Motivation and emotion/Book/2020/Funerals and grief work

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Funerals and grief work:
How do funerals facilitate grief work?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Grief is a universal emotion, [grammar?] it is characterised by pain and a range of physiological and psychological ailments (Averill, 1968). Whilst there are many reasons people grieve, such as a relationship breakdown, for the purposes of this chapter we will be discussing grief as a reaction to the death of a loved one. Averill (1968) separates the concepts of grief and mourning, with grief being a biological product of evolution, and mourning being the cultural expression of grief. Rituals around death, such as funerals, allow for the expression of grief in a culturally acceptable way (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). But do they offer any real long-term benefit to those working through grief? This chapter will explore current grief work theories, the purpose of funerals and how funerals facilitate grief work.

Case study
Bruce is a 21-year-old university student. He is from Canberra Australia and is currently completing a semester at Oxford University in London. He has been living in student accommodation for five months and has made several close friends. One Saturday night Bruce receives a call from his mother telling him that his grandfather had suffered a fatal heart attack.
Bruce is shocked by the news. His grandfather had always been a large part of his life, taking him on fishing trips, helping to teach him to drive and encouraging him to attend university and travel. He knows he should feel sad and however he just feels numb. Bruce’s mother tells him that the funeral will most likely be the following Friday. She says that it is Bruce’s choice if he wants to come home for the funeral, and that he should check if his travel insurance will cover a return flight.
Bruce isn’t sure what to do. He wants to be with his family and to be a part of the funeral celebrating his grandfather’s life. However he is worried about missing over a week of classes so close to the end of semester. Bruce was due to return home in four weeks after exams had finished and he is not sure what effect the physical and emotional toll of travelling to Australia will have on him and on his exam performance. However, he is also distressed at the thought of missing his grandfather’s funeral and not having a chance to say a final goodbye. He is also worried about how his mother will cope with all the funeral arrangements and having to see her estranged sister.
What do you think?
  • Is it important for Bruce to attend his grandfather’s funeral?
  • Would not attending the funeral have a negative long-term effect on his grief?
  • If you were Bruce’s friend, what would you advise him to do?

Focus questions:

  • What is grief work?
  • What are the main components of grief work?
  • How do funeral rituals fit into the grief work framework?

Grief and grief work[edit | edit source]

According to the book Bereavement: studies of grief in adult life, grief is a process of recognising the reality of a loss (Parkes, & Prigerson, 2010). Worden (2018) describes grief as the experience of a person who has suffered a loss, including thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physiological changes.

What is grief work[edit | edit source]

Photo of Sigmund Freud holing a cigar
Figure 1. Sigmund Freud author of Mourning and Melancholia thought to be the seminal work on grief work.

Researchers often distinguish between normal grief and abnormal grief (Worden, 2018). Normal grief describes the thoughts, feelings, and physical and behavioural changes which are common after loss (Worden, 2018). Abnormal grief, often called pathological grief or complicated bereavement, is grief that does not progress through mourning to completion (Worden, 2019). It is characterised by a person being overwhelmed, resorting to maladaptive behaviour or for whom grief is endless (Worden, 2018). Grief work is therefore the processes involved in progressing through mourning to completion, so that abnormal grief can be avoided or overcome.

The process of grief work can be different depending on the culture and background of the bereaved person (Nwoye, 2005).

History of grief work[edit | edit source]

Many of the concepts that underline grief work were first proposed by Sigmund Freud (See Figure 1; Stroebe, Schut, & Stroebe, 2005). In his 1917 work, Mourning and Melancholia, Freud distinguishes between two grief processes, [grammar?] mourning which is seen to be a natural process taking place in the conscious mind and melancholia, a pathological process which takes place in the unconscious mind. The concept of  Freud’s melancholia can be loosely associated with pathological grief which is generally regarded as the failure to complete grief work  (Stroebe and Stroebe, 1991).

