Tuesday, June 26, 2007

communicating grief

I know I've severely neglected this blog. I have been writing a lot, just not for this. So to make up for it, I'm posting my gigantic research paper on grief. That should cover a couple of months worth of writing. Enjoy. (Sorry the format is kind of messed up, paragraphs, etc.)

Communicating Grief


A woman gives birth to a stillborn baby. The nurses quickly take the baby and cover it up, whisking it out of the room before the mother has a chance to see it. When the mother asks for the baby the doctor says, “It’s better if you just forget all this and try for another one.” The doctor advises the husband not to talk about the baby once they are home but to quickly pack up the nursery and get on with trying again. The husband takes the wife home and, once she is settled into bed, discretely calls a few family members to tell them of the loss and asks them to inform others so that there will be no awkward questions. Over the next week, the woman is distraught and tries to talk to her husband about her feelings but he dutifully changes the subject and encourages her to look to the future. After several months, the woman does not seem to be any happier. The husband calls the doctor who prescribes anti-depressants. Eventually, the woman stops talking about the baby and manages to hide her grief from all those around her who might be disturbed by it. The husband does not seem to be affected by the loss but his drinks with the boys, after work, become more and more frequent, and, each night, he gets home later and later. Years pass, the couple have other children, and the children grow up. The first baby is never mentioned. The husband’s drinking reaches a crisis point and the couple divorce. One day, the church the woman has been attending, announces that there will be a memorial service for anyone who has lost children through miscarriage or stillbirth. The woman decides to attend and, 20 years after the loss of her child, finds that the grief is no less intense than it was 20 years before, as she finally releases it in the company of a caring community.

There is no right way to grieve. Grief is a unique process, as unique as each loss and as unique as each individual who faces it. Everyone, at one time or another, will face the loss of a loved one. Each society, throughout history, has had its own traditions, rituals, and ideas about how to deal with grief. Anglo-Canadian society, today, has many rituals and taboos surrounding grief. It is considered politically incorrect to judge another’s way of grieving, and yet, the messages given to the bereaved, ‘get over it,’ ‘move on,’ and ‘keep it private,’ are all too commonly heard by those who have experienced loss. These messages are reaping a rotten harvest of psychological trauma.
The expectation to keep grief private can only be accomplished by maintaining a state of denial with oneself and others about the impact of the loss on one’s life. Processing grief in today’s death-denying society often results in complications when society fears the expression of grief and calls it pathological. This paper will examine the history of our current attitudes towards grief, and look at the way current theories and therapists understand healthy grieving processes. This includes the concept of being completely honest with oneself about the impact of the loss as an important first step in combating the ‘death denial’ which is so prominent in today’s society. This paper will consider the prospect of moving beyond psychotherapy, currently one of the few safe places to express one’s grief, and examine the ways in which Western society can communicate grief to others outside of a therapy context. It will also look for alternative models that might be used to facilitate further communication, both indirect and direct, between the bereaved, his or her community, and society.
Although literature on grief and bereavement is plentiful, its focus is limited, primarily, to therapy within a client/counselor context. There is little information available within the field of grief and bereavement concerning the social context of grief and ways in which to communicate the grieving process more broadly. In order to examine possible models of communicating grief outside of a therapy context, it was necessary to look into other areas of study such as Restorative Justice and group trauma studies.
Conquering the fear and denial surrounding death can only occur when the bereaved are given permission by the rest of society to express their loss and its impact honestly, without fear of being ostracized or pathologized. Challenging the individualistic ideals that characterize the way people deal with strong emotions in Western society is crucial if attitudes towards grief are to change. Western society needs alternative models in which to express grief, in a broader social context, in order to break the silence and isolation currently surrounding grief. This change cannot rely solely on those who are grieving but needs to be prioritized by researchers, educators and practitioners.


