Why We Grieve Differently

Carmen D. Lade

Have you ever been pressured by family members or friends to grieve according to their agendas? Or have you been told you should find closure and be over “it” by now? Such remarks spring from ignorance of the fact that there are an untold number of grieving styles. No two people grieve the same way.

How we grieve and mourn (go public with our grief) is an exclusively personal and highly individual process because of a large number of variables woven into our complex grieving style. Let’s examine a number of these variables in order to better understand why each person should be allowed to grieve at their pace and in their way.

1. Early Childhood experiences. How did you first learn about death? What stories were told and how did the adults respond to death, dying, and mourning? What did they say or not say, especially in a nonverbal manner? Did your first encounter result is seeing death as an enemy, friend, inevitable, or scary? And most important, what did you pick up from those in your circle of friends as you were growing up? Many of those early images sit in your unconscious and have an effect on the way you cope with the loss of a loved one.

2. Religious beliefs, the media, and readings all play a part in our current view of death and how we grieve. Consider what you have learned, good or bad, from watching hours of television including horror shows. What has your minister, priest, or rabbi communicated about death and an afterlife? And then consider what you have read about death in the newspaper, books, or magazines.

3. The nature of the death and who died. How the death one is grieving occurred, and who is the person who died, plays another significant role in how we grieve. Sudden and unexpected deaths are bound to bring intense and longer grief responses. Murder, suicide, car accidents, combat deaths, drug overdoses, or other accidental deaths have their own added burdens that mourners must deal with. The death of a child, sibling, parent, ex, spouse, friend, or multiple deaths can bring a very different response. Grief can become especially complicated when a body cannot be found.

4. The degree of emotional investment in the deceased. An extremely important factor in how one grieves is the nature of the relationship with the person who died. Was there total dependence on the deceased? Was there a hostile relationship or an ambiguous (love/hate) one? Nobody except the bereaved person knows the true depth and meaning of the relationship. And what affect will the loss of the loved one have on the bereaved’s social relationships? Could survivor’s guilt be involved?

5. The mourner’s health and personality characteristics. Energy levels, stamina, previous bouts with depression, and general positive or negative attitudes prior to the death must also be considered in how one mourns. So too, nutrition, amount of sleep, exercise, coping behaviors, and ability to deal with stress will also play a part. Any of the above can add to or minimize the amount of unnecessary suffering and intense pain being felt.

6. Social support system. The mourner’s perception of his/her support system has a major affect on the course of grief work. If the person believes no one understands and feels isolated or hurried in their grief work, much additional pain has to be dealt with. On the other hand, realizing you have many people to rely on and turn to can spur confidence that you can manage the great loss. Here is where one’s culture also plays a role in how a mourner responds.

7. The meaning of the loss. Trying to find meaning in why the loss occurred, whether it could have been prevented, and will it be in vane can be especially important factors in the length of grief work. Finding a satisfactory explanation for the death with all the details is often a difficult task that takes much time and thought and cannot be rushed.

To summarize, all of the above and more is involved in the beliefs we form and the expectations we have about death, dying, and grieving. There is a complex web of influences from our past that we bring to how we grieve in the present. And, there are many variables surrounding the death that adds to how it is mourned.

Let us honor the history of each person and allow them to grieve and express their feelings and thoughts. Be patient with those who are mourning. Endure with them. Make every effort to view their grief from their perspective. It is a unique grief, a special relationship, and their needs that have to be met.

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