Components of grief work[edit | edit source]

There are many definitions and theories related to grief work. Stroebe and Stroebe (1991) describe grief work as generally involving:

  • Cognitively confronting the reality of the loss
  • Emphasising memories of the deceased
  • Talking about the person’s death and events leading up to the death
  • Working towards detachment from the deceased
The Kübler-Ross model
The five stages of grief, or the Kübler-Ross model, is one of the most well-known grief models (Worden, 2018). It is also one of the most controversial particularly because it was originally developed as a theory relating to the emotional stages a terminal patient goes through rather than a bereavement model (Corr, 2019). The five stages of grief are not consecutive, rather a person can move backwards and forwards through them, and even experience multiple stages at once (Kübler-Ross, 1969 as cited in Corr, 2019), they are:
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
Worden’s four tasks of mourning
In his book Grief counseling and grief therapy Worden (2018) describes four ‘tasks of mourning’, which are:
  • Task one – accepting the reality of loss
  • Task two – processing  the pain of grief
  • Task three – adjusting to a world without the deceased
  • Task four – finding a way to remember the deceased whilst continuing on one’s journey through life.
Parkes & Prigerson – states of mourning
In their book Bereavement: studies of grief in adult life Parkes and Prigerson (2010) detail four states of mourning which outline the pattern that grieving people will move through. They emphasise that these states overlap and blend into one another, and that they differ widely from person to person and across cultures. They describe the four states as:
  • Numbness
  • Pining
  • Disorganisation and despair
  • Acceptance
Dual process model of grief
Stroebe and Schut (2010) propose a dual process model for how people process grief in relation to bereavement (see Figure 2). The model differentiates between two different processes, the loss-orientation and the restoration orientation. The loss-orientation take into account the traditional elements of grief work, such as confronting the reality of loss, going through the events before the death, focusing on memories and working towards detaching from the deceased. The restoration orientation focuses on the need to continue to live life after the loss. A bereaved person moves between these two orientations as they process their grief.
This figure features two columns. The left column is titled 'Loss oriented', Underneath is listed: grief work, Intrusion of grief, Relinquishing-continuing-relocating bonds/ties, and Denial/avoidance of restoration changes. The right column is titled 'Restoration oriented' underneath which is listed Attending to life changes, Doing new things, Distraction from grief, Denial/avoidance of grief, and New roles/identities/ relationships. Between the two columns is a squiggly line with the caption Oscillation.
Figure 2. The dual process model of coping as described in Strobe and Schut (2010).

Look back[edit | edit source]

Bruce feels numb after hearing about his grandfather's death. Which model does this best fit with?

The Kübler-Ross model
Worden's four tasks of mourning
Parkes & Prigerson's states of mourning
The dual process model of coping

Funerals[edit | edit source]

In modern Western society, funerals are most often thought of as a ceremony organised by the family of the deceased and a funeral director (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019).

Purpose of a funeral[edit | edit source]

Funerals allow for the expression of loss-related emotions in a culturally acceptable way, and emphasises the person’s transition to death (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). O’Rourke et al. (2011) describes funerals as having four main functions:

  • Maintaining social order
  • Supporting religious and spiritual beliefs
  • Assisting in the processing of grief
  • Allow for the expression of love and respect for the deceased

Funerals across cultures and religions[edit | edit source]

Almost every culture on earth observes a death with some kind of ritual, although what these rituals look like changes greatly depending on culture and religion (Hoy, 2013; Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). Below are just a few examples of different burial rituals across cultures and religions.

Aboriginal Australian’s ‘sorry business’[edit | edit source]

‘Sorry business’ is a term used by Aboriginal Australian’s to describe different rituals associated with death (Carlson & Frazer, 2015). Rituals performed by Aboriginal Australians are diverse and can include ceremonies which last days, performances, and western-style funerals. (Carlson & Frazer, 2015). Across all Aboriginal Australian communities however, there is a need to participate in funeral rituals, and in some communities participation is mandated by law (Carlson & Frazer, 2015). Sorry business overrides almost all other responsibilities (Carlson & Frazer, 2015).

Photo of mural which depicts a vulture eating the intestines from a body.
Figure 3. Depiction of a 'sky' or 'air' burial from Tibetan monastery.

Buddhist funerals in Tibet[edit | edit source]

Buddhist rituals after death in Tibet are complicated and focus on ensuring the spiritual well-being of the deceased and preparing the deceased for rebirth (Gouin, 2010). For Tibetan Buddhists death does not occur once external breathing ceases, rather the body cannot be disturbed until internal breathing has ceased – usually three to four days (Gouin, 2010). There are multiple ways bodies are disposed of in Tibet, these include burial, immersion, cremation and exposure which correspond with the elements of earth, water, fire and air (See Figure 3; Gouin, 2010). Each of these methods have their own rituals including prayer, washing the body and the placement of the body (Gouin, 2010).

