David E Balk. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.
Mourning typically is considered to be the social expression of grief, whereas grief is considered to denote multiple responses, mainly internal, to being bereaved (see, e.g., Marrone 1997; Rando 1993). As Kauffman (2001) and Walter (1999) have noted, however, not only do people often use the terms grief and mourning interchangeably, but agreement is lacking “on how to distinguish the concepts of grief and mourning” (Kauffman 2001:311).
The starting point of this chapter is the notion that mourning is social expression of grief shaped by cultural prescriptions, expectations, and norms. Mourning practices shape our understandings of grief and, concomitantly, are influenced by what we understand about grief. In this chapter, I examine how social expressions of grief have changed in the United States since the early 19th century, specifically among middle- and upper-class European Americans.
The Nineteenth Century Prior to the Civil War
Most Americans today have difficulty comprehending the central place poetry played in the lives of middle- and upper-class European Americans in the first half of the 19th century. Addressing an audience in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1837 about the life of the American scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson emphasized the singular place of poetry in the lives of Americans. Emerson said, “Who can doubt that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp, which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the pole-star for a thousand years?” (Emerson 1929a:25).
Poetry provided not only a creative outlet but, as importantly, an existential expression (a) to overcome cynicism and skepticism about life and (b) to convey engagement with the transcendent. In short, poetry offered a creative means for confronting issues of meaning in the face of mortality and enabled Americans to transform grief into restorative mourning.
Poetry was the primary form of a larger “sentimental collaboration” that found expression in a variety of media (poems, novels, embroidery, quilts, and portraits, for instance), particularly around issues of bereavement. This variety of sentimental expression allowed 19th-century Americans to maintain hope and construe meaning (Kete 1999). We shall examine this poetics of sentimentality next.
The Poetics of Sentimentality: 1800-1850
A sea change occurred for early 19th-century European Americans regarding the human quest for meaning. Conversion to Christianity and participation in the religious customs of the community—primarily rural—provided the singular social fact of late 18th-century solidarity. Gradually, another social fact emerged so that by the third decade of the 19th century, the issue of mourning had emerged as a particular facet of rural American consciousness (Kete 1999).
Americans became focused on expressing publicly the deaths of loved ones; death and grief were openly mentioned, and the community extended its support to mourners engaged in these public rituals. Connections with others in the community were thus maintained by such public expressions of grief. Rather than shying away from people in mourning, community members embraced them and encouraged open expression of grief.
A chief means of such public expressions were sentimental poems whose function was to transform irreconcilable grief into what Kete (1999) termed “restorative mourning” (p. 7). It becomes clear that mourning had deep roots in maintaining contact with one’s community and provided a solid means for knowing one belonged to a moral order and to a definite human group (Leighton 1959). Take the following excerpts from a multiple-stanza poem as an example:
Oh, can it be that Wayland’s dead
My lovely darling son
Oh can it be his soul has fled
To its eternal home.
How can I check the falling tear
How can I hush the sigh
Dear Savior let me ever feel
Thy grace and presence nigh.
He’s safely housed from every storm,
Secure on Jesus’ breast.
O may we strive to meet him there
And share his blissful rest. (Harriet Gould, quoted in Kete 1999:4-5)
It was common for friends and acquaintances to add lines of verse to a “poetry journal” that a mourner kept following a death. One was expected to write a poetic sentiment in the journal. Thus mourning was seen as an expression of loss involving others and linking one to others.
The poetics of sentimentality surrounding mourning involved “a formal set of rules and strategies governing what could be said, by whom, to whom, and in what ways” (Kete 1999:147). This social process “took shape as part of a widely shared attempt to find solutions to the problems of grief and loss” (Kete 1999:147). Embedded within this social phenomenon was the assumption of reunion with the deceased in Heaven. The links will become clear later in this chapter between the poetics of sentimentality and the current efforts of bereavement researchers and therapists regarding continuing bonds with the deceased (Klass, Silverman, and Nickman 1996).
The Importance of Nature
In his address on the American scholar, Emerson (1929a) emphasized the primacy of nature on the developing human mind. To quote Emerson, “Nature hastens to render account of herself to the mind” (p. 26). For the Americans swept up in the poetics of sentimentality, the romantic reverence for nature actually was translated into a reverence for understanding the works of God; Emerson, as the preeminent American intellectual of his times, explained that we may perceive God’s face by contemplating nature (Emerson 1929b). One form this reverence for nature took was the emergence during the 1830s of cemeteries, constructed as natural gardens, that were intended to elicit meditations on God’s purpose and design.
