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Bereavement is a psycho-social phenomenon requiring a grieving process


Bereavement is a psycho-social phenomenon requiring a grieving process

1.                  Bereavement – an explanation.

2.                  Grief – a process.

3.                  Death – social aspects.

4.                  Stages of grief.

5.                Conclusion


1. "Grief can become an experience that leaves a human life not more deprived but enriched and can result in a deeper understanding of the deceased and the bereaved."

 Most people suffer bereavement during their lives at one time or another.  It occurs when they have been deprived of something or someone and they have to learn to cope with the loss.  Loss can refer to a broad spectrum of losses e.g. loss of a limb, a pet, one’s job, home or country etc.  However, in the narrower sense when we talk of bereavement we think immediately of the loss of a loved person through death.  The time of coping with the loss is regarded as a process – the grieving process.  It incorporates various aspects of our being – physical, mental, social and emotional.  It may vary in degree from person to person; culture to culture.  There is no time limit.  The process may take weeks or years.

Freud describes it as;

2. "Regularly the reaction to the loss of a loved person or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one such fatherland, liberty, an ideal and so on."

When the process is completed he says, the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.  The intensity of grief may be determined by the intensity of love and certainly my personal experience of grief would bear that out. 

Grief is like a wound that takes time and nurturing to heal.  Only when it is ‘healed’ is the process complete.

3. "Only when the lost person has been internalized and become part of the bereaved, a part which can be intergrated with his own personality and enriches it, is the mourning process complete and the adjustment to a new life can be made."

How a person copes with loss depends on the individual, his culture or environment.  He can become depressed and behave in a destructive manner.  On the other hand, this time may be a period of growth, and inner awareness.  He may have a better understanding of others pain.  He may become creative and gain a new identity.  As in any suffering a person goes through a period of transition, so a bereavement can be a time of change and consequently a time of growth.

The way in which people deal with death and dying varies in cultures and countries.  In Eastern countries e.g. India and China death is considered part of life.  Death is not an end but a transition from one state of human existence to another.  Jews consider a dying man to be the same as a living man in every respect.  They communicate with their loved ones when they are gone.  Hindus and Buddhists see death as the “absence of the presence.”  In tribal countries children are encouraged to touch the death person and take part in the funeral.  They learn to accept death as part of life.  They are free to express their feelings openly.  Emphasis is put on the “Rite of Passage” or transition from one state of being to the next.  This transition process touches the social aspect of grief, without separation it from the psychological.

In most western societies it is the ‘trend’ to whisk dead people into morgues of funeral parlous and so people are separated from their death.  America is a death-denying society where death is almost looked on as a failure.  However, in parts of Ireland and particularly in my own part of the North of Ireland there exists the traditional wake.  Loved ones who die are ‘waked’ in their own homes.  Relatives maintain a vigil by their dead until they are interned.  The bereaved have the benefit of sharing their grief with friends and neighbours.

Death in a Christian sense is the end of our earthly lives.  We continue to exist in another state.  We make certain preparations for death and people pray for their dead.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross descries death beautifully –

4. "Death is but a new birth into a new state."

Whenever death occurs there are those loved ones left behind to grieve.  The grieving process is considered a normal process and consists of recognised stages.

5. "The most characteristic feature of grief is not prolonged depression, but acute episodic pangs. A pang of grief is an episode of severe anxiety and psychological pain. At such time lost people are strongly missed and the survivors sob or cry aloud for them." Most people pass through these stages. When someone gets stuck in one of these stages and fails to move on, it is known as pathological grief. They may need help or counselling as many problems may arise as a result.

The various stages of grief have been defined by people like Elizabeth Kubler Ross, John Bowlby, Colin Murray Parkes among many others.  The stages are mainly shock, searching, mitigation and finally gaining a new identity.

Shock : When one is told of a loved one’s death, in most cases there are degrees of shock.  Reactions may vary.  A person may become ‘numb’ or may start crying.  There may be physical collapse, violent outbursts, a dazed withdraw.  There may be a denial and inability to take in the reality of the death.  Crying may help to relieve strong emotions. Western societies tend to discourage a show of emotions which may result in problems later on. In my own personal experience, I was shocked when told of the death of my father, despite the fact that he was ill for a number of years beforehand.  However, with the death of my mother the shock was much more severe as she died unexpectedly and consequently it tool longer to ‘get over’ her death.  I felt numb for a long time after her passing and felt a certain amount of denial that she could die.  It is normal for offspring to believe that their parents will always be around.  Denial may be used as a defence mechanism.  It provides a buffer zone from the reality of what has happened.