Cameroon death celebrations[edit | edit source]

Death celebrations are practices linking the living and the dead for the people of the Anglophone Northwest Province of Cameroon (Jindra, 2011). They can be held months or even years after the person’s death (Jindra, 2011). They are a social event with families investing all of their financial resources into days of festivities which can include dance performances, gun firings and feasting (Jindra, 2011). Death celebrations have evolved into a social event which includes people of all ages and religious backgrounds, and often Christian rituals are included (Jindra, 2011).

Look back[edit | edit source]

If Bruce identified as an Aboriginal Australian would this likely impact his decision to return home for the funeral?

Yes, sorry business overrides almost all other responsibilities for Aboriginal Australians.
No, there is no evidence that funeral attendance is different for different cultures

Funerals and grief work[edit | edit source]

Funerals are a fundamental process in some cultures' mourning practices (Burrell and Selman, 2020).Funerals facilitate in the processing of emotions related to death, and help family and friends of the deceased come to terms with the person’s death (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). They allow bereaved individuals to accept social support and an opportunity for them to show their love and respect for the deceased (Burrell and Selman, 2020).

Benefits of funerals for grief work[edit | edit source]

Researchers have identified a number of benefits of funerals in relation to grief work. These include:

  • Highlighting social supports - Funerals facilitate grief work through highlighting available social support for the bereaved (Gamino et al., 2000).
  • Finding meaning in death - By allowing religious rituals to be performed, funerals may allow for death to be contextualised within a religious framework  allowing for the bereaved to take solace in concepts such as an afterlife  (Gamino et al., 2000).
  • Acknowledging death - Funerals may serve an important function in facilitating separation functions – or the acknowledgement that death has occurred and the deceased will not be returning (Gamino et al., 2000).
  • Reducing death-related distress - In his 2016 research Hayes concluded that the tendency to positively eulogise the dead is a behaviour which functions to reduce distress and death-related concern felt by individuals after somebody has died.

Limitation of funerals for grief work[edit | edit source]

A common criticism of funerals in relation to grief work is that they occur too soon after the loss to have the positive psychological effects that it may otherwise have had (Worden, 2018). Bereaved people experience the strongest grief emotions between three months and two years after their loss, which is long after funeral rituals would usually take place (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019).

In their study of the function of funerals in relation to grief reactions, Mitima-Verloop et al. (2019) found that whilst attendance at a funeral which the subject rated positively had a short-term impact on positive affect, there was no significant relationship with long-term grief reactions.

Many of the current models of grief work, such as all of those described above, view grief as a long-term process rather than a singular emotional event (O’Rourke et al., 2011). As such, although funerals may be an essential part of cultural mourning practices, the evidence that they contribute significantly to grief work is limited (O’Rourke et al., 2011).

Outcomes associated with negative funeral experiences[edit | edit source]

Gamino et al. (2000) found that bereaved people who found funeral services comforting reported significantly lower levels of grief misery compared to those who attended funerals where adverse events occurred. Adverse event included problems with the funeral home or minister, financial issues and family conflicts (Gamino et al., 2000). These results suggest that funerals may have a positive impact on grief, but only when the funeral is seen to be comforting by the bereaved (Gamino et al., 2000).

Funerals and the grief work models[edit | edit source]

Table 1 looks at the four models of grief work discussed above, and looks at where in the model funerals fit in.

Table 1.

How funerals fit into four models of grief work

Model Where do funerals fit in?
Kübler-Ross model This model is not linear and is not experienced in the same way by all people experiencing grief (Kübler-Ross, 1969 as cited in Corr, 2019), as such there is no one stage that funerals fit into.
Worden’s four tasks of mourning Worden (2018) describes funerals as being an important part of the first task of mourning – accepting the reality of loss in that it helps emphasise the reality of the death that has occurred.
Parkes & Progerson’s states of mourning Parkes & Prigson’s (2010) study highlighted that for many widows the funeral is where the reality of death becomes real. Until that point many reported feeling ‘numb’ which is the first state of mourning (Parkes & Prigson, 2010)
Dual process model of coping This model looks at long-term grief processes (Stroebe & Schut, 2010). Individual differences mean that people may be more loss-orientated or restoration oriented (Stroebe & Schut, 2010), and there is no set point at which people attend a funeral.

Does the type of funeral matter?[edit | edit source]

In their 2020 study Birrell et al. examined whether the type of ceremony or service offered impacted on long-term grief outcomes. They found no major differences to grief outcomes between those who had attended a minimalistic funeral service compared to an elaborate one.

The study by Gamino et al. (2000) suggests that it is not the type of funeral which matters, but the experience the bereaved had of the funeral, with adverse events at funerals being linked to higher levels of grief misery.

