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  • Meghna Rathore and Abhilasha Rawat


Grief is like poetry, you read it, recite it and keep it with you until the day you die.

The process of grieving has in one way or the other familiarized itself with us. As much as art, be it cinema, poetry or music, romanticise the attainment of the ‘love of the life,’ the loss is equally pure and certain, even if not romanticised. We have all experienced the loss of a family member, a friend or even a pet and therefore know what it feels like to be left into the loneliest and the darkest corners of ourselves. But, if it is this distressing in nature, why do we feel it? Why is grieving a very intact and integral part of every being’s life? We, in this article, have tried to find the answers to these questions and have placed grief in accordance with its psychological, physical, cultural, religious and social background.

The Psychology of Grief

An English writer who became profoundly famous on grief, Robert Burton wrote in his book, The Anatomy of Melancholy, “Every perturbation is a misery, but grief is a cruel torment, a domineering passion.”

Today, people might recognise grieving as an absolutely natural and human part of living, but studies from the past (largely western dominated) treated grief more like a psychiatric disorder and a disease process. During the seventeenth century, many physicians listed grief among their patient’s symptoms and believed that it could make people mad. Burton referred to examples of historical figures who died of grief, such as the Roman Emperor Severus. The nineteenth-century physician Benjamin Rush even recommended bleeding, purges, and opium for grief. The present-day relation of grief to psychiatry is quite different but equally ambivalent. Grief hasn’t been classified as a psychiatric disorder unless in extreme forms like PTSD or severe depression. Moreover, it is now perceived as an umbrella term with wide variations like ‘complicated,’ ‘traumatic’ and ‘pathological.’ The direct relation between death and deterioration in health, and grief is also ambiguous and subjected to various other factors.

On the other hand, later psychologists viewed grief from an evolutionary perspective in order to grasp its essentiality as a product of natural selection. John Bowlby worked extensively on the attachment theory and later extended it to understand grief as a response when the bond breaks. He proposed that this psychologically distressing reaction to separation is a biologically useful trait as it motivates individuals to seek reunion, thus ensuring better adaptability. Parkes was devoted to this model, and classified the process into four emotional phases: shock and numbness; yearning and searching; disorganisation and disdain; reorganisation and recovery. His view on understanding the strength of relationships became a key to measuring the intensity of grief.

According to him, the emotional and motivating responses crucial to maintaining a relationship (labelled as ‘love’) remain operational even when the loved one is lost, causing the pain (labelled as ‘grief’). ‘Grief, then, is the cost we pay for being able to love in the way we do.’

Even from the ethological aspect, it has been witnessed that animals mourn the death of their loved ones as well. Elephants pay homage to the deceased ones, like humans. Many animals like monkeys carry the bodies of their dead babies, often for weeks, screaming in despair. Why is this grief inevitable across species? Simply, because all organisms have certain complex mental representations, known as ‘working models’ or ‘schema’ of their loved ones which generates a specific perception of the world around them. When the loved one is no more, effective feedback is absent. This incongruence sets off an alarm reaction, aimed at regaining the familiarity but it renders continuously futile which ultimately is the grief we feel. One another aspect to comprehend this is in terms of loss of identity. Through our lived experiences, we formulate our self-identity. This identity gets intimately tied up to different aspects of life, like our relationships, our job, our home etc. These links become emotionally charged, highly central to our self-esteem, and resistant to changes. At a point in time, when there is a detachment from any of these bonds, the feeling of stability is lost, generating grief as a response. Amusing enough, the entire life pattern that we create is to maintain comfort and familiarity in life, despite knowing the fact that highly unpredictable and inevitable events like death, accident or illness can disrupt those patterns in seconds, leaving impacts that may take ages to recover. This makes the development of feelings, nothing but a mere illusion, and grief, the predestined bubble burst. Still. Who in the world doesn’t love bubbles?

Sigmund Freud has also contributed immensely in studying grief through his psychoanalytic lenses, with his book “Mourning and Melancholia”. One of the critical views that he brought into the picture was appreciation of grief as an active process, rather a passive reaction. To withdraw the libido i.e. the emotional attachment from the loved one, one has to do the ‘grief work’ which requires both time and cathartic energy.

These previously held models on grief are not outrightly accepted by modern psychologists. Grief can not necessarily guide one through the process of ‘letting go’ of the once held bond, but can depict the continuation of attachment. The recent most popular study is the Kübler-Ross Five stage cycle of grief. Take an example of a person who recently heard the news about their friend’s death. The first and foremost stage is denial where the person refuses to accept reality. Their defence mechanism kicks in, and they pretend that the news is false, living in a preferred reality. But after some time, the truth becomes inescapable, raising the second stage of grief: anger. They start getting infuriated towards the hospital where their friend was diagnosed, start complaining to God or even the deceased friend. They further start blaming themselves and creating ‘what if’ scenarios, reminiscing their previous decisions with the deceased or wonder if they can change anything. This is the third stage: bargaining. Sooner, they realise its futility and might feel numb and lifeless without the missing friend, initiating the fourth stage: depression. The last stage is acceptance where they still miss their friend but also start growing into the reality, accommodating themselves in the present. Grief is greatly subjective and no two individuals share the same feeling of grief, thus this model isn’t a universal map for any individual. Although the model came under major criticism, it is widely popular and an essential work on generalisation of grief.