Searching: The searching period is a time of testing reality.  Searching for the lost person is an automatic defence against accepting the reality of loss.

6. "Searching is a restless activity which one moves towards possible locations of a lost subject."

There is the beginning of a painful withdrawal from the lost person.  The mourner feels lost and abandoned.  They may lose interest in their personal appearance and other matters.  They may be pre-occupied with thoughts of the lost person.  The need to search is expressed in restless behaviour.  They do all in their power to seek and recover the lost one.  Searching may eventually lead to finding a sense of the lost person’s presence.  Children who have lost parents in early childhood, often do not complete this stage until they reach maturity in adulthood.

Mitigation:  From searching, the bereaved may go through a period of sensing that their departed loved one is actually present.

7. "A sense of the continued presence of the deceased, a clear visual memory of him and preoccupation with thoughts of him." They may deny that the death has occurred and there may be a continuation of the 'numbness' experienced in the initial stage. Pining may diminish and memories of the dead person recalled. Dreams may help the bereaved come to terms with the loss and acceptance of what has happeded in their lives. Bereavement may arouse many emotions. There may be feelings of anxiety - a sense of losing control; not being able to cope. There may be feelings of guilt - perhaps more might have been done for the person who died. This is a common feeling and one which I have suffered from myself. There may be intense anger - perhaps directed at people who caused the death as in terminally ill or accident cases. This anger can be channelled into positive action e.g. joining organizations like Conquer Cancer, M.A.D.D. (Mothers Agaist Drunk Driving.) There may be feelings of resentment, loneliness. Often there is depression which may lead to cases of severe depression and people end up seeking help for problems. These problems may arise when they fail to grieve and they may need treatment for physical ills etc. There may be social deprivations which comes with loss of status, financial changes etc. When a loved one dies, the bereaved often loses his original status in society - e.g. a woman who has lost her spouse is no longer a wife but a widow and society treats her accordingly. She may have to look for a job and take over the complete running of a home. Often these changes cannot be anticipated until after a death.

Death can have different effects on families.  The death of a child can cause a family crisis that threatens members both individually and as a social unit.  Parents may be over-protective towards remaining children. The children may feel the need to make up to their parents for their loss by assuming the role of the deceased child.  Children should be encouraged to talk about the deceased member.  Marriages are under extreme pressure and sometimes couples may separate or divorce as a result.

The death of a mother is more traumatic for children of all ages.  Childhood bereavement in itself does not predispose an individual to develop depressive illness in later life.  It may contribute to abnormal personality development through the subsequent impairment of family life e.g. belonging to a one parent family, lower income, social isolation, parent pre-occupation and emotional over-dependence.  Children may blame themselves for their parent’s death and there is the fear of losing the other parent.  Even with adults, when an elderly parent dies there is the feeling that they die a little themselves.  Among the points to remember for those helping the bereaved are an acceptance of their feeling and concerns, displaying patience, good listening skills, regular contact and providing practical help.

‘Rites of Passage’ create a climate in which grief and mourning are accepted, supported, valued and given saction to mourning.

Gaining a new identity:  This is a time of acceptance of the loss and learning to re-build a new life.  It is possible to talk about the departed one with a sense of peace and resignation.

8. "Making a new start means learning new solutions and finding new ways to predict and control happenings within the life-space. It also means seeking a fresh place in the hierarchy, re-assessing one's powers and possesssions and finding out how one is viewed by the rest of the world."

 A person left on their own may begin to find their true identity and experience new meaning to their lives.  The loved one is missed but the bereaved no longer feels desolate.

9. "He becomes a possession never to be lost by being restored within the bereaved."


In conclusion, I quote one woman’s description of her mother’s loss as;

10. “Within my private realm of power to go forward – taking with me the gifts that come from my relationship with my mother, the good things I learned from her, her values, compassion, her quiet humour, I can leave the rest, the less valuable behind me and go forward with the certainty that she is there.”




Y. Spiegel

The Grief Process

S.C.M. Press (pg348)


S. Freud

Mourning and Melancholia  


C.M. Parkes




E.K. Ross

Death the Final Stage of Growth



C.M. Parkes




C.M. Parkes




C.M. Parkes




C.M. Parkes




Y. Spiegel

The Grief Process

S.C.M. Press



Beyond Grief

New Harbinger Pub Pg 67


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