Grief is a natural human reaction caused by the loss of a loved one or something that was once important, whereas, bereavement is the reaction to losing a loved one by death (Hensley & Clayton, 2008, p. 1). It is important to point out that without allowing oneself the opportunity to grieve, there are serious implications that could occur. A study conducted by Hensley and Clayton (2008) reported that, “in the first year of bereavement, most people demonstrate 4 types of disrupted functioning: cognitive disorganization, dysphoria, health deficits, and disruptions in both social and occupational functioning” (p. 2).
Chronic illness, quality of life, and cultural expectations are just a few implications of untended grief in our culture, workplace, and in relationships. Philbin (2011) emphasizes how important it is for mourners to have adequate support during the grief process, but oftentimes do not reach out to anyone, hide their feelings and emotions, causing them to shut down and withdraw from society (p.127). By conforming to Western cultural norms, and not having support from within the community, there is an increase in chronic illness and healthcare utilization due to experiencing loss (Miles, Allegra, Ezeamama, Simpson, Gerst-Emerson, & Elkins, 2016, p. 43).
Acknowledging Unintended Grief in Our Culture
Research shows that at any given time, numerous individuals are grieving and attempting to navigate through their emotions, including adjusting to a life that is no longer the same. Grief is isolating and those who have already self-isolated will be daunted by accessing resources. It is important for society as a whole to acknowledge and address the importance of helping mourners navigate and find meaning in their grief. Only then can one freely express their grief in a healthy way, without sacrificing their mental, physical, and spiritual health. Until that time comes, addressing the implications of unintended grief will begin to bring awareness of the problem to the community.
In a study conducted by Zisook and Shear (2009) they point out that “while each individual grief process is unique, there is a form of grief that is disabling, interfering with function and quality of life. This prolonged, complicated grief response tends to be chronic and persistent in the absence of targeted interventions and may be life threatening” (p. 72). Complicated grief has been proven to have profound effects on one’s overall health which can lead to more serious issues down the road, if not addressed in a timely and empathetic manner.
What Happens to Our Bodies During Grief
After a loss, “the immune response system is temporarily impaired and there are endocrine changes such as increased adrenocortical activity and increase in serum prolactin and growth hormone, as in other situations that evoke depression and distress” (Parkes, 1998, p. 4). What this means is that a mourner is more susceptible to illness, suicide, increase risk of death from heart disease, depression and/or anxiety, or other psychiatric disorders (Parkes, 1998, p. 5). Any of these factors can cause interference in one’s daily life activities to include sleeping, eating, being physically active, work, as well as within their personal relationships.
There is a large percentage of mourners who do seek medical attention, and/or intervention, for the above-mentioned illness, or condition(s), as a result of loss and grief. However, those individuals who seek out help from their healthcare providers, do not realize that they are being treated for the symptom or ailment, and not the condition of loss itself. Zisook et al. (2009) makes a great point that doctors are not trained and do not have in-depth discussions about grief during medical school or psychiatry residency training programs (p. 67). “In order to appreciate how grief can go awry and transition from a normal response to a disabling condition warranting medical attention, the clinician must first know the characteristics of normal grief and how to differentiate normal grief from complicated grief and/or grief-related major depression” (Zisook et al., 2009, p. 67).
Grief Should be Accepted as Normal
How can Western society acknowledge grief as an acceptable cultural norm, allowing mourners to express their grief freely, if healthcare professionals are not recognizing loss as an epidemic? Parkes (1998) claims that the one explanation why healthcare providers are not addressing loss, “is the assumption that loss is irreversible and untreatable: there is nothing we can do about it, and the best way of dealing with it is to ignore it” (p. 1).
Although grief is a natural human reaction, Western society has created its own social rules for grieving (Harris, 2009, p. 244). Harris brings to light the set of expectations and rules that have been created in Western society, in response to bereavement. “There are several social rules for grieving in most Western societies that are not stated explicitly, but which are widely known and recognized. These social rules identify who, in a given society, is granted the privilege of any exemption from roles and responsibilities as a result of socially recognized condition that is legitimized through a political structure or authority figure, such as a physician” (Harris, 2009, p. 244).
Grief in the Workplace
There are some within the community who do believe that the subject of loss and bereavement should be a companywide subject matter so that those who are experiencing grief can be better accommodated. Charles-Edwards (2009) contributes to this view that companies should be better informed and proactive in regard to death and bereavement in the workplace, as well as how to communicate and support those who are grieving (p. 435).
Many mourners oftentimes avoid talking to others, especially in the workplace, and suppress their grief which can oftentimes lead to unhealthy habits. Parkes (1998) talks about psychosocial transition where one must undergo a transition to relearn how to navigate this new life that they now have, due to loss (p. 2). Parkes (1998) states, “Until people have gone through the painful process of searching, they cannot let go of their attachment to the lost person and move on to review and revise their basic assumptions about the world” (p. 2).
Unfortunately, due to Western society’s norms and expectations, taking time off from work, or simply acknowledging that grief is a condition that takes time to process, is not an option for many mourners. Harris (2009) says that many of his clients who are in grief counseling are more distressed over their responses to the loss more than their own personal loss (p. 242). As a counselor, Harris (2009) has spent more time, “attempting to normalize grief responses that have been deemed as abnormal by social indices, un-doing the unhealthy suppression of grief, and attempting to re-frame the pathology-based approach to grief that seems prevalent in Western society in order to counteract the paralyzing effects that these influences have upon many of my bereaved clients” (p. 242).
The First Step is Grief Education
The goal is to educate society about what implications grief can have on someone who has or is experiencing a loss. The social rules that society has written in regard to how someone should grieve and for how long, will never change unless, “knowledge of the factors that predict problems in bereavement” are addressed (Parkes, 1998, p. 1).
Providing immediate grief response to a mourner would allow them to grieve in a healthy way, ultimately leading to improved quality of life. Kessler (2019) makes a valid statement in regard to the acceptance of grief, “We will never be okay with it, but we must accept it, even in its brutality, and, in time, acknowledge the reality of it” (p. 67).
Acceptance Comes with Time and Community
Acceptance does not happen quickly, but by engaging with a community of mourners and embracing resources that are set in place within that community, the negative implications of unintended grief can be minimized. In a research study conducted by Philbin (2011), he found that when society provides an empathetic and supportive environment, it gives those in mourning, “a life-changing opportunity for working through disillusionment and loss” (p. 133). By allowing those who are experiencing grief an opportunity to grieve in their own way and time, they are able to accept the new reality in which they now live in (Philbin, 2011, p.133).
Grief is a natural human reaction to loss, and too important of a problem to go unnoticed or unaddressed. Miles et al. (2016) makes a valid point at the end of their study, “By framing loss as a public health issue, we can begin a systematic approach to facilitating preparation and identifying effective bereavement treatments” (p. 46). Unless someone steps forward and makes the initial attempt to address an issue and educate the community on why unintended grief can have serious implications, then society will never change their actions or views in regard to grief. Being able to speak about an issue that you have experienced personally is something that is valued and understood across the community.
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