Whereas not all romantic poets were theists, Americans were willing to accept that God’s lessons were to be found in nature. The function of the poetics of sentimentality was to make sense of loss and turn private grief into restorative mourning. Cemeteries were fashioned to be aesthetic expressions of nature, to depict Heaven, and to enable Americans to make sense of life when death intruded (Taylor 1980). Garry Wills (1992) captured this 19th-century American sentiment linking mourning and nature in his award-winning book on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the resulting desire to create a national cemetery for the soldiers killed in the battle.
The sentimental poems of Americans during the decades from 1830 through 1850 strike contemporary Americans as poorly written, in bad taste, self-indulgent, crude, and even embarrassing. Kete (1999) maintains that the 20th-century emphasis on privacy and individuality in dealing with loss as well as with other significant human issues has blinded Americans to the singular importance of these poems in helping Americans from another era to make sense of existence when faced with loss. It did not take until the 20th century, however, for these poems—and the overall poetics of sentimentality—to go out of fashion. What evolved following 1860 were distrust in and distaste for sentimentality and a radical transformation of death from a shared 19th-century community experience to a private act in 20th-century America.
Reaction against Sentimentality: 1860-1900
The War between the States produced widespread encounters with death and opened the gates for gnawing doubts about the value of romantic sentimentality in the face of disillusionment and grim reality. Whereas the poetics of sentimentality had provided defenses against isolation, unremitting grief, a whimsical and arbitrary determinism, and ultimate meaninglessness, the horror and traumas of the Civil War “proved the insufficiency of the sentimental poetic” (Kete 1999:151). In particular, a new medium of communication—photography—had emerged, and the carnage depicted in battlefield photographs belied sentimental notions such as noble death, honor, beauty, and pathos. It is not that there were no heroes: Robert Gould Shaw and Robert E. Lee provided two compelling figures of honor and courage for the Union and the Confederacy (Menand 2001; Rawls 1985; Shaw 1992). The horrifying numbers of deaths and the ways soldiers died, however, overwhelmed sentimental notions of death.
Sentimental collaborations, it will be recalled, were intended to transform the pangs of grief into a restorative mourning. Such restorative mourning occurred via material remembrances such as locks of hair, pictures of the deceased and of the grave, and poems; but primarily it occurred because of community solidarity in remembering the dead and maintaining contact between the living and the dead. And then came the Civil War with its slaughters and the photographs showing that “the dead brother was not nobly dead but butchered….As a remembrance, these pictures kept fresh the sense of grief rather than facilitating the process of mourning” (Kete 1999:151-52).
The quintessential American expression of disillusionment with the poetics of sentimentality is found in the writings of Mark Twain, who in his real-life person of Samuel Clemens was deeply troubled at the deaths of his mother, wife, and daughter (Burns 2002). In throes of ambivalence, Clemens looked to the poetics of sentimentality to make sense of these deaths. As Mark Twain, however, he expressed his intense cynicism with the values espoused in this sentimentality. From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer through his autobiography, Twain ( 1922, 1925) expressed his profound rejection, often with biting humor, of the romantic notions of sentimentality and his assessment that the poetics of sentimentality were powerless to create, maintain, and extend “the bonds of the family so as to enable the construction of a more broadly based sense of community” (Kete 1999:176).
The shift from sentimentality to a new form of expressing grief occurred after the Civil War. A ritual of manners took over, whereby mourning became stylized among middle- and upper-class European Americans. Not uncommonly, these stylized approaches to expressing grief have been attributed to the influence of Queen Victoria upon British and American society. Pike and Armstrong (1980) question this attribution, noting that mourning customs had been established in 19th-century Britain prior to Prince Albert’s death. Queen Victoria “may have helped to prolong the practice of rigid mourning etiquette past the time of its natural end, but she was not the cause of it” (p. 13).
