What is Bereavement?

Bereavement is defined by psychologists as the time in which someone mourns a loved one’s death. This period could last for weeks, months, or even years, depending on a number of factors, including the person in question or cultural norms, to name just a few.

Overview of Bereavement

Bereavement is a natural and healthy response to death, and psychologists agree that grief is one of the most powerful emotions someone can feel after a loss.

The Stages of Grief

Though we all grieve in different ways, psychologists have identified at least five stages of grief, including:

  • Denial – A state of shock and disbelief.
  • Anger – Loved ones play the blame game.
  • Bargaining – A deliberation of what ifs.
  • Depression – A state of doom and gloom.
  • Acceptance – the precursor for moving on.

Coping with Bereavement

Some individuals try to cope with grief by isolating themselves from others while others find it more comforting to turn to a support system. Readers can learn the symptoms, causes, and treatments for bereavement in this overview of bereavement.

Symptoms of Bereavement

The emotions that accompany bereavement are infinite and profound. Grief counselors compare this period to that of a roller coaster ride, where many highs and lows are felt.

The bereaved person is best surmised as someone who is plagued with physical, emotional, mental, and social hurt and pain.

Mental Symptoms of Bereavement

A bereaved person often experiences feelings of:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Despair
  • Guilt
  • Sadness
  • Depression

Physical Symptoms of Bereavement

Mourners may also physically suffer from:

  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakened immune system

How long will it last?

Some of the key factors that influence how long a person mourns include:

  • The strength of the bond with the deceased
  • Whether the death was sudden or unexpected
  • The conditions surrounding the death

How a bereaved person responds to loss is further shaped by society and culture [2]. Social scientists refer to this as sociocultural factors, in which attitudes towards death, personal values, belief systems, social norms, and cultural influences all come into play.

The American Culture and Bereavement

Grieving in public is often frowned upon in American society. For example, if a widower remains stoic throughout a funeral, she is often characterized as “coping well”. It’s taboo to grieve openly, according to the author of the book, “Life is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss.”

This outward cultural indifference to bereavement comes from a number of factors, including the urbanization of society, where the population is far removed from nature and the natural cycle of life and death happens often.

Additionally, in the workplace, most US workers are granted just 1 to 3 days of bereavement time off to process the grief – and return with a brave face. When employees have to bury their emotions due to these societal norms, it can lead to other major issues, such as chronic depression.

Prolonged and Unbearable Grief

How good or bad one copes with grief is relative to the observer. However, most psychologists agree that when many years have passed and the following scenarios unfold, it may be time to seek professional help:

  • A bereaved person exhibits signs of loss to the point that a job cannot be sustained
  • When the person’s health is on the decline due to lack of self-care

Bereavement Causes

The main cause of bereavement is the death of a loved one.

It can be anyone with whom you shared a special bond, including a:

  • Spouse
  • Child
  • Parent
  • Friend
  • Pet

Other Types of Grief

There are also unique challenges that come with each of these deaths. A widower may need to find a way to replace lost income, for instance, while the death of a parent may bring about feelings of abandonment.

Other types of specialty grief to consider include:

Suicide grief

The surviving family and friends of suicide victims often face more challenges. Many feel ostracized and are generally burdened with guilt and shame. Suicide bereavement, therefore, leaves afflicted parties more susceptible to loneliness and depression.

Pet grief

Pet parents may find themselves overwhelmed with great sorrow when a pet dies. After all, our dogs and cats are usually considered members of the family. Outsiders, such as coworkers and extended family, though, may be dismissive. However, it’s important to confront the grief rather than sweeping it under the rug.

Anticipatory grief

Consider a neighbor whose head of household, the father, is diagnosed with a terminal illness and given months to live. He happens to be a 54-year-old with a 10-year-old son and a wife of 28 years. The close-knit family, though devastated by this news, are given some time to process the ramifications of the father’s death. They also get the opportunity to bid farewell to their loved one – as opposed to cases of sudden or accidental deaths. Even so, grief counselors point out that these circumstances do not make the bereavement process any less challenging.

Secondary Losses in Bereavement

The loss of a loved one is often accompanied by other types of losses – and these are referred to as a secondary loss. Examples include:

  • The loss of a stable income and financial security
  • The loss of one’s former identity and life purpose
  • The loss of self-confidence
  • The loss of one’s faith and hope
  • The loss of relationships
  • The loss of unfulfilled milestones
  • The loss of good health

Treatments for Bereavement

Even though grief is a normal response to a loved one’s death, it’s important to identify unhealthy and unnatural behaviors or thoughts. Some cases in point include:

  • The mourner has unrelenting feelings of guilt and shame
  • The mourner is experiencing suicidal thoughts
  • The mourner believes he or she should have died, too

Such thought processes, according to psychologists, indicate major depression rather than grief. And when this happens, it’s important to seek good and professional counsel.

