What is grief really like?

A study of bereavement.
April 28 2011 10:22 AM

What Is Grief Really Like?

Analyzing the results of the Slate survey on loss.

(Continued from Page 1)

It's only to be expected that a mourner might feel slightly out of step with the world. But many of our respondents felt deeply isolated, or found it acutely difficult to explain or express their grief to others. Less than one-half of our respondents felt freely able to express their grief; nearly one-fifth felt they could not express it at all. Close to 30 percent felt alone with their grief most of the time. Thirteen percent felt alone all of the time. That seems like a very high number of lonely grievers to us. On the other hand, some had an easier time in this regard: Slightly more than one-quarter felt they could express their grief most of the time, leaving us to conclude that the social experience of loss is profoundly different from case to case, family to family, person to person, and culture to culture.

But perhaps the most important finding in the data had to do with recovery from grief. Here, the answers suggested that loss takes longer to recover from than we typically imagine. More than one-quarter of our respondents reported that they never went back to feeling like themselves after their loss. Another quarter said they felt normal only "one to two years" after the loss. This is of particular note since the fifth edition of the DSM (or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), due to come out in 2013, may propose that a mourner can be diagnosed with "complicated, pathological, or prolonged" grief if he or she is still grieving intensely six months after a loss. What our respondents suggested (which rang true for us) was that for many mourners, recovering from a death of a loved one can take a year or several years. For others, "recovery" may never happen at all.

Meanwhile, the comments our respondents made suggested a deep hunger for recognition of loss—a hunger that is bound up with intense sensitivity to the language we use to describe loss and mourning. For example, respondents pointed out ways in which the phrasing of our questions had oversimplified an issue; in one, we asked whether a mourner had had support, for instance, in order to "move on easily." As a respondent aptly put it, there's nothing "easy" about loss. In a question asking whom the respondent had lost, our list of answers included siblings, parents, grandparents, friends, and "other"; we did not list "child."

Those who had lost children noted that this seemed a curious omission; some felt understandably angry about it. In the minds of respondents, the very language of our survey seemed to "include" some kind of deaths and "exclude" others. As one wrote, the lack of inclusion of "child" was "a seeming dismissal." Of course, we didn't intend the omission to be a dismissal, but as the survey-takers pointed out, conscious intention isn't what is really at stake for any mourner. One central challenge in grieving has to do with wanting acknowledgement of loss: A beloved person and relationship existed, and now they do not. Silences seem to ignore the reality of this loss.

Clearly, one major difficulty for mourners is getting others to see that one's feelings are "valid," and certain kinds of language seem to make space for grief while others do not. After all, people tend to make judgments about the validity of grief depending on their own assessment of its importance, not the mourner's. Our survey-takers found that others routinely assumed that losing an aunt or suffering a miscarriage wasn't "as bad" as losing a mother or a sibling, for example. But grief, as these responses reminded us, is shaped by the intensity of the relationship, and the larger life context in which the loss is suffered. Then, too, as some respondents noted, one thing we are grieving is not just the person who died but the person we got to be when we were with them—or the idea of a future self we've had to let go of.

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If the survey reinforced many common ideas about grief, it also usefully—and powerfully—underscored the sheer amount of time the bereaved often need in order to mourn. And it left us mulling the complex question of why recognition from others is so important. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the person we really want recognition from is dead and never coming back, or because the transition from presence to absence is so mysterious that we desire some witness of it. It may be as simple as our human need to feel we are not alone when the grief gets unbearable; empathy can serve as a buffer when the world's contours have become sharp and unyielding.

The desire for recognition is pragmatic, too: Grief is not just emotionally but physically taxing, and it can be acutely painful when others expect you to perform at work and at home at the usual levels. Acknowledging mourning would help relieve the bereaved of the additional pressure of trying to continue to meet others' needs and expectations. Finally, perhaps one reason we crave recognition is that there truly is no "solution" to grief, as Julian Barnes recently noted. Loss cannot be undone or recovered, and so the mourner finds herself demanding acknowledgement of that monumental shift.

This article reviews the raw data our survey generated; our next installment will quote more from the respondents themselves. Please feel free to write with thoughts. Meghan can be reached at info@meghanorourke.net and Leeat at Griefandlossproject@gmail.com. Click to read a slide-show essay  on what grief is like, according to the results of our survey.

Dr. Leeat Granek is a critical health psychologist and researcher who studies grief and loss.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.

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