The systematic study of death and dying began in 1959 with Feifel’s book The Meaning of Death. Rothaupt and Becker (2007) refer to Feifel’s analysis of Western attitudes towards death and mourning as being one of avoidance at all costs. Twenty-five years later, in 1977, Death Education (later called “Death Studies”) Vol.1 Issue 1, was published - an academic journal which focused on death and everything associated with it. Leviton (1977) proposed a list of goals for Death Education in the first issue. He offered that very first goal of Death Education should be, “[To] [g]ently remove the taboo aspect of death language so students can read and discourse upon death rationally without becoming anxious“ (p. 5).There is little evidence that the anxiety surrounding death has lessened significantly among the general public over the past 30 years. Western attitudes towards death and mourning weren’t always steeped in fear and denial. Packman, Horsley, Davies & Kramer (2006) cite Neimeyer in Devita-Raevunr’s article (2004), which describes a time when mourning was understood to be long-term. It was not uncommon, in that era, to see public displays of grief (such as wearing black) and to hear of individuals remaining cloistered for years and sometimes the remainder of his or her life following the loss of someone close. According to Neimeyer, the advent of the World Wars resulted in millions of deaths and “…almost overnight there was a new posture toward loss. It became a patriotic duty to repress one’s grieving, and to distance oneself from it. This model of self-constraint, rather than self-expression, became the approved way of reacting to loss” (p. 818).
A study done in England in 2000, examined old people’s attitudes towards death. Field documented responses of the elderly to questionnaires about death and noted that, “Despite the many graphic accounts of deaths encountered or experienced in the second World War, the way in which these correspondents seem to have responded was to ‘detach themselves’ from these occurrences” (p. 284). Field surmises that “…the experience of large-scale violent deaths during the second World War, in the first half of the twentieth century, significantly affected attitudes towards death among the populations of those countries involved” (p. 286). The survivors of the World Wars passed their stance of emotional detachment towards death and mourning onto their children who, in turn, passed them on to their children. The ‘don’t talk, don’t feel’ dictum resulted in the anxiety surrounding the taboo topic of death described by Leviton in the 1977 issue of Death Education.
It was during the time of the two World Wars that psychotherapy began to establish, what it considered, healthy models of grief and mourning. These models were based on what was considered normal in society at that time. Rothaupt and Becker (2007) look at the various models of grief developed at that time, beginning with Freud. Freud’s model of grief involved a process of relinquishing bonds with the deceased with the goal of helping the bereaved detach themselves, emotionally, from the deceased (p. 7). This concept of emotional detachment and relinquishing bonds is still generally thought to be a normal and adaptive response to grief by many in general society. Current studies on death and grief are not exempt from these attitudes. Davis, quoted by Becker (2004) claims that “Most studies published in United States journals reflect the Anglo American cultural perspective [individualistic stoicism] including the new models” (p. 11). Mc Bride and Simms (2001) warn those in the helping professions, who work with grieving families, to be aware of the influence of the ‘death-denying and death-defying’ context in which they live and work. “By failing to recognize this influence on the therapy process from the larger context of denial, the therapist can inadvertently miss the bereavement issues as the essential focus” (p. 60).
Although attitudes towards death and grief have not changed significantly among the general public since the two World Wars, evidence within the literature on bereavement, suggests that, at least at a research level, there has been some change in attitudes towards grief. Current research acknowledges the impact of death on our lives as an important part of the grieving process. This research is beginning to inform the practice of therapists who are now encouraging this self-honesty with their clients.

