Nurse and psychologist Alice E Holman looked at 23 textbooks routinely given to student nurses and found in each of them at least one unsupported assertion about the nature of grieving.
"The study found that most textbooks included more than one myth, and on balance, there was very little exploration or discussion based on current evidence. She compared this to some of the actual evidence based findings surrounding the process of grieving," writes Ian, and quotes these summary points:
- There are stages or a predictable course of grief that individuals should or typically will experience
- There is a specific timeline for when grieving processes will occur
- Negative emotions such as distress, depression, sadness, disorganization, loss of functioning, anger, guilt, fear or emotional pain ARE INEVITABLE following a loss
- Emotions need to be ‘‘processed’’: expressed, worked through, acknowledged, dealt with, experienced, attended to, focused on, made sense of
- Lack of experiencing or expression of emotions (e.g., denial, absent grief, delayed grief, inhibited grief) indicates pathology or negative consequences
- Recovery, acceptance, reorganization or resolution should be reached in ‘‘normal’’ grief
- Failure to find resolution indicates unhealthy, dysfunctional, pathological, or complicated grief
- Not all people experience grief in the same way
- Some grieving people do not report feeling distressed or depressed
- Some people experience high levels of distress for the rest of their lives without pathology
- Repressive coping may promote resilience in some people
- Resilience, growth, and/or positive emotions may be associated with loss."
Why does it matter? Because effective funerals respond to particular people in particular contexts. Ways of grieving are part of that context. It seems more and more important to me that celebrants outside established faith systems are transparent; we need to respond sensitively and quickly to who s/he was and what the family are like, and help them to find the ceremony that suits. How they grieve needs to be part of the construction work - what is said and done, how it is said and done. Our beliefs about what funerals should be like are best kept out of the way, other than to suggest appropriate things they may not have thought of (like "why have the funeral at that horrible old crem anyway?")
A woman said to me some months ago "you won't see me crying at the funeral; I just don't." She showed no evident signs of unhappiness. Yet she went to a lot of trouble to work up the ceremony that she thought was right, for the man she so clearly had loved, anyone could see that. See 2, 4 and 5 above.
Spike Milligan was asked in later life if he missed Peter Sellars, who died in middle age. He said instantly "Every day," and his eyes filled with tears. See 3 above. (No, it wasn't his grief for Sellars that was part of his bipolar problems, no pathology there.)
All of this might seem obvious, but those of us who theorise about "effective funerals" and who ride a high horse sometimes risk sounding as though there are "good" funerals and "bad" funerals, the latter being the status quo. How about this for a formula?
Life and character of dead person + beliefs, attitudes and context of family + nature of their grieving = mooring points for the funeral that fits.
Fits them not us - whether it's a hippy riot or a sombre restrained affair, that's their business even though it's my job.