Digital funerals[edit | edit source]

Many Western funeral homes offer live-streaming of funeral services for those who can’t be present (Walter et al., 2012). Interestingly, online funerals can also be held for those whose social relationships are mostly online (Walter et al., 2012). Walter et al. (2012) describe an instance of a 13-year-old girl who played an online game as a fighter pilot, when she died her gamer friends enacted a virtual fly-past as a tribute. There is little academic evidence examining whether digital attendance at funerals has a differing impact on grief or grief work compared to traditional face-to-face attendance, although some qualitative observations have been positive (Burrell & Selman, 2020).

COVID-19 and funeral restrictions

The Australian Government (and many Governments around the world) have placed restrictions on numbers of mourners at funerals in order to limit opportunities for the spread of infection. In addition to this, travel restriction across state borders and internationally has impacted people's abilities to attend funerals.

In their 2020 review, Burrell and Selman have highlighted that in addition to people not being able to attend at all, those attending a funeral are not able to express comfort physically, through hugs and handshakes, do not have the opportunity to see the extent of social support from friends and family and may feel that they are unable to say the farewells they would have wished for.

Restrictions can also have an impact on cultural funeral rituals, such as washing the deceased’s body, which is an important ritual in Islam, Judaism and Sikhism, and which has been banned or severely restricted through COVID-19 restrictions around the world (Burrell & Selman, 2020).

Given what we have learnt regarding the importance of funerals for grief work, what are the potential impacts of these restrictions?

Look back[edit | edit source]

We know that there is family tension between Bruce's mother and aunt. If Bruce chooses to attend the funeral could this tension impact on his ability to process his grief?

Yes, negative events at funerals, such as family tension, has been shown to have negative impacts on grief misery outcomes
No, Bruce doesn't have any tension with family members. It's unlikely adverse events at the funeral would impact him.

Assessing the impact of funerals on grief work[edit | edit source]

As funerals or death rituals are such a universal occurrence, and most grieving people attend a funeral service of some kind, it can be difficult to investigate the relationship between funerals and grief work (Hoy, 2013; Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). The information below outlines different methodologies in this field of study.

Quantitative vs qualitative data[edit | edit source]

In their 2020 review looking at the effect of funeral practices on the mental health and grief of bereaved family and friends, Burrell and Selman found that studies using qualitative data showed much more evidence of positive effects of funeral practices than quantitative data. One reason for this is that a quantitative experimental study with manipulated variables would be unethical in this context (Burrell & Selman, 2020). Qualitative studies were able to indicate that funeral practices were beneficial for the bereaved only when the bereaved were able to shape the ritual in a meaningful way, and when the funeral was able to provide social support for the bereaved (Burrell & Selman, 2020).

Evaluation of the funeral service[edit | edit source]

Mitima-Verloop et al. (2019) suggested that the perception and experience of a funeral may impact grief reactions in those attending. Their longitudinal study examined the relationship between evaluations of a funeral service, other post-funeral grief rituals and bereavement outcomes. Most people in the study evaluated the funeral positively and believed that the funeral positively contributed to processing their loss (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). Whilst the study found a small positive association between the funeral evaluation and positive affect shortly after the funeral,  the evaluation was not significantly associated with long-term grief reactions or general functioning. (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). The evaluation of funeral perception was based on a new scale which requires further testing (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019).

Grief adjustment[edit | edit source]

Research in this area has used grief adjustment as an indicator of how funeral practices have impacted grief work (Bolton & Camp, 1987). In their research looking at how funeral rituals facilitate grief work, Bolton and Camp (1987) used an affect-balance scale and attitude inventory scale as a measure of grief adjustment. Their results did not find any significant relationship between the amount of rituals practiced, and overall grief adjustment (Bolton & Camp, 1987). However, all the widows used in the study participated in funeral rituals so no comparison could be made between funeral participation and overall grief adjustment (Bolton & Camp, 1987).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Grief is a universal emotion which is expressed in different ways depending on the bereaved person’s culture (Averill, 1968). Grief work is the processes involved in progressing through mourning to completion, so that abnormal grief can be avoided or overcome (Stroebe et al., 2005). There are a number of models which attempt to describe how people move through this grief process, including the Kübler-Ross model, Worden’s four tasks of mourning, Parkes and Prigerson’s states of mourning and the dual process model of grief (Parkes & Prigerson, 2010; Stroebe & Schut, 2010; Worden, 2018). There is limited research examining how funeral rituals impact on these grief models.