What does religion tell us about grief?

When looked closely, humans have very traditionally built a support system for themselves in the form of religion. Religious communities act as a support circle where a person is expected to let their private self become public while they are grieving. Religious rituals give people a time period, more of a transitory one, where they abandon the normal social rules imposed on them by the society and do the bare minimum as a member of a collective.

In Hinduism, believers cremate the deceased as fire is believed to be a very pure entity, and thus, despite the sins committed in the course of their life, would become pure and attain moksha when they are given to the holy god of fire, the Agni Devata. After a family member has died, people perform rituals for 13 days where they pay respect to the deceased and pray for their easy departure from this body to the other. In this time no entertainment of any sort is taken to. These 13 days are followed by rituals performed on death anniversaries; Punya tithi and shraddas.

On the other hand, Islam buries the dead as cremation is forbidden. They believe in the concept of the resurrection of the dead from the grave. There is no viewing, wake or visitation in a Muslim funeral since the body is buried as soon as possible. The mourning period is determined to be of 40 days but can vary depending on the religiousness and the connection of the person with the deceased, for in cases of widows the period is as long as 4 months and 10 days.

Furthermore, every religion, from Buddhism which holds ceremonies every 7th, 49th, 100th days from the death, to Judaism; allows 7 days of the grieving period to its mourners, has systems in place to help the family in these times. Just as the birth of an individual brings responsibilities to the family members and the society, similarly, the death of a being also demands those responsibilities in the form of rituals to keep the deceased connected with this world in a transcendental reality. In this relation, sociologists have also observed that a positive perspective towards death draws on the belief in the afterlife. It becomes fundamental to promote human hopefulness and that it is just a matter of a lifetime when they will see them again.

Religion, through these mourning days, allows us to take our time and delve deeper into the sufferings and pain the death has brought on to us. In some cultures, crying for a prolonged period is seen as selfish, as it pains the soul of the deceased and proves to be a hindrance in the dead’s post-death activities. Researches, conducted by the NCBI by Michael King, have shown that religious beliefs affect the outcome of bereavement. The higher the intensity of the beliefs, the easier it becomes to let go of the dead.

Culture and its urbanization

With grief comes change. The process of grieving is itself very confusing, not only for the person who is grieving but also for the others around them. The bereaved person might cry inconsolably for hours in front of you but starts laughing and becomes very cheerful once you leave. This is natural, just a human dealing with their misery as they see fit. However, this and many similar responses have a lot to do with culture. Definitely factors like genetic makeup play a significant role but so do relative vulnerability and stress-bearing capacity of members of the same culture. In the East, people have adapted a collective culture that makes them stand in solidarity with the bereaved. For instance, the Japanese company Toyota gives its employees an indefinite leave for such purposes, not putting themselves through the insensitivity of limiting a person’s grieving process with the number of days. The co-workers for the time being distribute the work without complaining as their culture has taught them.

Whereas Western culture places more importance on individuality. Most of the companies based in this culture allow their employees a very acute mourning period. Such policies become uniformly restrictive on people’s mental health. Studies have shown that increasing urbanization among people has led to weak community bonds and thereof made grief a private matter. A research conducted by the Institute of Medicine (US) Committee for the Study of Health Consequences of the Stress of Bereavement concluded that culture provides for the sanctioned public articulation of private distress; the reordering of disrupted social relationships; the re-moralization of those demoralized and made desperate by loss; and both the reincorporation of the bereaved into the social fabric and reaffirmation of their solidarity with the group. This isolation becomes grave when it is experienced by refugees or the marginalised communities who were forced to leave their everything and step into the unknown, all alone.

How do we grieve?

In broad generalised form, there is a dual reflection of grief: in the inner world and in the outer world for an individual. In the inner world, a person gets occupied with the memories and thoughts of the loss they have suffered. It includes not just happy times, but also regrets, guilt, resentment, even fantasy. The largely un-romanticised aspect of emotional expression, crying helps release the over fulfilled emotions while one’s grieving. This, however, is not necessarily enlightening, such intense emotions, overburdened with despair and gloom, might even cause hallucinations, loss of self and other disorders. Grieving often gets closely linked with isolation. Despite the fact that the emptiness that gets created during a loss or separation leads to certain disconnection with the surrounding, isolation is neither mandatory nor ideal. Many scholars believe that healing takes place from within. However, the idea of "Laugh and the world laughs with you; Weep, and you weep alone” might be a genius Ella Wheeler’s poetry, but not that great of a psychological advice. Studies have shown that even when people while grieving have hated to be around others. After four burdensome dinners, the fifth dinner with friends has sparked some joy in them. In terms of the outer world, grief also gets associated with materialistic things like holding possessions of the deceased, anniversaries, looking for closure and sometimes, desperately compensating the lack of it with food, alcohol, drugs and sex. Dogs have been seen visiting the grave of their owner, days after death, as a part of their grieving. People often turn into sex addicts or smokers after suffering a great loss. Many interviews with sex workers have revealed some form of lack or loss of attachment in childhood.

The negative connotation attached to grief has made it something to despise, to disdain. The truth being that despite the beauty of the good ol' days, we all can neither escape from grief, nor grieving.

P.S. It's okay to cry, we don’t judge.

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