Literature Review

The need to acknowledge loss and its impact on one’s life, is present in much of the current literature on how to process grief effectively and avoid complications in grief. Acknowledging the loss and incorporating it into a new way of understanding one’s life, has been considered the goal of grief work by many theorists and therapists since the early 1980’s. Within the past couple of years, researchers have begun to explore other cultures’ ways of dealing with grief, specifically in the area of ‘continuing bonds,’(Neimeyer, Baldwin & Gillies 2006) but there has been limited research on how these alternative models might be effectively incorporated into Western society. The idea that it might be necessary to challenge the Western individualistic attitudes toward grief and its process is difficult to find in any of the literature that focuses on grief and bereavement. Beyond acknowledging the impact of loss within a therapeutic context, examining the way in which the bereaved communicate with society about their grief is limited to generalized studies of social norms surrounding grief practices (i.e. obituaries, graveyards, etc.). There is, however, some promise in the growing acceptance of group therapy and the research being done on group trauma studies, both of which examine more collective approaches to dealing with grief and trauma. In order to examine more direct and specific communication models, it was necessary to look at literature outside the field of grief and bereavement in areas such as Restorative Justice which looks at the expression of strong emotions within a broader community context.
It is generally agreed upon by modern theorists and therapists that honesty with one’s self about what has happened and how it has impacted one’s life is the first important step in a healthy grieving process. Professionals in many fields agree that this process is key in combating the damaging effects of denial. Being able to speak about what has happened is considered very helpful in any type of emotionally disturbing event, whether it be bereavement, (Barnes 2006; McBride & Simms 2001) victimization, (Umbreit, Bos, Coates & Lightfoot 2006) or trauma (Davison, Neale, Blanstein & Flett 2005; Zinner & Williams 1999).When talking is difficult, or there is no therapist involved, other forms of communication, such as writing letters to oneself, might be employed to provide a way to find meaning in the experience by externalizing internal dialogue (Rancour & Brauer 2003). Language, as a tool for expression, helps make the event more tangible, measurable and easier to grapple with than when the experience and its impact are left unspoken. Current literature on grief and bereavement encourages some type of articulation, regarding loss and it’s impact, as a part of the grieving process.
Once a person is able to fully acknowledge the impact of his or her loss, the next task is to try and find meaning in the experience in order to begin to integrate the event into his or her life narrative (Neimeyer, Baldwin & Gillies 2006; Barnes 2006). There has been much study on the use of rituals and symbols in that process as a means to connect a deeply emotional experience to one’s present life and to make those feelings more tangible (Sitterle & Gurwitch 1999; Castle & Phillips 2003; Barnes 2006; Dignan 2005; Witztum & Malkinson 1999). It has been found to be extremely helpful if individuals are able to find some way of conceptualizing the intense and very abstract experience of deep emotional disturbances through concrete symbols and rituals.
Research regarding the task of “weaving the loss into one’s life narrative” has led to an examination of the concept of “continuing bonds,” a practice found in many collectivist societies. This concept is in direct opposition to the classical theory of “relinquishing bonds,” originated by Freud. The theory of continuing bonds is taken from the study of cultures who do not cut off ties with the deceased but, instead, maintain attachment. This practice has gained popularity in the helping professions because it appears to line up with attachment theory, a psychological development theory which focuses on the way children connect with their parents at a young age. In attachment theory, if the attachment is secure, the child sees the parent as a ‘secure base’ from which he or she feels free to explore new things. It has been hypothesized that, in the same way a child is attached to a parent, individuals have an attachment to the deceased. If the individual is allowed to continue being securely attached to the deceased, by finding ways to connect with them, (for example through symbols, through communication with the deceased, by talking about them, etc.) then the deceased can offer a “secure base” from which the bereaved can begin to explore the new possibilities and relationships that the loss has provided (Neimeyer, Baldwin & Gillies 2006). Western theorists see this as a way of integrating a loss into the bereaved’s current life narrative. There is much controversy over the idea of ‘continuing bonds’ and research on this theory continues. One controversial aspect of the theory is regarding the fact that this way of processing grief has been essentially borrowed from other cultures and some research indicates that when a client living in