CrowdScience: Why does grief leave me feeling this way?

Abi recently listened to an episode of CrowdScience which focuses on bereavement, here she discusses her thoughts on the programme

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Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors
Abi Pattenden, Manager of Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors

Abi Pattenden, Freeman Brothers’ Manager, reflects on a radio programme about the science behind grief. As with her colleagues working in the company’s offices in Horsham, Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint, Abi is accustomed to helping grieving people. However, grief is a complex topic and so anything which might shed light on this most difficult time is always worthwhile.

CrowdScience is a BBC World Service programme where the team explores the answers to listeners’ questions. In this edition, Oliver asks why the death of his cat upset him so much – even though, as he freely acknowledges, he doesn’t like cats. The presenter, Marnie Chesterton, researches why grief makes us feel this way because – as she rightly says – deep feelings experienced after someone dies don’t lead to them coming back.

Chesterton first establishes what grief is – she defines it as a process; ‘a set of emotions, largely unpleasant ones, that we go through as a reaction to loss’. This can be any loss (although death is the focus here).

Chesterton is aware of the concept of grief having five stages. The theory is now widely debunked, as she finds when she discusses it with Claire White from California State University. White explains that the theory relates to grief at processing our own imminent death, but was misappropriated to relate to bereavement. Chesterton recognises that the five-stage model may be popular because it suggests there is a ‘right’ way to grieve, which is important to many people, but emotions are complex. They can follow one another quickly or even be simultaneous. The idea of not ‘doing’ grief correctly was a theme throughout the programme. Chesterton spoke to comedian Robin Ince about the death of his mum and the expectations he felt about how he ‘should’ feel versus how he did, and how you think others might view your grief, compounding matters.

Although everyone’s grief is different, White has noticed some patterns. Early grief is often characterised by spending a lot of time thinking about the person who has died and yearning to see them, combined with unpredictable and uncontrollable moments of sadness. Later, the longing dissipates but guilt takes over. White says virtually everyone finds something they did wrong, even if this is a minor aspect of an otherwise ‘good’ death experience.

Lisa Shulman, a neurologist, talks about the purpose of grief. She recounts how her own experience of grief was not as she had thought it would be, in spite of her past experiences with bereaved people. Instead of being depressed, she felt disoriented. Researching this led her to find that the brain responds to grief like an attack. We experience a ‘Fight or Flight’ response as in dangerous situations, but instead of this lasting for a short time, it can last for months after loss. This response is caused by changes in our hormone balance, and so our bodies are literally different while we are experiencing grief. Your body is trying to look after itself – it blocks out the things that it believes you can’t handle, so breaks your grief down into smaller pieces, enabling you to get through it without being incapacitated.

Chesterton asks George Hugh, a psychotherapist, why we grieve at all if it’s so unpleasant. He explains that grief’s unpleasantness leads us to want to avoid people dying, which comes from past evolutionary pressures associated with being a collaborative species. The inability to survive alone leads to the formation of relationships – we need to think about someone with affection, and miss them when they’re gone. White suggests we have ‘mental models’ of people and you can’t have these models without grieving when they die. With different ways of managing relationships we wouldn’t grieve but, also, she seems to suggest, wouldn’t love. The need to grieve for someone comes from the same place as noticing a member of the tribe is missing on a hunt and searching for them. The motivation is a desire to reunite, which is where the yearning at the initial stage of grief comes from. The loss is metaphorical rather than actual but the consequence is the same.

Our sadness when someone dies is also related to our being a collaborative species. It signals to others that we are in a state that requires assistance. One of the key places that people see that we are grieving can be at the death rite of our culture. Chesterton talks about differences in funerals around the world. She and White talk about why so many cultures have funerals. Most cultures have a final ceremony to mark the person’s death (so others see you are sad and offer assistance), and most have rituals which necessitate contact with the body. Rituals are known to be beneficial of themselves. White’s research says that people fare better in grief if they have seen the body, even in pet death. If you can interact with the body, you ‘know’ the person has died, which makes you less likely to stay in the yearning phase, because you know the death is real and not metaphorical.

Chesterton links this to the recent COVID-19 pandemic where rules worldwide have put barriers upon funeral rites and interacting with bodies. Hugh says that most of these rites involve other people, and that this hasn’t happened in the pandemic potentially compounds the grief, because the ability to share it with others is missing. This may mean grief for those who died during the pandemic may be prolonged. On a more positive note, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to understand which parts of the funeral rites are important in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to, otherwise. White is now studying the impact of a lack of social support on the grief process, only possible because people have been forced to grieve differently.

The programme concludes that grief helps us to break something emotionally overwhelming into smaller ‘parcels of sadness’ which also help us elicit support. Evolution doesn’t care if something hurts us. As White says, the pain is a reminder of love, a testament to the relationships we create, and shows our resilience.

This programme gave me real food for thought. It’s no wonder that grief makes people do strange things if it literally alters our body’s chemistry. It is a commonly-acknowledged fact that bereaved people don’t always absorb things, and this makes sense if you understand that this is the body’s way of only letting a person handle what they can. It also reinforces that funerals are important.

One thing that I particularly considered was contact with the body. The programme is clear that seeing a person’s body helps you to understand that they have died and so helps you grieve. I wonder whether the reverse is true. At Freeman Brothers, we tell people that seeing someone who has died is their choice, and I can’t help but wonder if we facilitate people’s denial, and therefore prolong their grief, if we don’t tell them it’s probably a good idea. However, I do believe that everyone must come to their own decisions for their own reasons. Perhaps we could do more to inform people that studies suggest seeing the body might help?

A lot of the information felt logical, things I should have known but somehow didn’t. It’s prompted me to think more about how we can care for bereaved people and acknowledge that their grief is a complex thing outside their conscious control. And it’s another reason to be cognisant of the implications upon funerals of the COVID-19 pandemic. I think I will be suggesting that the rest of the team listens, as well as wondering whether we should recommend it to customers, too.


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Written by Abi Pattenden


May 5, 2021

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