Funeral rituals are one way people express grief (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). The evidence for how funeral practices impact grief is mixed (Burrell & Selman, 2020). There is some evidence which indicates that funeral rituals can have positive impacts on grief when the rituals are meaningful and when the funeral provides social support to the bereaved (Burrell & Selman, 2020). On the other hand, there is limited quantitative evidence demonstrating a link between funeral attendance and long-term grief outcomes (Mitima-Verloop et al., 2019). There is also an indication that grief work may be negatively impacted when a negative event happens at a funeral (Gamino et al., 2000). Current models of grief work show grief as a process, rather than a single emotional event (O’Rourke et al., 2011).

The current COVID-19 pandemic is severely impacting the way funerals are attended and experienced across the globe (Burrell & Selman, 2020). Given the limited research into how attending funerals facilitates grief work, it is not yet known the long-term effect these restrictions may have on the bereaved. More research is needed to assess what the long-term effects are of non-attendance at funerals on the grief work of the bereaved.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Averill, J. R. (1968). Grief: Its nature and significance. Psychological Bulletin, 70(6), 721–748.

Birrell, J., Schut, H., Stroebe, M., Anadria, D., Newsom, C., Woodthorpe, K., Rumble, H., Corden, A., & Smith, Y. (2020). Cremation and grief: Are ways of commemorating the dead related to adjustment over time? Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 81(3), 370–392.

Bolton, C., & Camp, D. J. (1987). Funeral rituals and the facilitation of grief work. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 17(4), 343-352.

Burrell, A., & Selman, L. E. (2020). How do funeral practices impact bereaved relatives' mental health, grief and bereavement? A mixed methods review with implications for COVID-19. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying,

Carlson, B., & Frazer, R. (2015). “It’s like going to a cemetery and lighting a candle”: Aboriginal Australians, sorry business and social media. AlterNative: an International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, 11(3), 211–224.

Corr, C. (2019). The “five stages” in coping with dying and bereavement: strengths, weaknesses and some alternatives. Mortality, 24(4), 405–417.

Freud, S. (1917). Trauer und Melancholie [Mourning and melancholia]. Internationale Zeitschrift für ärztliche Psychoanalyse, 4, 288–301.

Gamino, L. A., Easterling, L. W., Stirman, L. S., & Sewell, K. W. (2000). Grief adjustment as influenced by funeral participation and occurrence of adverse funeral events. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 41(2), 79-92.

Gouin, M. (2010). Tibetan rituals of death: Buddhist funerary practices. Routledge.

Hayes, J. (2016). Praising the dead: On the motivational tendency and psychological function of eulogizing the deceased. Motivation and Emotion, 40(3), 375–388.

Hoy, W. G. (2013). Do funerals matter?: The purposes and practices of death rituals in global perspective. Routledge.

Jindra, M. (2011). The rise of “death celebrations” in the Cameroon grassfields. In M. Jindra & J. Noret (Eds.), Funerals in Africa : Explorations of a social phenomenon (pp. 109-129). Berghahn Books.

Mitima-Verloop, H. B., Mooren, T. T., & Boelen, P. A. (2019). Facilitating grief: An exploration of the function of funerals and rituals in relation to grief reactions. Death Studies, 1-11.

Nwoye, A. (2005). Memory healing processes and community intervention in grief work in Africa. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 26(3), 147–154.

O'Rourke, T., Spitzberg, B. H., & Hannawa, A. F. (2011). The good funeral: Toward an understanding of funeral participation and satisfaction. ‘’Death Studies’’, 35(8), 729-750.

Parkes, C., & Prigerson, H. (2010). ‘’Bereavement: studies of grief in adult life’’. Routledge.

Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (2010). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: A decade on. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 61(4), 273-289.

Stroebe, W., Schut, H., & Stroebe, M. (2005). Grief work, disclosure and counselling: Do they help the bereaved? Clinical Psychology Review, 25(4), 395–414.

Stroebe, M., & Stroebe, W. (1991). Does “Grief Work” Work? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59(3), 479–482.

Walter, T., Hourizi, R., Moncur, W., & Pitsillides, S. (2012). Does the internet change how we die and mourn? Overview and analysis. OMEGA-Journal of Death and Dying, 64(4), 275-302.

Worden, J. (2018). Grief counseling and grief therapy : a handbook for the mental health practitioner (5th ed.). Springer Publishing Company, LLC.

External links[edit | edit source]

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