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.

This article is one of a series about grief. Click here to read our original article on grief and to look at accompanying survey. A subsequent article will look more closely at what the respondents wrote in.

There are many strange things about grief, but one of the strangest is the gap between how we experience it in private and how we express it in public. Loss is a territory we find hard to navigate together; we may read about it in books, empathizing with strangers, yet we still don't know what to say to our newly bereaved best friend. But a wholly private grief can feel isolating; as the psychoanalyst Darian Leader put it, mourning "requires other people." Because we had both suffered painful losses—Meghan has written about loss here and in her book The Long Goodbye, and Leeat has written extensively about loss for both academic and popular audiences—we wanted to find out more about grief and mourning and how others experienced it. And so in March we ran a survey asking Slate readers to tell us about how they felt about loss. We wanted to get a look at what grief was really like from the inside out.

The survey seemed to strike a nerve. Within a week, nearly 8,000 people had responded. Even more tellingly, the majority of our respondents wrote at length about their experiences and what they had learned from them. The result isn't a nationally representative sample; our respondents are a self-selected group of volunteers who are mostly female (78 percent) and who range in age from their late teens to their 70s. (One percent was over 74.) What emerges is a rare and valuable—and, it would seem, frank—look at how thousands of people have lived through and coped with grief. Cracking open the black box of mourning and peering inside let us hear an amazing cacophony of voices and opinions. Indeed, the most important finding is this: There is a lot of variation within our respondents' experience of grief.

Click to view a slide show.

In an age when the public conversation about grief can be prescriptive—when popular culture still invokes the debunked "stage theory" of grief, and when psychiatrists are on the verge of categorizing certain forms of grief as mental disorders—this variation, in our eyes, underscores an important human truth about grief: Although the experience is in some ways universal, grief remains highly personal and subjective. And one of the hardest aspects of mourning is feeling that one's own grief is somehow not valid, not "normal," or has gone unrecognized.

Who were our respondents mourning? About three-quarters reported the loss of someone "very close." Strikingly, almost one-third of our respondents had suffered the loss eight or more years ago, suggesting the continual presence of loss in their lives, and an ongoing interest in a dialogue about grief. Most—nearly 60 percent—had lost a parent. But there was a wide range of other losses, including grandparents, spouses, and siblings. Four percent had lost a child, and around 1.5 percent had had a miscarriage. We also received responses from people who had lost boyfriends or girlfriends, fiancés, roommates, nephews, and pets.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that our respondents took the time to participate in our survey, they reported symptoms of grief that were intense. On a scale of 1 to 10, nearly two-thirds rated the severity of the symptoms of their grief between an 8 and 10 in the first six months after their loss. Many of the symptoms they reported were familiar—most of our respondents had experienced symptoms of "sorrow," "overwhelming sadness," "yearning or nostalgia," as well as "trouble concentrating" and "trouble sleeping." More than one-half said they had experienced loneliness.

But some findings surprised us, given what grief literature has led us to expect. For example, less than one-half of those who took the survey said they had experienced disbelief about the loss, which seems low when you consider how popular the idea of "denial" has become in mainstream culture. By contrast, 60 percent of our respondents dreamt of the dead. Startlingly, too, nearly one-fifth reported imagining they had seen the deceased alive—a "symptom" that might seem extreme, a cinematic fiction, until you hear it from so many mourners. (Indeed, many health care professionals consider it a symptom of mental disorder.)

Private grief routinely chafes against the problem of public expectation. And so a number of our questions tried to get at whether mourners felt supported in their grief. The results were divided, but they confirmed that interacting with others is generally awkward at best, and painful and isolating at worst. Only about 7 percent felt that it was "completely true" that they moved on easily and had the support they needed to do so. About 45 percent of our respondents felt that it was "somewhat true" that they moved on easily and had the support they needed, while one-quarter felt it was "mostly true."

In general, many respondents wanted to explain how "uncomfortable" (a word that appeared over and over) they felt their grief had made others. As one respondent put it of those around her, "They would get tired of my sad mood and need to talk about it, and say I was 'wallowing' or I should move on." Another wrote, "People are very supportive for the first couple of weeks, but then they move on. … It makes you feel guilty to continue to mourn when others are tired of dealing with it." At the same time, a smaller group noted that they'd been told they weren't grieving enough. Paradoxically, the responses seem to suggest there was both an expectation that one should grieve a little and a concurrent desire that the mourner not grieve too much.

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