Two Big Myths about Grief

People are not always devastated by a death and should be allowed to recover in their own ways

Yet grief work may be unnecessary for the large proportion of people who do not become significantly distraught after a loss. And when researchers have tested the common grief-work techniques of writing or talking about the death, some have found small benefits for the procedures, but most have not. In addition, the jury is still out on grief counseling, in which professionals or peers try to facilitate the working-through process. Results from two quantitative reviews of the efficacy of such therapy found no significant gains from it, and a third found just a modest positive effect. One caveat: the benefits might be slightly greater than these studies indicate because most of the subjects were recruited by the researchers, and these individuals may be less in need of counseling than those who seek help.

Finally, two teams of researchers followed bereaved persons, including spouses, adult children and parents, for up to five years after their loss and found little or no evidence of a delayed grief reaction. When such reactions have been found, they occur only in a very small percentage of the bereaved. Thus, the overall risk of reexperiencing a flood of negative emotions appears to be quite minimal.

Given that most people who have experienced the death of a loved one show few signs of distress or depression, many bereaved individuals may need no particular advice or help. The few who experience intense and lasting despair may benefit from interventions, although traditional grief counseling may not be the best choice. Instead people might consider seeking empirically supported psychotherapies for depression [see “The Best Medicine?” by Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld; Scientific American Mind, October/November 2007].

That said, our conclusions are based largely on studies of Caucasian American widows and widowers. We cannot say for sure that they extend to people of all ages, ethnicities and genders. In addition, reactions to a loss may depend on a person’s relationship to the deceased—be it a parent, sibling or child—as well as whether the death was sudden, violent or drawn out. The consequences of these varying perspectives and circumstances have yet to be carefully explored.

Nevertheless, we can confidently say that just as people live their lives in vastly different ways, they cope with the death of others in disparate ways, too. Despite what some pop-psychology gurus tell us, grief is not a one-size-fits-all experience


(Further Reading)
  • Beyond the Myths of Coping with Loss: Prevailing Assumptions versus Scientific Evidence. Camille B. Wortman and Kathrin Boerner in Foundations of Health Psychology. Edited by Howard S. Friedman and Roxane Cohen Silver. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us about Life after Loss. George A. Bonanno. Basic Books, 2009.

This article was originally published with the title "Facts & Fictions in Mental Health: Grief without Tears."

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