Normal Reactions to Death

Not everybody reacts to the death of a loved one with spectacular emotional reactions such as depression or denial. Over half the widows and widowers studied by researcher Camille Wortman of The University of Michigan adjusted to the death of a spouse without exaggerated grief or despair. They grieved, but they were not obsessive in their grief; they went on with normal life activities. They did not show denial (pretending the spouse was still alive), and they did not show signs of depression.

What did Wortman find out when she interviewed widows and widowers?

Belief systems may play a role in adjustment. A 1986 study of Mormons, who view marriage as eternal and continuing after death, found only one in five experienced severe depression in the months after a spouse died.

Sudden loss of a child or a spouse, for example, in a car crash or highway accident, seems to produce a more prolonged and disturbing grief. Wortman found parents and spouses of auto accident victims had "painful thoughts and felt distressed" even four to seven years after the accident (Goleman, 1989).

What are typical experiences of parents to a miscarriage or the death of a newborn?

Parents of babies who die at birth, or shortly after birth, often experience profound grief reactions. Even parents who lose a child through a miscarriage (a natural abortion occurring before pregnancy is complete) may experience a full spectrum of grief reactions. They also may encounter lack of understanding about this grief from relatives and acquaintances, or insensitive comments such as "You can always have another." Such parents may be helped by peer counseling, which is simplymeeting with a of people who have had similar experiences. One such group is A.M.E.N.D. (Aiding a Mother Experiencing Neonatal Death). Nobody can empathize with a grief-stricken parent as well as a person who has been through the same experience.

How do Wortman and Silver feel that usual descriptions of "stages of grief" can be harmful or misleading?

Wortman and Silver (1989) conclude that the usual description of grief as a series of predictable stages is simplistic. Worse, it may be misleading. A person who reads that uncontrollable grief is expected in the months after a death may feel guilty over lack of such grief, although statistics show such a person is in the majority. A person who reads that the initial shock is supposed to wear off after 10-14 days may feel abnormal if acute grieving lasts much longer than that, although extended grieving is common.

Similarly, outsiders may feel critical of a person who still grieves for a spouse or child lost in a car accident 7 years earlier. After all, one of the popular stage theories says grieving only lasts for 1 to 3 years at the most! But Wortman's data shows that greatly extended grieving over an unexpected and pointless loss is so common it might be called "normal."


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