A significant factor in the discarding of sentimental expressions and the acceptance of stylized mourning was the growing urbanization, industrialization, and secularization of society. This social development removed urban dwellers from reverence for nature and isolated the family from the larger community, an outcome that had significant social impacts on dealing with loss:
No longer able, on the death of a loved one, to share its grief openly and spontaneously with a concerned, supportive, extended natural community of others, the family had to bear the sorrow of loss largely by itself….forced to carry out privately an elaborate array of highly ritualized customs of remembrance. (Stannard 1980:26)
An etiquette of mourning arose to enable individuals to express their grief in socially acceptable ways. It should not be difficult for the reader to discern the presence of social class issues in these prescribed mourning rituals.
To illustrate what was expected of mourners, the etiquette of widowhood in the latter half of the 19th century will be presented. This etiquette involved mourning dress, public appearances, burial practices, portraits, and mourning stationery. We will look principally at mourning dress, with some review of the other topics.
Lou Taylor (1983) makes it clear that mourning dress had been worn in the early 19th century, particularly in Britain, and that it became increasingly stylized as the century wore on. During the latter half of the 19th century, mourning dress increasingly was dictated by fashion. For example, an 1895 issue of Harper’s Bazaar provided detailed illustrations of mourning apparel for women. A popular women’s publication, Godey’s Lady’s Book, featured “the latest cape in crape along with their regular modish evening dress. Mourning had become fashion” (p. 46).
Typically, mourning outfits were black, although black was a popular color and was not restricted to expressions of grief. Black garments, typically wool or silk, depicted full or deep mourning with trim in crape or in Henrietta cloth. Mourning etiquette became “an index of the American conscience,” and abiding by mourning dress etiquette enabled the widow (and the widower) to validate the social mores of one’s class (Hillerman 1980:91). As time elapsed from the death, typically in the second year of bereavement, a widow could wear for half mourning “a variety of motifs in acceptable color schemes—dots, floral sprays, leaves, shaded circles, Oriental designs, and stripes” (p. 95).
Although common, crape veils came under criticism for several reasons, many that dealt with health. Etiquette matrons complained that crape veils did not wear well over time and began to smell; in addition, crape veils endangered the wearer’s vision: “Eyes inflamed by weeping have in many instances been permanently weakened by looking through (crape) and being rubbed by it” (Hillerman 1980:96).
Nineteenth-century mourning rituals required mourners to cover their heads. Women in full mourning were expected to conceal their faces with a crape veil as well as wear a hat or bonnet (Hillerman 1980). Photos of 19th-century European American widows in full mourning resemble recent photos of Afghan women wearing burkas. A “widow’s cap” eventually emerged as acceptable for public appearances. The widow’s cap was “a bonnet draped with crape and lined with a white tarlatan ruche” (Hillerman 1980:99). The widow attached a wide-hemmed veil to the bonnet, which she tied under her chin with crape strings. The length of the veil shortened as time lengthened from the death of her husband, but stretched to the floor while the widow was in full mourning.
A host of fashion accessories was available for mourning dress. Among these accessories were jewelry, hand fans, handkerchiefs, and gloves, all appropriately designed to depict mourning. For a while, a popular mourning accessory was jewelry fashioned from the hair of the deceased (Taylor 1980).
The length of time expected for mourning varied according to who had died. For instance, a widow was expected to spend one full year in deep mourning and a subsequent year in half mourning. Mourning the deaths of parents or children was to occupy a year, and 6 months was expected for mourning the deaths of grandparents and siblings. Mourning the death of a fiancé was to last a year. Although men were expected to mourn a wife’s death for 2 years, it was commonly acknowledged that such rules were not applied to widowers as rigorously as to widows (Hillerman 1980). Consider, for instance, the strictures prescribed in this book of etiquette published in 1895:
A heartless wife, who, instead of being grieved at the death of her husband, is rejoiced at it, should be taught that society will not respect her unless she pays to the memory of the man whose name she bears that “homage which vice pays to virtue,” a commendable respect to the usages of society in the manner of mourning and of retirement from the world. (quoted in Hillerman 1980:104)
Funerals and cemeteries changed dramatically during the latter half of the 19th century. Mourners purchased caskets, not coffins. Coffins had been simple wooden boxes; caskets became ornate burial containers. The corpse was dressed in very good clothes. Rather than a piece of the natural landscape evoking meditation on God’s plan and design, the cemetery became strewn with monuments to the dead geared to proclaim “the social status of the deceased and of his dearly beloved” (Taylor 1980:46).
