How psychology can validate disenfranchised bereavement

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We are a nation saturated with grief at this cultural and historical moment. The COVID-19 pandemic, a steady drumbeat of mass shootings, rising rates of single homicides and suicides, and an opioid crisis have combined to leave behind millions of bereaved people.

What we once understood about the experience of grief, psychological research has shown no longer holds. Contrary to popular thought, grief does not occur in a predictable sequence of emotions. Conventional family relationships don’t actually predict which grief is more enduring or disruptive. Disenfranchised grief – when one’s grief is invisible or invalidated – is more common than is generally known. Acknowledgment, validation and acceptance are essential to help us live with the loss and pain that arises when our experience of grief is not fully understood. In this article, I will explore grief and bereavement in all their complexity, based on current research and my clinical practice.

What do the terms mean grief, pain and grief even say? These words are often used interchangeably, but actually refer to different aspects of the experience of loss. Grieving refers to the actual experience of losing a loved one to death. About a loss. Grieving is a person’s response to loss – all of the feelings, thoughts, and actions a person has and then takes. Grief is the process by which a person comes to terms with the loss and includes private, social, or cultural rituals and practices that help integrate the loss into the reality of the bereaved’s life.

The way we move between attachment and loss gives character to our lives. A psychologist-mentor wrote this to me when I was in college, after losing someone I loved and struggling with my first experience of grief and bereavement. He had introduced me to the work of John Bowlby, a 20th century British psychoanalyst who pioneered the study of attachment and loss. Before the concept of the five stages of grief became popular, Bowlby identified shock, disbelief, and longing as key descriptions of initial responses to grief. In fact, contemporary bereavement research supports the idea that disbelief, not denial, and longing, not negotiation, are more often felt by people who have lost a loved one. Today, psychological research identifies disbelief, longing, emotional pain, numbness, concern for the lost loved one, and social withdrawal as common aspects of grief.

The duration of grief is highly individualized, but research supports the idea that most people can go back to their current lives and come to terms with the fact of a loss in about a year and a half. Much of this research, however, relies on samples of elderly widows who have mourned the loss of a husband to death from natural causes. Grief trajectories resulting from traumatic losses or significant relationships outside of marriage, as well as racially and culturally diverse people, are not as well studied. We need to better understand common experiences of grief when the death of a loved one is developmentally unexpected, traumatic, and when the bereaved is someone other than a spouse, child, parent or sibling or sister. And we need to better understand the experience of grief when the loss does not involve the death of a loved one – perhaps rather the loss of a place, a relationship or an experience.

While contemporary grief research has refined or superseded earlier ideas, formative theorists like Bowlby have understood that our experience of grief and loss is shaped by the webs of relationships in which we are embedded – those of family, of the community and society in general. If and how grief is validated at each of these levels will affect our grieving process and our ability to honor the past while living in the present and planning for the future. Stronger canvases help us withstand the losses. The fragile leave us more alone in ways that interfere with acceptance. In future articles, I will explore these topics and how research in psychology can help challenge conventional wisdom to validate the various expressions of grief that manifest in our lives.

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