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ADVAS / Natural Supports  / Booklet  / Processing Grief


Processing Grief

Although the words griefmourning, and bereavement are used interchangeably, each term relates to loss but has a different meaning.

Grief is what is happening inside the person related to the loss. Generally, the focus is on the various emotional responses like sadness, anxiety, or anger. However, it is also associated with one’s physical, cognitive, behavioural, social, cultural, spiritual and philosophical elements.

Mourning is the outward expression of grief – these are the acts of grief that others see, such as crying, talking to others, sharing stories, journaling, memorial ceremonies, or planting flowers or trees. These acts of mourning are a natural part of the healing process.

Bereavement is the period of grief that one experiences from a loss.

What are some of the factors that can influence the length of bereavement?

  • The event itself, and the person’s reactions to the death
  • cause of death
  • if the death was expected or a sudden loss
  • closeness to the person who died
  • perception of the loss
  • the age of the deceased
  • personal characteristics of the person who is experiencing grief
  • support systems, such as natural helpers, in place

Trauma Bereavement is the state of suffering the loss of a loved one where the grief and mourning are complicated by stressors of the circumstances around the death. When considering trauma within the context of bereavement, there are elements that are likely to result in the death or loss being more impactful:

  • a situation where the person witnessed the death or finds the body
  • a situation where the person is confronted with many deaths
  • the death occurred without warning and is untimely
  • the person regards the death or cause of death as one or more of the following:
    • preventable
    • random, such as the wrong place and the wrong time
    • unfair and unjust
  • the death was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm, and/or the death involves violence or mutilation

A further instance of traumatic bereavement is referred to as ambiguous loss. Examples include a loved one who is physically absent such as missing in a natural disaster, missing Indigenous women, or a person presumed dead without finding the body. The ambiguous loss can be on a short-term, long-term, or never-ending basis.

A second illustration of an ambiguous loss includes a loved one who is psychologically absent— meaning they are emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Examples include those with brain injuries or dementia.

Ambiguous loss creates challenging issues such as:

  • the unknown reality of life or death of the loved one
  • the presumed death without the remains for a proper ceremony
  • the loss of your dreams and plans for the future
  • the progressive losses in the life of the person with dementia
  • the loss of shared roles and responsibilities
  • the loss of a confidant and partner

Loss, Grief, and Trauma Processing Styles

It is important to understand that everyone grieves and mourns differently – there is no right or wrong way of managing or coping with a loss. However, there are some common behaviours and processing styles that are observed in those grieving. These processing styles are not considered distinct but on a continuum with feelers on one end and thinkers on the other. The following table illustrates some of the differences between feelers and thinkers. No one grief style is better than another and they are on a continuum.

Intense feelings are expressed
Feelings are expressed easily and in public
Likely to seek support from others
Seek to understand the ‘why’ in the loss
Process grief through exploring and expressing their emotions
Telling and re-telling the events around the loss
Seek support from a variety of sources
Is experienced as thoughts and physical symptoms
Feelings are minimally and privately expressed
Task and action oriented, a need to be ‘doing’
Focus on things they can actively respond to
Physically act through their emotions (riding a bike, walking, playing a musical instrument)
Move through the grieving process future focussed

One of the factors in processing grief and the time of bereavement are the support systems the individual has. The informal or natural supports include family, friends, co- workers, and community members. As a natural support you may need to adapt to how the person is processing the loss.

What is dissonant grief?

One other aspect to be aware of is called dissonant grief. This happens when there is an inconsistency between how a person feels and acts about the loss versus what they believe they should express to others, including their natural helpers. They may encounter conflicts between the way they experience their grief and the way they express it outwardly.

For example, the conflict a person experiences may be the result of differing cultural, social, or family beliefs or expectations.

Whether based in faith, cultural background, community, or individual and family history, many people will have traditions or expectations about:

  • who it is appropriate to grieve for,
  • appropriate ways that grief can be expressed,
  • from whom a person seeks support,
  • the appropriate ways to mourn
  • the duration of the bereavement.

What is cultural safety?

Culture, in the context of grief, is a universal term that includes not only ethnicity, but also life-span characteristics, death practices, and personal aspects such as faith/religion, sexual orientation, and cognitive ability or disability.

Your role as a helper is to acknowledge, respect, and support the person’s cultural values, beliefs, traits, and practices. Cultural safety is about creating an inclusive environment that acknowledges how culture affects trauma and grief. You may have a different perspective or belief, but your role is to honour the person with dignity and cultural care.