Report on Grief in Greenland

Press Release, December 2019

The vast majority of Greenlanders have lost someone to suicide. In Greenland, sudden and traumatizing deaths are common, and grief is a fact of life. However, grief and grief reactions are not topics commonly discussed in Greenland, as shown by a new report from the National Grief Center.

View the report here in Danish!

View the report here in Greenlandic!

Nearly two out of ten deaths in Greenland can be attributed to unnatural causes such as homicide, accidents, and suicide. Suicide alone accounts for 10 percent of all deaths and places Greenland at the top of the world in terms of suicide rates. 60% of the adult population has lost someone to suicide. Yet, grief and complicated grief are overlooked in Greenland. This is highlighted in a new report, “Grief in Greenland,” from the National Grief Center, which maps out stakeholders and offerings in the field of grief in Greenland.

The study is based on more than 50 interviews with professionals and other actors in the social, health, education, and legal sectors in four Greenlandic cities and was conducted in collaboration with the Center for Public Health in Greenland at the State Institute for Public Health (SDU) and others.

Grief and Loss – A Fact of Life

It is rare to meet someone who has not lost one or more close relatives. For many in Greenland, grief and loss are facts of life. The many unnatural deaths, combined with a high incidence of alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, violence, etc., make it likely that complicated grief reactions are prevalent in Greenland.

“The stressful relationships and events in life carry into our grief; and just as they complicate life, they also complicate grief,” says Tina Graven Østergaard, Chief Consultant at the National Grief Center.

Research indicates that both loss to suicide and neglect in childhood increase the risk of developing treatment-requiring grief reactions when we lose someone. Particularly with suicide, it is a vicious cycle, as losing someone to suicide increases the risk of complicated grief reactions, which in turn increases the risk of suicide.’

Therefore, it is crucial, especially as part of suicide prevention, to distinguish between the natural grief reactions that we all experience during our lives and the complicated grief reactions that a smaller group of bereaved experience. While natural grief reactions gradually diminish over time, complicated grief reactions can have fatal consequences if not treated

Preben Engelbrekt, Director of the National Grief Center.

Grief at the Bottom of the Problem Hierarchy

According to the study, grief and grief reactions are not on the professional radar among professionals in Greenland. It stands in the shadow of other serious issues, not least sexual assault and abuse. Grief is not seen as an independent problem, and there is no preventive focus on grief.

“All interviewees recognize complicated grief, but grief falls at the bottom of the hierarchy of problems, and there was a widespread attitude that ‘all that grief can’t really be addressed’,” says Tina Graven Østergaard.

The reasons are found both in a lack of professional knowledge about grief and in a lack of resources to ensure a systematic focus on grief. Furthermore, the professionals who are supposed to spot and help the bereaved are themselves often affected by their own grief and loss. “Many professionals told us that they were afraid to talk to citizens or patients about loss and grief because they were afraid of how they themselves would react,” says Preben Engelbrekt.

Behov for et systematisk sorgberedskab

Det vides ikke, hvor stor en andel af den grønlandske befolkning, der lider af komplicerede sorgreaktioner. Fra forskningen ved vi at det generelt forholder sig sådan at 10-20 pct. af alle efterladte rammes. Men kortlægningen sandsynliggør, at andelen er højere i Grønland, og at mange grønlændere – ikke mindst børn og unge – bærer på behandlingskrævende sorgreaktioner.

Det Nationale Sorgcenter efterlyser derfor målrettede indsatser på sorgområdet i Grønland. På den korte bane til børn og unge og efterladte til selvmord, som er særligt udsatte risikogrupper. ”Der er behov for et systematisk og landsdækkende sorgberedskab i Grønland, der sikrer opsporing af mennesker med komplicerede sorgreaktioner, samt specialiseret sorgterapi”, siger Preben Engelbrekt

Something to Build On in Greenland

The study points out that, despite challenges and shortcomings, there is potential and commitment to build on to get knowledge, systematics, and efforts for the bereaved incorporated across professionals, professional boundaries, and sectors.

Everyone without exception understands and feels how much loss and grief fill in a small and closely-knit population like the Greenlandic, and it is a significant driving force when finding integrated and perhaps creative solutions to eventually ensure systematic grief work and grief preparedness in Greenland

Tina Graven Østergaard

In the course of the work and the study, a good dialogue and cooperation with the Directorate for Prevention and Social Affairs, the Department of Health, and the Department for Social Affairs