Western culture is encouraged to continue bonds with the deceased, while the bereaved may find the practice initially comforting, their emotional health seemed to be worse in the long-term. Western society’s focus on “getting better” or “finding closure” makes the idea of continuing to talk about the deceased and finding ways of connecting with their memory, over a long period of time, seem unhealthy. The conclusion of many of the writers engaged in this, on-going, debate is that perhaps ‘continuing bonds’ is not culturally transferable and that theorists and therapists should be very cautious about encouraging such practices before further research is done regarding the outcomes on the emotional health of individuals who practice it (Stroebe & Schutt 2005; LaLande & Bonanno 2006). Only one article suggests looking beyond the individual’s process and examining the impact of broader aspects of society such as, community, culture and political narratives on those facing loss. (Klass 2006). All agree that the concept of continuing bonds needs further examining and research.
Research on the ways in which individuals in Western society communicate their grief, both directly and indirectly, with general society is limited. Some of the ways in which individuals communicate their loss directly, with general society, are through such generic means as obituaries, cemeteries and memorial services. There are also some references to the way a new, younger generation is finding to communicate their grief with the rest of society using symbolic expressions such as clothing and tattoos. (Field & Walter 2003; Ashenberg 2003; Leaf 2006; Rieck 2007).
Beyond the idea that individuals need to acknowledge their experience and its impact and find ways to express it, discussion about communication of loss with specific groups of people that make up the community of the bereaved, as a part of the grief process, is limited and often circles lead back into discussion about respecting an individual’s privacy and the uniqueness of each individual’s process (Barnes 2006). Involving others in individual’s grief is generally only considered acceptable within the context of homogenous support groups (Schneider 2006) or when a single tragedy affects a whole group of people, such as an airplane crash or natural disaster. Research on the way groups process trauma has found that groups go through a very similar grieving process to individuals. The decision of a community to acknowledge the event and its impact and then to integrate that into their lives and find some kind of meaning or purpose in it, is just as important to the healing of that community as it would be for an individual. The uniqueness of experiencing grief in a group context is that the group is able to provide support for its members, resulting in a greater appreciation for interdependence, and is more equipped to turn grief into meaningful action (Witztum & Malkinson 1998; Zinner & Williams 1998; Kalayjian 1998; Watts & Wilson 1998).
Models for involving one’s community in an emotionally intense experience, outside of a therapy context, is not present in Western bereavement and grief literature which is steeped in individualism. Finding models for directly communicating intense emotions with a specific community requires looking beyond Western theories and into the practices of more collectivist societies, such as historic aboriginal societies in which the practice of Restorative Justice originated. In Restorative Justice, the victim is given an opportunity to share what has happened to them and how they have been impacted by it with the person who hurt them and then sometimes, in a broader community context, with others who may have been affected by the crime either directly or indirectly. These broader contexts may be limited to members of the victim’s extended family or to others within their community. There are some controversies about how ‘community’ is defined and how decisions are made regarding what part of that community should be involved, within the Restorative Justice community. Nevertheless, this model has had centuries of practice where societies were able to resolve conflict and restore the balance that is disturbed when one member offends against another (Dignan 2005; LaPrairie 1998). A community that takes responsibility for recovering balance enforces a “strength’s perspective” among it’s members when people feel that they have the resources to work through their problems without pathologizing that process by relying solely on trained professionals for solutions (Umbreit, Vos, Coates & Lightfoot 2006). There is considerable evidence regarding the benefits of this more collectivist approach to processing intense emotions.
Overall, the literature on grief and bereavement focuses primarily on the process of helping individuals come to a place where they can acknowledge their loss and its impact on their life but is limited in its portrayal of the scope and context of that communication, restricting it to communication with self, therapists and possibly a homogenous support group. Communication between the bereaved and the rest of society is not addressed to any great extent. Examination of the larger social context of denial and the impact of Western society’s individualistic ideals on the bereaved is left virtually untouched.


