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.

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.

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.

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 1 2014 7:26 PM Talking White Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.
  Business
Buy a Small Business
Oct. 1 2014 11:48 PM Inking the Deal Why tattoo parlors are a great small-business bet.
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?