Have you ever considered why some people show little outward expression of emotion when a loved one dies and others seem not to be able to control the outpouring of feelings? Or have you ever made the mistake of judging that someone is not as sad as you expected the person would be? These are important questions because the answers you decide on will heavily influence the way you relate to and help the bereaved.
Judging the depth of pain and sadness in anyone who is grieving is a non-starter at best, but to believe that the outward expression of emotion is a valid indicator of inner turmoil (or sadness) in a mourner is to make a tragic mistake as a caregiver. Keep in mind that every mourner brings to the loss event all of the beliefs, experiences, and perceptions of his or her life as well as the distinct emotional investment in the person who died. Consequently, the way a person deals with any loss event will be a one-of-a-kind response.
What should we know to best serve those who are in need when mourning the death of a loved one?
1. First, although commonalities exist, the grief response is highly individual and often influenced by those who are close to the mourner. Yes, some individuals hide their grief while others respond according to someone else?s agenda. In any event, so-called normal mourning includes a much wider variety of responses than is normally recognized, not a narrow easily defined descriptive formula as found in many stages models of grieving.
2. Not everyone mourning the death of a loved one experiences depression, anger, guilt, fear or deep sadness. Yet the grief response in those who do not have to deal with these emotions may be as normal as those who experience them.
3. There is a big difference between depression and sadness. Often a person is very sad, introverted, and not open to talking about the loss or some events leading up to the loss. Regrettably, this is sometimes interpreted as the person being in depression. Depressed people are usually less focused on the deceased and more on the self, exhibit little fluctuation in mood, yet carry a much more pervasive sense of emptiness and hopelessness. Never try to diagnose. Give the person time, and if a total lack of interaction continues to prevail, consult a trained counselor.
4. When grief normally occurs, the cultural tide still engulfs men telling them to be strong and keep a stiff upper lip. They often need permission to show emotion, and equally important, given recognition that they are hurting. Participation in making arrangements and doing things is a very important part of their mourning.
5. Many women have been conditioned to believe they are or should be responsible for virtually everything. When death occurs, they are often riddled with guilt and the belief they should have been able to do so much more, even to have prevented the death. Let them know the difference between true cause and effect guilt and neurotic guilt that is induced by the culture.
6. Women tend to have more social connections, often a wider support network, and are more willing to talk about their feelings. Men usually have fewer support persons to rely on and do not like to talk openly about their pain. Thus far fewer men join support groups. However, these patterns can be reversed in some people.
The behavioral, social and physical responses, attempts at coping, and beliefs about death and mourning among people are highly diverse. The result is even more diversity in what is considered normal mourning. Therefore, we have to be very much aware of the differences in mourning behavior within individual families and other social groups if we attempt to provide support. This will limit misinterpretations and jumping to the conclusion that someone is in need of professional assistance.
Dr. Lou LaGrand is a grief counselor and the author of eight books, the most recent, Love Lives On: Learning from the Extraordinary Encounters of the Bereaved. He is known world-wide for his research on the Extraordinary Experiences of the bereaved (after-death communication phenomena). He is one of the founders of Hospice of the St. Lawrence Valley, Inc. His website is http://www.extraordinarygriefexperiences.com.