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Why some people don’t grieve

March 29, 2013

One of the most common thing we have found since we started Born Sleeping is just how differently people grieve. In fact, in many couples we have found that each person grieves in a different way.

Because we know this from our own personal experience, we have tried to help the couples we’ve walked the road with to be gentle with one another, to try to accept that they will grieve in different ways. For some, they will feel the need to cry a lot, to talk about their child a lot. For the other, it’s often a more silent process – the need to escape into work, or their hobby, on their own. However,  we have also come across people who have not felt the need to grieve at all. They have found it perplexing that their partner is unable to ‘move on’, while their partner is perplexed that they don’t seem to care.

I recently read an excellent interview of Dr. George Bonanno (psychologist at Columbia University in the USA) by Discovery Health about a study he conducted that will be published shortly. The study was about why it is that some people don’t appear to grieve.

According to Dr. Bonanno:

“There are generally three outcome patterns: chronic grief, common grief, and resilience or absent grief. Chronic grief is someone who has a dramatic, high level of depression and grief after a loss, and they don’t get better for several years. The common grief pattern is usually people who show an elevation of symptoms — depression, distress, difficulty concentrating, etc., and somewhere within a year or two, they return to normal. And the third type are those who don’t show any disruption in their normal functioning. And that last pattern is very common, sometimes up to half the people will show that.”

HALF! That I found surprising. I hadn’t realised it could be as many as that.

Sometimes, we’ve had mothers see us on their own. For some of them, their partners are the ones who don’t seem to grieve. When chatting, they have asked whether their partners are normal, or whether there’s something wrong with them that they do appear to grieve. Interestingly, Dr Bonanno comments that:

“Most investigators in the field, I think, would say that people who don’t show grief have something wrong with them — they either are defensive, or cold, or they never cared about the person to begin with, or they weren’t attached. I had argued no, maybe they’re just healthy people. We followed a group of people in Michigan over six years in a bereavement study where we knew a lot about the people before the loss occurred. We showed that about half the sample showed no symptoms at any point in the study. They just were not depressed before or after the loss, and we found that they were healthy people. They had fine relationships. The interviewers did not find them cold or aloof, and they did not score high on a measure we had of avoidance attachment. That doesn’t mean that a healthy person won’t grieve also, but it seemed that they [a person who feels no grief] might feel sad, they might miss the person, but they keep functioning. We know that the people who don’t show grief, it’s fair to say, are healthy people.”

When discussing the link between grief and depression, the study found that “when people are anticipating the loss, or the person dies of natural causes, it seems that that helps. The people who tend to have the most chronic grief, the most painful bereavement, are people who lose loved ones through sudden, violent death.”  That is definitely our experience. So it’s normal to feel the loss of your baby deeply. It’s also normal not to feel grief deeply. Which is why this grief journey can be such a confusing time!

You can read the rest of the interview here:

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Vicky permalink
    December 16, 2013 7:19 pm

    They may be “healthy” in one sense but such inability to respond to loss is ,shall we say ,not a terribly attractive personality trait.

    • December 17, 2013 6:13 am

      I don’t think there is a personality type, or trait, that simply doesn’t respond to loss, as you seem to imply. I think it depends on the event.

      For example, your elderly parent has been deteriorating over several years, has Alzheimers, doesn’t recognise you, and is bed-ridden. You’ve probably been letting go and grieving in small ways throughout that time. By the time the parent dies, you’ve already said goodbye in so many little ways that, although you feel sad, your life continues as normal – you continue to function as normal.

      Where there has been a sudden, traumatic loss, and the person appears not to grieve, I would find that very difficult. In the case of many fathers, they have not bonded with their unborn child. To them, the child is not really ‘real’ yet, because they haven’t had that intimate contact with it. Thus, the loss of an unborn child won’t rock their worlds, because the baby wasn’t a real person to them yet. Many mothers struggle to understand how they can have bonded with their unborn child, while the fathers haven’t, and this is the root of many misunderstandings about the grieving process.