The theories and therapies outlined in the majority of current literature on bereavement and grief agree that there is indeed a problem with the way we in Western society view grief and that this attitude is often detrimental to those who are grieving. The fact that theorists and therapists are encouraging acknowledgment of loss and it’s impact on one’s life demonstrates that attitudes towards death since the post World War era (a time when the impact of grief and loss were minimalized) are slowly evolving (Field 2000). However, each of us lives in a broader social context and, as liberating as honesty with oneself might be, it can feel stifling to have to hide this truth from others under the guise that ‘everything is fine,’ in order to protect others’ sensibilities surrounding the uncomfortable topic of human suffering. People need to communicate their grief beyond the context of therapy. There are many ways in which grief might be communicated: indirectly with general society, directly with general society and directly with specific groups of people who make up the individual’s community. In order to understand the ways that other societies have been able to communicate their grief, it is necessary to move beyond our individualistic ideals and begin to examine the possibility that cultures with more communal values may be able to inform a healthier process of communicating grief. Changing attitudes towards communicating grief with the rest of society must be preceded by a change in society’s tendency to deify individualism, especially in the area of strong emotions. This change cannot be dependent on those who are in the throes of grief, but needs to be initiated by researchers, educators, and practitioners. Acknowledging and expressing the impact of loss can only be truly liberating if one is able to express their feelings about the loss, wherever he or she is, and not have to guard against negative or fearful responses from the rest of society.
If we who are bereaved, or we who study or work with those who are bereaved, continue to support the culture of silence and denial surrounding grief, we will continue to perpetrate and reap the pain. A glance at the risk factors associated with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder sends a clear message about where we are heading if we continue on with in this context of denial and silence surrounding grief. The second Canadian Edition of Abnormal Psychology by Davison, Neale, Blankstein & Flett (2005) describes the risk factors associated with the development of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One risk factor highlighted is the tendency to “Dissociate… (including depersonalization, de-realization…) at the time of the trauma…[and to] try to push memories of the trauma out of one’s mind” (p. 187). This description of the way in which an individual might respond to trauma, is found in an Abnormal Psychology textbook, not in a book describing Canadian cultural ways of dealing with grief. The practice of depersonalization and ‘pushing the memories out of one’s mind’ is considered maladaptive and can lead to psychological illness. Acknowledgement and expression of intense emotion is a key aspect of PTSD therapies.
Ashenburg (2002) describes how, historically, and in other cultures, dialogue between the bereaved and the rest of society was often indirect, in the form of symbols. In many cultures, specific symbols of grief were understood to indicate that a person was in mourning. Clothing has often been used to mark a person in grief. Black clothing in the Victorian era and armbands in the early post war era, were just two of the ways in which society recognized that a person was grieving. Today, we do not have such signposts but the act of wearing a symbolic marker of grief in public, whether fully understood by others or not, serves the bereaved by allowing self-expression and leaving the control of who and when to share the meaning of the symbol with. Barnes (2006), a grief counselor at the Women’s Hospital, says that individuals find it very affirming and comforting to have others ask them about their situation. Tattoos are one way that many people are utilizing as an indirect, public expression of their grief. Tattoo artist, Zara Leaf (personal communication 2006) claims that she sees clients on a regular basis who ask for tattoos in memory of people they’ve lost. The Rieck family (2007) all got tattoos after their son and brother died suddenly of cancer. Troy Rieck describes what his tattoo means for him:

