(Adapted from material presented by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a respected grief counselor and author, known throughout the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing in grief. Visit his website at: http://www.centerforloss.com).
The symptoms of grief are manifested in physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses that are common in many people. But while it is important to understand the commonality of grief, it is also vital that we recognize the uniqueness of grief.
Although there are common responses in a general sense, the experience of grief is personal and unique to each individual. No two people grieve and mourn in exactly the same way. It is important for these differences to be recognized and respected so that others have permission to grieve in their own way and at their own pace.
Factor #1: The Nature of the Relationship With the Person Who Died
Was the person who died a close personal friend or a casual acquaintance? A family member? A spouse? A child? Perhaps the relationship was with a loved one, but characterized by frequent arguments and conflicts. Perhaps the person who died was separated by physical distance that prevented frequent contact.
Any of these situations, and others similar to them, can exert a dramatic effect on the nature of one’s grief. Whatever the circumstances, the bereaved is the best person to describe and work toward understanding the nature of that relationship.
Factor #2: Circumstances Surrounding the Death
The unique circumstances surrounding the death of someone loved can have an impact on one’s grief journey. For example, was the death anticipated or sudden and unexpected? How old was the person who died? Are there feelings that the bereaved could have prevented the death?
A sudden, unexpected death obviously does not allow the bereaved any opportunity to prepare for the reality of the event or to say “good-bye.” But is one ever really “ready” for the death of a loved one? It should also be noted, that even when there is the opportunity to anticipate death, it does not necessarily lessen one’s grief.
The age of the person who died also has an impact on one’s psychological acceptance of the death. Within the order of our world, it is usually anticipated that parents will die before their children. But when a child dies, it is an assault on the natural course of events. Or, one’s grief may be affected when a middle-aged person dies prematurely.
In some instances, the bereaved may blame themselves for the death or feel responsible in some way. For example, a person who fell asleep while driving might consider himself or herself to be responsible for the death of a passenger in the car. This type of situation can cause serious complications in one’s grief experience and further contribute to the uniqueness of grief.
Factor #3: Circumstances Surround One’s Support System
The work of mourning requires a stabilizing support system of at least one other person. To heal requires an environment of empathy, caring, and gentle encouragement. In some instances, the support system may be assumed. That is, caregivers may think the bereaved have a support system when, in fact, they do not. The bereaved may have family or friends close by, but they lack compassion, understanding, and patience in providing support. Or one’s support system may evaporate after a period of time. Loving, caring friends who were supportive at the time of death may eventually fade from the picture a short time after the funeral is over.
Even if the bereaved has a strong support system in place, it is important that they accept the support system available to them. Some people have trouble in asking for help. Other may have difficulty in acknowledging their need to mourn and expressing their grief. If so, it is possible for the bereaved to isolate themselves from the very people who would most like to be their companion on the grief journey. If any of these possibilities actually occur, it will most likely hinder or limit the mourning that is so essential to healing.
Factor #4: One’s Unique Personality
The unique personality of each individual will be reflected in grief. A person, who is quiet by nature, will most likely express grief in a quiet way. Those who are more outgoing may be more expressive.
One’s responses to other losses and crises will probably be consistent with how he/she responds to grief. If there is the tendency to remain distant or “run away” from crises, one may respond in the same way to the death of a loved one. If crises are usually confronted head-on with an open expression of thoughts and feelings, a similar response to death may be expected.
Other personality influences, such as one’s self-esteem, values, and beliefs also impact the grief response. Long-term problems with depression or anxiety may influence one’s response. At the right time and in the right way, caregivers may find the following questions helpful in assessment:
What are some adjectives you would use to describe yourself?
How is your unique personality influencing your grief journey?
How have you responded to previous losses or crises in the past?
Are you responding in a similar way now, or does it seem different from the past?
What has your self-esteem been like over the years?
How is your self-esteem right now?
Have you had previous concerns with long-term depression or anxiety?
Factor #5: The Unique Personality of the Person Who Died
Just as one’s own personality is reflected in the grief journey, so, too, is the personality of the person who died. For example, if that person was always a soothing, stabilizing influence within the family, the family may not be as close as they were prior to the death. In contrast, if the person was never easy to be around, one may experience ambivalent feelings about the loss.
It is important that both the bereaved and caregivers understand that working through issues of faith are sometimes part of the grief journey and that it is not uncommon for “protest emotions” (anger, blame, guilt, etc.) to be directed toward God as part of a normal reaction to grief. They should not panic and rush to “fix” a skewed theological perspective, but patiently walk with the bereaved as they seek to resolve conflicts of faith.
What is perhaps most important is to understand that having faith does not mean there is no need to mourn. It does mean having the courage to allow oneself to mourn. The role of the caregiver is to patiently listen as the bereaved explore spiritual values, question attitudes toward life, and renew their resources for living. In some instances, a referral to a pastor, teacher, counselor, or other qualified person may be in order.
Factor #8: Other Crises or Stresses in Life
The death of a loved one will most always be accompanied by “secondary losses.” An individual loss seldom occurs in isolation to other stresses and problems, such as the loss of:
A sense of future.
Friends who may abandon the bereaved during grief.
A house or other material possessions.
Role in the community.
Such losses are not uncommon with the death of a loved one. For example, a widow may lose her sense of financial security and sense of identity (she is no longer a “wife”) when her husband dies. In addition to the secondary losses are the crises and stressors that may have been present prior to the death – problems on the job, in marriage, in family relationships, or with one’s health. All of these can have a significant impact on the grief response.
Factor #9: Gender
Being a male or female can have an influence, not only on one’s grief, but on the manner in which people relate to the bereaved. Generally speaking, men are encouraged to “be strong” and restrained, and tears are considered by many to be a sign of weakness and diminished masculinity. Typically, men have more trouble moving toward painful feelings than women do, which can complicate the journey from grief to mourning.
Women sometimes have difficulty expressing feelings of anger, while men tend to respond more quickly with explosive emotions. Because men are culturally conditioned toward self-sufficiency and being in control, they often have difficulty in acknowledging their need for help and accepting outside support.
Factor #10: Ritual or Funeral Experience
No single, right way exists to have a funeral, but creating a meaningful funeral service can aid in the social, emotional, and spiritual healing after a death. If minimized or distorted, the funeral service may also hinder the grief response. Pastors should give priority attention to funeral arrangements; take utmost care in planning and preparing the service and accompanying events; and work closely with families to help them make appropriate decisions concerning the funeral.
A meaningful funeral service should:
Acknowledge and celebrate the life of the deceased.
Assure the bereaved of a safe place to mourn their loss.
Legitimize the normal feelings of the bereaved.
Allow mourners to remember and honor their loved one.
Serve as a gathering place for friends and family to give emotional and physical support to one another.
Confirm the reality and finality of death.
Encourage mourners to accept the pain of their loss.
Represent a meaningful step on the grief journey.
Allow death to be contemplated in the context of faith and religious beliefs.
Dispense hope and comfort.