    • DMC permalink
      July 30, 2014 7:35 pm

      I am like this. What’s more unattractive pretending to respond to grief when you feel for the most part okay or behaving like you actually feel?

  2. May 28, 2016 7:01 pm

    Recently someone in my extended family died. When I went there to condole. I saw the widow of the deceased talking as she always does, her son was chatting with a smile on his face with the visitors. There was no expression of sadness and solemnity. This is not the first time I have seen this behaviour. At another funeral I saw people standing or sitting around, talking with each other and laughing at jokes. Behaving as though they have come to a party not to a funeral.
    These people are sending out two messages. One that they don’t really care about the person who has died and death is not something to be taken seriously.

    • May 31, 2016 4:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment. Condolences on your loss.

      You’re right – to others it may seem they don’t care, or that they’re being disrespectful. On the other hand, maybe they are still in denial, or maybe they feel that their grief is too private to share in pubic, or maybe they feel that they have a responsibility as the hosts to keep it together and help others through their grief instead (and so have to put their own grief aside for the time being), or maybe they believe they will see the person again in the afterlife so don’t need to be sad right now, or maybe they had known for a long time that the person was going to die and so they have already been grieving for a long time, or maybe ….

      The list of reasons as to why someone does not appear to grieve the way you are, or the way you expect them to, is very long. It has obviously been hurtful to you that they aren’t displaying their grief openly, but it is also damaging to your relationship with them if you make assumptions and then judge them accordingly. The best way to know why they aren’t openly miserable is just to ask them directly, but respectfully. You may be surprised by their answer.

      In your own grief journey we hope you will be gentle with yourself, and with those around you who are also grieving. And we wish you much strength in the days, weeks and months ahead.

    • lisa permalink
      May 12, 2017 2:39 am

      I dont agree…to me..death is a celebration of life…due to my faith…I am amazingly happy for the deceased….they get to go to heaven and be with Jesus!!

  3. Michael permalink
    June 7, 2018 6:48 pm

    I am a person that does not grieve.I accept life as is.Everything is part of life.Is it unhealthy to feel that way is that normal

    • June 8, 2018 2:42 pm

      Hi Michael. Accepting that death is a part of life is a great step, but that doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, grieve. The two are not mutually exclusive. Grief is a normal response to loss (and that goes for any kind of loss – whether death, or break-up of a relationship, or loss of a dream, loss of a job). The expression of grief may be quite different though. Some people become withdrawn, or reflective. Others feel sad. Others feel angry. Many cry all the time. These are just a few responses.
      Some people don’t grieve because they haven’t given themselves permission to grieve – this decision is often an unconscious one. This can occur if they feel a need to be supportive of their partner who may be deep in the throes of grief, or if they believe that it is unacceptable (for whatever reason) to grieve. Of course, if the fathers/ men in the relationship (or the non-pregnant woman in a same-sex relationship) didn’t feel a strong connection to the baby, then their sense of loss would be less, and so their grief would be less. This can be common when the loss of the baby is in the first, or even second trimester.
      I hope that helps. If you are at all worried about your grief, or lack thereof, please do and see a grief counsellor – even if only for one session.

  4. mozgus permalink
    December 18, 2018 3:18 pm

    i choose not to grieve i find it a disgusting process and i hated it as a child, so since i was 17 i haven’t grieved over anything and i wont either. i accepted whats happened no tears no tubs of ice cream, i go about my day normally. i hat this idea that we almost are required to grieve as to validate our very stance in that moment. fuck that. you can have your grief. i lost my child a year ago and felt nothing, shes gone. oh well. its life, get over it. i did.

    • December 19, 2018 6:57 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts. While you may be able to let go and move on without a second thought, for most people, it’s not that simple or easy, or even desirable. For many grief is an acknowledgement of their loss, not because it is something they are required to do, but because they feel it is impossible not to do; they are incapable of choosing otherwise. Life would certainly be much easier without the big black hole, or the weighty anchor, that loss generates in so many. I just hope that you aren’t secretly burying the pain, or compartmentalising, and that you are genuinely able to let go. Grief is not disgusting. Please don’t disparage those who are not able to move on as easily as you have.

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