Expressions of Grief

Expressions of Grief

By Lene Larsen, Psychologist and Grief Researcher, Aliasoqatit, The National Grief Center

What Do We Know About Grief?

Grief is a natural human response when one loses a person who has been significant in one’s life. This could be a family member, partner, close friend, or colleague. Grief can be difficult to define, as the concept has gradually been attributed many meanings. Below, we describe how to think of grief as both a reaction and a process.

Grief as a Complex Reaction

Grief can be considered a complex reaction because it involves a mix of various responses that may occur after losing someone. These can include emotional reactions such as emotional pain, sadness, longing, helplessness, and hopelessness. Physical reactions might involve physical pain or discomfort, headaches, stomachaches, sleep problems, and changes in appetite. There may also be behavioral changes, such as isolating oneself from others, increased drinking or smoking, engaging in more partying or gambling, or showing indifference to one’s own well-being by taking unwise risks. Some people experience suicidal thoughts and feelings of not being able to continue living due to the loss. It is common to experience difficulties with concentration, problem-solving, and memory, especially soon after the death. Sensory disturbances may also occur, where one might see or hear the deceased person.

Existential challenges often arise, questioning the meaning of life, which might not have been as pressing before the loss.

Thus, grief can manifest in many different ways. All the reactions mentioned can occur naturally and automatically, in any combination. After the initial loss, these reactions are typically at their peak and can be the most disruptive and debilitating. However, over time, as one begins to understand what happened and tries to adjust to life without the deceased, these reactions tend to decrease in intensity and frequency.

It’s important to emphasize that the reactions vary from person to person. There is no correct, incorrect, or predictable way these reactions will occur. They may come and go in ways that seem random or even difficult to understand.

Grief as a Process

Grief can also be thought of as a process where it evolves from being uncontrollable, unpredictable, and almost unbearable to becoming less intense and painful, until it becomes manageable. For many, grief never completely disappears. Many find it becomes a familiar companion in life. Grief changes in quality over time, and instead of pain and longing constantly dominating, positive memories and gratitude for what was begin to take up more space. Very few people experience being able to control their grief completely. Many find that it can surge back, even years later, particularly around significant dates such as birthdays, holidays, at confirmations, weddings, etc., where the deceased would have been present.

We also know that many who lose someone they were closely attached to find it helpful to keep the deceased in their thoughts and actions as they continue their lives. This means that the bond or relationship is carried forward, even though the person is not physically present, but is present in a more spiritual or symbolic way. For example, this might involve thinking about what the deceased would have said, done, or advised when the bereaved faces a difficult situation. Or it might involve visiting the graveyard to remember and perhaps talk to the deceased, sharing stories and memories with friends and family, or establishing rituals or routines in memory of the deceased. For instance, learning a craft that the deceased was good at; cooking by following one of the deceased’s recipes; or visiting a place in nature that was significant for the deceased.

When we talk about grief as a process, it is really a learning process. The person who has lost someone must learn to live and find joy in life again, even though the deceased can no longer participate in a physical sense. The bereaved must learn how they can carry the deceased with them in life in a helpful and meaningful way. And the bereaved must learn to strengthen or establish bonds and connections with others in life.

When Grief Destroys Life

Most people have personal resources that can help us handle difficult situations and crises, such as the loss of a loved one. Perhaps we are good at taking care of ourselves, have a positive attitude, trust that we will manage, and have found ways to find peace and strength (perhaps in nature). We might also have a good social network consisting of friends, family, colleagues, and teachers who can help us through a difficult time. We might even have a good job with an understanding boss, and the ability to take time off during the initial difficult period while we grieve. If one is in this situation, the chances of finding footing in life again after a loss are quite good.

However, there are also many people who find that the resources they have available are not sufficient when faced with one or more significant losses. Some of the risk factors for a difficult grieving process, for example, include having had a difficult childhood with neglect, abuse, and crises, or having previously suffered from depression or other mental illness. This can mean that one may be stressed and might have had difficulty developing strengths and the belief that one can manage. If one is psychologically vulnerable and perhaps struggles with addiction and social problems, one might neither have strong personal resources nor a supportive network. This can mean that one is especially challenged when experiencing a loss. Finally, no matter how resourceful and well-established in life one may be, if one experiences many simultaneous losses, if the deaths were traumatic, such as in accidents or suicides, and when many in one’s network are grieving at the same time, it’s possible that one’s resources may not be sufficient, and one may find that grief and loss are destroying one’s life.

When grief destroys life, one does not experience the grief changing, decreasing in intensity, or becoming manageable. Instead, it may come to dominate everything, or perhaps one is not able to deal with it at all and attempts to suppress it. In these situations, there is a risk of developing psychological (such as depression, PTSD, and prolonged grief disorder) and physical illnesses. There is also an increased risk of suicide. These types of reactions after a loss are called complicated grief reactions. Complicated grief reactions can persist for many years and typically require specialized treatment from a psychologist, psychotherapist, or doctor.

Grief in Greenland

Most of the knowledge we have about grief is based on research, experience, and clinical work from countries in the Western world, including Denmark. Although there are many aspects of grief that seemingly cross cultural boundaries—such as the experience of grief and the importance of relationships—there can be significant cultural differences that play a crucial role in grief and grieving processes. Currently, there is little knowledge about how grief is experienced and understood in Greenland. It has not been investigated what is helpful for people who are stuck in their grief, or how to potentially prevent it from reaching that point. Generally, it can be said that until recent years, there has not been much focus on grief in Greenland. This is something we at The National Grief Center are working to change in close cooperation with our partners in Greenland.

In 2019, we published the results from a comprehensive interview study aimed at 1) examining how grief is expressed and managed in Greenland; 2) mapping the actors within the grief sector broadly and uncovering grief support services; and 3) identifying opportunities and challenges to ensure a coherent grief response system. The report can be found here [Link].

In brief, the study showed that almost everyone in the society has experienced loss, many to suicide; that loss and grief are pervasive in individuals, families, and local communities; that grief is almost seen as a normal state but often remains overshadowed by other problems that need to be addressed. Additionally, interview participants described that there exists both a collective grief and an individual grief, that the Inuit culture’s legends and customs are an integral part of the Greenlandic grief culture, that nature plays a special role in life, death, and grief in Greenland, and that there is a taboo surrounding grief and loss. Finally, the report highlighted a significant lack of resources for both preventive and therapeutic grief services.

Lastly, we share some quotes from the report:

“When someone dies in the town, the settlement, or other communities, potentially many people lose someone. Each time, new layers of grief are added on top of a considerable amount of unprocessed loss and grief.”

“When so many have lost in violent ways in a small and closely-knit society, an individual’s loss becomes everyone’s loss, and the extent and consequences of loss and grief spread like ripples in water.”

“Grief in Greenland is probably not so different from grief elsewhere in the world, but we have so much of it that it becomes a part of our culture.”


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