Sitting with families who are hearing the bad news of a loved-ones death is a near daily occurrence for me, as a hospital chaplain at a trauma center. Since transferring to this trauma hospital and having this regular occurrence of witnessing people’s reaction to a death notification, my curiosity of grief styles has gripped my interest.
The way people respond to a physician’s death notification varies so greatly that I began to wonder why and if there is something to be learned about such a great variance in reaction.
Here are some of those variances that I have witnessed:
A middle eastern family, when they were informed that their 12 year old, who was hit by a car while riding his bicycle, had died, began wailing uncontrollably and repetitively hitting themselves on their chest.
A 28 year old wife of three weeks who just learned that her 29 year old husband died of an aortic aneurysm, immediately threw herself to the floor, yelling loudly, and eventually curling up in a fetal position while crying and yelling. It was at least 20-minutes before anyone could encourage her to calmness and to get up off the floor.
One night in the Emergency Department, two men, a 54 year old and a 52 year old, died from cardiac arrest within minutes of each other, each family was waiting in two different family rooms that were about 20′ apart. I found myself alternating between both families. What struck me was the stark contrast of grieving between these two families when all things between them seemed equal. One family was extremely exaggerated wailing while the other was more subdued in their expression but heavy in sadness.
A 62 year old wife died of cardiac arrest, the husband was in the ED room when her heart stopped. He immediately began pacing outside the room while the physician and team did CPR. After 30 minutes or so the physician informed the husband that his wife has died. The husband who was still pacing suddenly began hitting his forehead with the open palm of his hand while yelling “Oh this is f’d up” repeatedly. This went on for another 20 minutes.
A 66 year old husband came into the Emergency Department with cardiac arrest, when the physician informed his wife of her husband’s death she calmly said, “Well, that’s part of life.” The physician glanced over at me with a surprise look on his face that said What kind of reaction is that? I sat with the wife for another 20 minutes and saw no emotion or tears, just statements of her plans going forward.
A 4 month old baby died. In the family room the dad was crying uncontrollably while periodically yelling and pounding his fist on an empty chair. Mom, on the other hand, was sitting calmly and simply glancing over at me from time to time with a fear in her eyes, but no tears.
A niece was met in the hallway on the way to a patient’s room when she was met by family who informed her that her uncle had just died. She immediately threw her book bag across the hall floor and ran out of the hospital into the parking lot. We know she ran out to the parking lot because security was called to break up a fight in the parking lot that turned out to be the niece who apparently ran into another family member who was holding her trying to calm her down.
Becoming an eye witness to the grief experience has led me to research this human emotion and to learn what I can about it, why it’s expressed differently, and what I can apply from my study into the practice of spiritual care support.
When I first started this research journey, I was expecting to find something like this: If a person grieves in this way, it means they are like this. However, what I learned is that there are many variables and reasons why people grieve the way they do.
Here, I am going to bullet seven points that contribute to why people grieve the way they do.
Family — Most of us have learned to grieve from our family experience. As children we may have observed a parent grieve the death of a grandparent. That first experience shapes our unconscious response to a death notification in adulthood.
Taboo — Sometimes if we are raised in a family or under circumstances where it was taboo to grieve we can carry that over into adulthood. Every now and then I hear a family member tell another to “stop crying, be strong” which is very unhealthy and wrong.
Personality — Some people are simply more charismatic in their personality than are others. They are usually more expressive and less reserved in communication so that follows suit for them when it comes to the experience of grief. Extroverts and introverts will express their grief differently.
Temperament — The four temperaments known as sanguine (optimistic, social), melancholic (analytical, quiet), choleric (short-tempered, irritable), and phlegmatic (relaxed, peaceful) impact how someone reacts to death notification and processes their grief.
Gender — Men tend to experience grief more at an intellectual level that expresses itself with information, analysis, and as an event. Women tend to experience grief more at an emotional level that expresses itself through feelings, seeking social support, and as an experiential journey.
Religion — Our response to grieving can be affected by religious beliefs. In my experience, Muslim families tend to immediately begin reciting a prayer in a chant style. Christian families tend to temper their grieving with the expression of their hope in the afterlife.
Condition — The condition of the death affects grieving. If the death was unexpected, like a trauma, the expression of grief is usually louder, more severe, and extended. If death was expected, like a long-term illness, the expression of grief is usually tempered because of anticipatory grief.
These seven points are not exhaustive, I’m sure, but these cited variables in grieving styles are the most common that I came across in my research.
The biggest take-away for me is that grief is as individual as the individual themselves. The way people grieve is as different as we are. There is no right or wrong in the style we each may experience grief. This is true for the “how to” question of grief and the “how long” question of grief.
At some point I may write more about the length of grief, but let me say that there is no specific length of grieving assigned to coping with death. Next on my list of writing on grief is a post on understanding the “16 Types of Grief” in the grief experience.
In the meantime, let’s not forget the Lord is not unaware of those that grieve because He has promised in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn: for they shall be comforted.”