The first tattoo I got after he died… was the little cross with a flame
beside it. It is the same symbol on his grave. …Our whole family has one similar. Mine is on my left wrist (inside visible if looking at the palm of my hand). I guess for me it is there because it is close to my veins – yes, I contemplated suicide after he died- and the tattoo covers my wrist. It is more that I thought of Joel as half of who I was. He was the more conservative one (out of the two of us), I was the trouble-maker. So him leaving made me feel like I lost half of who I was. …I think the saddest thing is that there are memories that I am going to forget. Some of my tattoos serve to assure that I keep some memories and wear them on my sleeve so to speak. (personal communication 2007)

Rieck has many tattoos symbolizing different events and ideas that are important to him and he claims that they have provided him with many opportunities to share about deep emotional experiences that would, otherwise, never be acknowledged.
Direct communication with general society about grief is usually limited to such venues as obituaries, eulogies, memorial services and memorials or grave inscriptions (Field & Walter 2003). These things may be useful, as one-time expressions, but are limited in their ability to provide a meaningful outlet for those who are grieving. The context of these kind of communications often occur very early on in the grieving process before the bereaved has time to fully process the extent of the impact of the loss. The stage of grief that many people are in, during this culturally appropriate time of emotional expression is, according to the Bowlby, Parkes (1970) & Kubler-Ross (1969) model, a time when many are feeling numb and are still in a state of denial about the death. For many, the death will have been unexpected and for others, because of the context of denial that we live in, even if the death was expected, it may have been difficult for the bereaved to fully acknowledge and process his or her feelings about the impending loss, prior to the actual death. In this early phase of bereavement, planning, articulating, and expressing one’s grief is very difficult to do because the bereaved are often in shock and not able to think clearly. Very often, prewritten, standardized services, eulogies or obituaries are provided by funeral homes and churches in an attempt to alleviate the strain of trying to plan such a deeply emotional event at a time when many people are still in shock over the loss. By the time the bereaved have begun to come to terms with the impact of the loss, the time allotted for personal expression and communication with the rest of society has passed and others expect them to have already “moved on.”
Direct communication with a specific group or community is limited within bereavement literature, primarily, to homogenous bereavement support groups. Support groups are probably the safest place in today’s society to express deep emotional pain because the members of the group will, at the very least, be familiar with the experience of the individual. Schneider (2006) quotes Lieberman and Yalom (1989) who describe the significance of a group in which one is able to share one’s grief with others who have had similar experiences:
Group participants often experience relief through intimate sharing, feeling accepted by a group, realizing that others share their dilemmas, developing new social skills, feeling useful to others, being inspired by others who have found ways of surviving, coping with and even growing from bereavement. (p. 261)

Support groups can be found to cover almost every significant emotional life struggle.
Acceptance surrounding the idea of sharing difficult experiences, as a beneficial process, seems to be growing but it is still limited to a very specific context. The function of support groups is extremely restricted. Support groups are often closed groups, made up of people who are strangers to each other. Their duration is often time-limited. Although the group may provide relief from isolation and silence, and even offer tools to help the individual cope with the ambivalence of others regarding their pain, they do not address or challenge general society’s reaction to those who have experienced loss.
In order to examine other models of direct communication about one’s grief with a specific community of people, it is necessary to look beyond the field of death and bereavement studies. The field of Restorative Justice provides a fascinating model for those who have experienced deep emotional trauma to communicate the impact of the trauma on his or her life with others. Restorative Justice, a victim-centered approach to crime, offers a variety of models in which the victim of a crime might communicate the impact of that the crime has had on them. The primary model is that of the victim-offender mediation where the victim of a crime is given the opportunity to share the impact of what has happened to him or her with the person who has harmed them. This may be done in person, through letters, or through a mediator. It may occur shortly after the offender was arrested and charged, as a part of the process in which decisions are made in relation to the appropriate consequence for the offender, or years later, as a part of the victim’s personal recovery process. As an example of incredible vulnerability on the part of the victim, it is mind-boggling to those who live and ascribe to the pain-avoidance, pain denial dictum of society that anyone would want to put his or her self in such an emotionally intense situation. Not only is the individual opening up and becoming vulnerable by sharing his or her response to a personal, traumatic, sometimes even physically harming offense, they are sharing it with the very person who has already shown a disregard for his or her well-being. The reasons victims have for desiring to engage in a dialogue with an offender are many and varied. Wemmers & Canotu (2002) report that victims find it important “…to tell the offender about the impact of the crime” (p. 14) and “…to release negative feelings” (p. 17). Further on in the report, Wemmers (2002) refers to Umbreit’s 1994 book on the results of victim offender-mediation. In his book, Umbreit acknowledges that not all victims find the experience satisfactory. He refers to the experience of “re-victimization” in this process, but indicates that dissatisfaction with the process was found to be primarily linked to inappropriate mediation and lack of follow-up, not to the actual experience of meeting with the offender. Umbreit’s research indicates significant positive changes in the emotional well being of a majority of the victims who chose to meet with their offender. He describes the victims as being less upset about the crime after the meeting and being less afraid of re-victimization. If the offender was unable or unwilling to acknowledge the impact of the event to his or herself or to anyone else, this process could never happen. Acknowledging the impact of a loss on one’s life, whether that loss occurred due to natural causes, accidental death, or intentional harm, is essential to being able to find meaning in the loss and incorporate it into one’s life narrative in a healthy way. Having opportunity to express the impact of loss with, at least, one other person who has shared a similar experience, even if it’s the expressions of anger (a crucial stage of grief, according to the Kuber-Ross model, as described by Becker (2007)) is significant to the healing process. The fear of expressing anger and what other reactions might be, hinders many from communicating their experience. As many victims who have been through the offender-mediation process will attest, the process can be surprisingly freeing.
Dignan (2005), author of Understanding Victims and Restorative Justice, refers to something called the “communitarian thesis” which is a political philosophy that falls intermediately between extreme collectivism and extreme individualism. He claims that:
The problem with victim-offender mediation, according to this perspective, is that by concentrating solely on the interpersonal relationships of victims and offenders it fails to take sufficiently into account the social and moral implications that crime has, not just for the victim, but also for the whole community. (p. 97)