Mourning pictures painted on silk, as well as photographs of the dead, became popular in 19th-century America. In the early 19th century, these pictorial memorials were frequently embroidered. Then during the 1830s, printed memorials became popular; Currier and Ives produced many. These printed memorials included a blank space for the mourner to fill in the name of the deceased, age upon death, and date of the death. Lloyd (1980), who noted that making mourning portraits, particularly of children, developed into an extensive industry, quoted the following advertisement from an artist in 1847: “His method of taking portraits of Deceased [sic] persons, and his success in getting good likenesses, is well known to the public” (p. 71).
As the heading indicates, stationery specifically for use of mourners became a social expectation. Mourners were expected to use stationery (and calling cards) with “a quarter-inch black border that narrowed progressively during the two years immediately following the death of a spouse” (Stannard 1980, p. 26).
Twentieth-Century Experiences of Death and Mourning Customs
Mourning customs shifted in the 20th century, due in part to changes in what women accepted as fashionable and as acceptable social behavior (Pike and Armstrong 1980) and also due to advances in technology and medical research, changes in the places where death occurs, and decreased personal experience with death. First, we will look at shifts in etiquette.
Mourning Etiquette in the Twentieth Century
Following the death of her husband, Jacqueline Kennedy modeled for Americans and a worldwide television audience how an upper-class European American bereaved family was to behave in public: subdued, stoic, and strong in the face of grief. Armbands and subdued clothing (not always black) were worn by men in attendance at John F. Kennedy’s funeral. Mrs. Kennedy, however, did not adhere to mourning customs that had been expected of her social class in the previous century.
A few years prior to the Kennedy funeral, Amy Vanderbilt (1957) had expressed the new rules for mourning etiquette: “Visible signs of mourning—the widow’s bonnet, the black clothes even for little children—are, I think happily, rarely seen these days” (p. 136). Vanderbilt went on to say, “Black has lost much of its meaning as the badge of bereavement”(p. 136) but indicated that women members of a family were expected to wear black dresses at the funeral. Men were allowed to wear “dark business suits in navy or Oxford, with black shoes and socks, black or gray ties and white shirts” (p. 137).
Vanderbilt (1957) commented on changes from the traditional idea of mourning and supported “a strong will to live happily in spite of personal loss” and “developing a more positive social attitude toward others, who might find it difficult to function well in the constant company of an outwardly mourning person” (p. 137). Vanderbilt speculated that earlier mourning customs were no longer needed and had dropped out of use due to electronic transmission of news, making awareness of deaths rapid:
There is little possibility that the bereaved family will not receive tactful consideration on all sides, and it need not proclaim its loss by the wearing of black, the use of black-bordered note paper, the strict withdrawal from any merely social activity. (P. 137)
For bereaved men and bereaved women to return to work in ordinary work clothes and without visible representations of grief was no longer socially proscribed but rather expected.
By 1997, the Emily Post Institute (Post 1997) informed readers that black needed to be worn at funerals only by immediate family members, by pallbearers, and by friends sitting with the family. She admonished, however, that children should never wear black but rather their best clothing. Post encouraged the family to return to its normal routines as quickly as possible following the funeral, and she noted that resuming an active social life was a matter of individual preference.
Advances in Technology and Other Changes
In his award-winning book How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter, Sherwin Nuland (1993) provides 12 graphic, eloquent chapters on the varieties of ways in which people die. The causes encompass assaults on human life such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart attacks, murder, accidents, pneumonia, AIDS, and cancer. Look hard in Nuland’s chapters for a romantic picture of peaceful death. Particularly for those persons dying of a terminal illness, one gets the sense of what elderly adults sometimes say about aging: “Growing old is not for sissies.” The picture Nuland paints is that dying for most persons is painful, horrendous, undignified, and exhausting. Nuland’s picture is considered an unvarnished, frank portrayal that nearly everyone will experience a stark death.