How to Tell If You’re Depressed

Grief often mimics depression, and as a result, it’s often hard to decipher if interventions are needed. You may be depressed if:

  • You have feelings of doom and gloom that last for months or years
  • You feel an imminent sense of hopelessness all the time
  • You have suicidal thoughts
  • You feel isolated and like you don’t belong

Formal Treatment Plans for Bereavement

While prescription medicines such as antidepressants can alleviate some of the symptoms of grief, one of the most suitable treatments for chronic and persistent bereavement is therapy.

A mental health counselor may also recommend joining a support group to listen and interact with others who are walking in your shoes. These meetups are usually judgment-free zones where you can liberally express your guilt, anger, and other pent-up emotions.

Support groups also provide insight into better methods of coping. The support is typically ongoing, which helps during important milestones, like a birthday or special date. Grief therapy, moreover, teaches someone in extreme mourning that it’s OK to continue with a life separate from the deceased and to also attempt to adjust to life without their loved one.

Examples of Grief Work

To help mourners move on, psychologists will assign grief work exercises, in which the griever is told to aim for the following:

  • Break free from their previous identity
  • Adapt to a new way of life
  • Set out and find new relationships
  • Redirect the energy in productive ways
  • Find a new hobby

Following the Six-Step Plan

A six-step plan is commonly assigned. It involves:

  1. Nurturing a mindset to confront painful emotions
  2. Identifying healthy ways to cope
  3. Finding a way to maintain the memories of the deceased
  4. Making good health and self-care a priority
  5. Restoring past relationships
  6. Building one’s self-confidence

In doing so, the griever can channel negative energy in more productive ways. Grief counselors will also remind the bereaved that these activities are not meant to erase the memories of their loved one. The intention is to bring about a sense of belonging and peace.

How To Better Cope With Grief

Some good tips for managing grief include:

Make Health a Priority

It’s common to neglect one’s health when grieving. To manage grief in a healthy way, try setting aside a specific time to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. Plan healthy meals as much as possible, and if you lack the energy and strength to do so, consider asking a friend or loved one for help. There are also many meal plan subscription kits that can be purchased online and delivered to your door if your budget allows.

Take It Slowly

It’s very easy to get caught up in what needs to be done and forget about your own needs. The reorganization process can also bring about a flood of memories when you have to go through the deceased person’s belongings, including clothes, jewelry, and other items that bring back longing. How soon you should complete this activity depends entirely on the strength you can muster. Grief counselors say there is no right or wrong way to complete the grieving process. Take it one day at a time and see what you can do.

Other Factors That Affect Treatment

To find the right treatment plan, a therapist will analyze if other influences come into play, such as:

Complicated Grief

This is marked by a mourner having prolonged and extreme symptoms of bereavement to the point that he or she is unable to cope with the demands of daily life. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts often accompany complicated grief.

Grief in Children

Onlookers observing a child in the bereavement process may describe the grief as emerging in short and sporadic breaks. According to psychologists, this is due to the fact that a child is limited in how emotions can be processed. Remember, their brains are still growing, learning, and developing at this stage.

Even though shorter stretches of grief may be observed, grief counselors note that the bereavement process may take longer for children and it generally happens repeatedly. Like adults, however, the length of time it takes to grieve is also dependent on other factors like age and personality.

Bereavement Prevention

There is no one way to prevent bereavement, as it is a natural reaction to death. Many a bereaved person believe it’s better to bury one’s grief than to face these emotions head on. Others turn to unhealthy behaviors like engaging in drugs and alcohol to mask the pain. The only way to heal, according to psychologists, is to give yourself permission to feel the intense sorrow and work through the pain.

There is also no definitive measuring stick of how long or how hard a person will grief. However, there are therapies that can help.

The Take-Home Message

There are only a few people who leave this world unscathed by grief. Therefore, you are not alone in your journey. Letting go of grief and coming to terms with the loss is tough. With bereavement therapies, however, it’s possible to move forward and honor the memory of loved ones, without grief consuming your life.

Last Reviewed:
September 25, 2017
Last Updated:
November 15, 2017
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