But when the death is ambiguous, as when a loved one simply disappears through abduction or an airline accident, denial of the reality of the death is more common.
- Does time heal?
In our research we find that time does little to heal the wounds of grieving. Instead, it is a question of what people do with the time that matters.
- Is it important to not only accept the death of a loved one, but also the grief that comes with it?
Self-acceptance and self-compassion are always good qualities to cultivate in ourselves and others. We cannot hope to change that which we refuse to even recognize, and this applies to our grief as well.
- Is it better to give yourself time to be sad, or to keep yourself busy after the death of a loved one?
The answer to your question is yes! That is, it is best to do both. Make a date with your grief as frequently as you need to, whether that takes the form of 30 minutes of reflection, journaling or listening to music that reminds you of your loved one, perhaps daily or at least a few times a week. However, also give yourself permission to have fun, hang out with friends, engage in a creative project, or give time to your studies or work. Don’t simply flee into “keeping busy,” but instead choose people and projects that have real meaning for you. This will help you grow through grief, rather than simply running from it.
- What are some things that can help someone who is grieving?
People are not things, but they can be very helpful when we are grieving! We also do well to exercise, eat well, allow time for reflection, try new things, and perhaps things that are even a little weird, like writing letters of love or appreciation to the person we have lost in our journal or on their memorial Facebook page. We can even imagine their advice for us as we move forward with our lives, and it can be an interesting process to write that down to, in the form of a letter from them to us. Be creative and attempt to maintain a healthy bond with those we have loved. And a healthy bond of any kind does not mean that we spend all our time or energy only with one person. A healthy relationship—whether with the living or the dead, is a safe harbor to return to feel cared for, and a launch pad to take off from to explore other worlds. Coming and going and then coming again, easily and without drama, is optimal in both cases.
- How can someone support a friend or family member who’s grieving?
We can be helpful to a mourner in lots of ways. By listening more deeply than others do and withholding simple advice or the temptation to just cheer them up. By offering practical help with schoolwork or other tasks of living. And by simply giving them a chance to have some fun and take a break from their grief for a while. But we don’t help much when we offer them drugs or alcohol as a temporary and potentially addictive way of dealing with feelings without really understanding them.
- What’s the difference between mourning and grieving? What might the two processes look like?
People use these terms in different ways, but the most general understanding of them would be that grieving represents the personal and psychological process of moving through a loss, whereas mourning represents the public and ritualistic ways in which we do so.
- What are some ways that grief can shape someone’s outlook on life?
Managed poorly, grief can leave us feeling embittered, distrustful, angry, and alone. But managed well grief can make us wiser, calmer, more compassionate, and more connected. We rarely choose to lose someone through death, but we certainly can make choices in bereavement that shape how we grieve and who we become.