This is the same problem faced by the bereaved in traditional psychotherapy atmospheres. Psychotherapy is an extremely individualistic approach and even family and group therapy does not respond adequately to the broader impact of loss on communities and extended families. In a report released by the Department of Justice, Canada (2002) Wemmers & Canuto cite Marshall’s definition of Restorative Justice as “…a process whereby all parties with a stake in a specific offense come together to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offense and its implication for the future” (p. 7). Various models of family conferencing and group sentencing have been used historically throughout indigenous societies worldwide. In this model, the victim is joined by the extended family and other members of the community who may have been impacted by the crime. All who are present are given a chance to express the impact of the crime on them, with the goal of coming to some conclusion about how balance might be restored in that community or family. This model, though practiced in some communities today, is fraught with controversy. Dignan (2005) acknowledges that this aspect of Restorative Justice has yet to be fully addressed by Restorative Justice literature since this is a distinctly “communitarian” approach which flies in the face of Western individualism. Dignan lists some of the questions that arise from the community involvement aspect of Restorative Justice:
What is the meaning of ‘the community’’ and how is the concept to be understood in the absence of the kind of communities that exist in pre-modern societies?.. Assuming that the term ‘community’ can be satisfactorily defined, how might the concept be operationalized when deciding who, precisely, from ‘the community’ should participate in restorative justice [RJ] processes? (p. 99)

These questions are also relevant in the context of grief and bereavement when considering the idea of directly communicating grief with a specific community.
Whether one is addressing direct or indirect communication with general society or direct communication with a specific community, it is clear in the evaluation of current Western society’s attitudes towards grief and the review of the current theories and therapies available today for those who are grieving, that there needs to be a change in the individualistic attitudes surrounding grief and bereavement in society as a whole. The closest that the literature on bereavement and grief came to addressing the role of Western individualism and it’s impact on the bereaved was in the debate regarding the continuing bonds perspective. Klass (2006) addresses the problems of transplanting this practice into Western society by suggesting that the cultural context from which it has been borrowed needs to be examined more closely and broader differences between the cultures which practice continuing bonds and Western culture needs to be acknowledged. He suggests that perhaps Western culture, which is very individualistic and intrapsychic, is antithetical to the communal culture from which this practice is derived. Cultures that practice continuing bonds are often collective cultures and their practices may be related to cultural values such as passing on the family history to the next generation or maintaining connection with the rest of the community. Klass quotes Francis (2005) who observed and interviewed people from cultures that practice continuing bonds and visited the gravesite of deceased relatives regularly. One family said, “to be buried in a community cemetery makes me feel that we are with our own people; here where my parents are buried, there is a small part of Cyprus.” Another man Francis interviewed said, “After all, that’s what it’s all about, closeness; we are one blood. There is no separation between the dead and the living; we are all part of the [Greek] Orthodox community” (p. 853). The concept of community and sharing one’s grief collectively with one’s community is foreign to the Western perspective of individualism. In a sense, those families that Francis interviewed are not only communicating with the rest of their immediate community, when expressing their grief and loss through regular gravesite visitation, but they are communing with them, recognizing shared loss and connection with both the dead and living.
Those who are grieving may find ways to communicate their grief with others in ways that will serve to be therapeutic, but the onus should not be on the grieving to forge their own venues of expression. Society needs to shed its fear and denial and make room for grief to happen openly, as a part of normal life. The change in society’s attitudes can be fostered, by commencing with more research on collective cultural grieving practices in order to provide alternative models for therapist and others. Secondly, death education needs to be broadened and incorporated into the education system in the same way that sex education is. Death can be faced by people of all ages. Children also face loss and need to understand that it is a part of life and learn how to express its impact on them and how to support others who are dealing with grief. In the first issue of Death Education in 1977, Leviton lists some goals of death education which include:
Gently remov[ing] the taboo aspect of death language so students can read and discourse upon death rationally without becoming anxious…[and] educa[ing] children about death so they develop a minimum of death related anxieties. Anxieties are too often based upon irrationality and myth, rather than fact. (p. 44)

Death education needs to be incorporated into our school system, here in Canada. Along
with more research and education on grief, therapists should begin to offer clients examples of different ways to grieve, and help them to understand the social context of grief that they are living in as well as the potential benefits and consequences of expressing grief in diverse ways.
Opening a dialogue about grief between the bereaved and the rest of society is, at this point in history, a scary one to those who are feeling very vulnerable in their grief. The continued practice of respecting private grief and not challenging it is understandable in the current context of Western society’s negativity. Those who are grieving need to protect themselves from harmful feedback from others. Although those in the helping professions may be aware of the benefits of being open about one’s vulnerabilities, society is not ready for it and often respond negatively to those who express grief openly and so, therapists are hesitant to push their clients in that direction.
Over all, expression of grief needs to be normalized and society needs to make room for a much broader diversity of expression than what is currently considered appropriate.


In order to ensure a healthy psychological recovery to loss and trauma, it is essential that society learns to accept strong emotions in response to loss as healthy and normal and provide direct and indirect venues for communication of these responses with the general public and with specific communities. Forcing individuals who have experienced loss to hide their feelings and keep silent for the sake of the squeamish is neither fair nor humane. The movement from individualism to interdependence is a sign of growth and maturation. It is time to challenge the individualism in our society, which demands that those who are suffering keep silent, and begin to acknowledge the fact that we need one another. People are not weak for needing each other: they are human.
If we were to learn to make room for others to express grief and not fear expressing our own, we would discover that we are so much more alike than we dreamed. Isolation falls away when people learn to truly commune with one another at all levels. The loneliness, so prevalent in Western society, could not exist if we learned to express our strongest emotions with each other in a mutually accepting manner. Insecurities about being weak would be washed away in the sharing of humanity together. When we finally allow ourselves to be seen for who we really are and learn to show how we really feel, we will discover acceptance on a level far greater than we could have ever imagined. And what greatness could a society of people who felt accepted and connected to one another accomplish?


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1 comment:

jenn said...

This is an excellent paper. When our baby died my first response was also an extended avoidance. We have no tradition left for dealing with this, for grieving. Most of my closest friends don't know and don't want to know what happened.