In 1968 Barney Glaser and Anselm Straus published their influential findings on what have become called dying trajectories. Glaser and Straus said that they had uncovered four distinct patterns, all witnessed in hospital settings, the most common locale for 20th-century American death. They described these four patterns:
a sudden death that occurs at an unpredictable point in someone’s life and in which the person’s death occurs swiftly following a swift decline in health (for instance, death due to severe injuries in an automobile accident, a gunshot wound, or a massive heart attack); a slow, steady decline in health that eventually results in a predictable time of death (for instance, death due to a terminal form of cancer with episodes of remission and relapse);
a slow and ambiguous decline in health with time of death uncertain (for instance, death due to muscular dystrophy, Alzheimer’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—sometimes called “Lou Gehrig’s disease”); and
a life-threatening condition in which a person’s health follows one of three possible courses: recovery and continued health, deterioration and continued decline in health, or death (for instance, the aftermath of a serious head trauma). (See Corr, Nabe, and Corr 2000.)
The leading causes of death in the United States for the past 200 years have been illnesses or diseases. For instance, in 1900, the three leading causes of death were: (a) influenza and pneumonia, (b) tuberculosis, and (c) gastritis, duodenitis, enteritis, and the like; these three types of illness caused 31.4% of all deaths at the turn of the century in the United States. By 1997, the three leading causes of death in the United States were (a) diseases of the heart, (b) malignant neoplasms (i.e., tumors or abnormal tissue growth), and (c) cerebrovascular diseases; these three types of illness caused 61.9% of all deaths in the United States, and diseases of the heart accounted for the same percentage of deaths claimed by the top three causes in 1900 (Corr et al. 2000).
Data from both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Bureau of the Census indicate clearly that the death rate dropped dramatically per 100,000 persons in the United States from 1900 to 1997. In 1900, there were approximately 1,719 deaths for every 100,000 persons in the country, whereas by 1997, the rate was approximately 880 deaths for every 100,000 persons (Corr et al. 2000; www3.who.int/whosis). The lowered death rate has been attributed to increased hygiene and better nutrition and, principally, to advances in medical care brought about by research and technology (Corr et al. 2000; Wass and Neimeyer 1995).
Advances in medical care have changed the place where persons commonly die in the United States. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, the great majority of persons (over 80%) in the United States died in their homes. From the middle of the 20th century, the great majority of persons (nearly 80%) have died either in hospitals (approx. 63%) or in nursing homes (approx. 17%). Less than 18% have died at home (Corr et al. 2000).
This information about 20th-century experiences with death indicates that medical research and technology have taken over what had been a personal, family, and community experience. Rather than dying at home, the majority of persons now die in hospitals or in nursing homes; they often die attached to machines; they fear dying alone. We have made great strides in extending the life span, have introduced new forms of dying to the life span, and have greatly depersonalized dying (Kastenbaum 2001; Wass and Neimeyer 1995).
What has happened to the experience of mourning? We shall look at that issue in the context of how bereavement and grief have been interpreted for the past 90+ years.
Stannard (1980) referred to a 1911 article in Harper’s Bazaar that epitomizes the complete change from the notion of sentimental collaboration and shared mourning to a notion of personal, private endurance: “Grief is self-pity…. [P]erhaps if we were less centered upon our own happiness, grief over the loss of our beloved ones would not be the terrible thing it is” (p. 26). The reversal in social norms took ironic turns as the 20th century lengthened: Sexuality would be liberated while mention of death, grief, and mourning became taboo.
The task of the mourner became crystal clear in Freud’s famous and influential paper on grief and depression (Freud  1957). Freud, who was no stranger to grief, maintained that bereavement required a person gradually to divest emotional energy from the person who had died and to reinvest energy elsewhere. In short, Freud said mourning was a process of detaching oneself from the deceased. Lindemann (1944) extended this notion by referring to it as “grief work,” and he noted that bereaved persons receiving help from his psychiatric team began to lessen in grief when they allowed themselves to experience the distress their grief elicited. Thus, for Freud and for Lindemann, grief was an intensely personal affair, and by extension, so was mourning.
Secularization proceeded thoroughly to transform American society in the 20th century. Eventually, we got Harvey Cox’s (1966) theological celebration of the secular world and its values. This secularization accepted the isolation and anonymity of individuals and, despite Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ( 1960) valiant efforts to embrace the saving graces of the secular world, the place of religion and God in ongoing existence became peripheral at best. Less and less was God seen as a fundamental concept in understanding or explaining central aspects of human existence, such as death, bereavement, and grief. Tony Walter (1999) expressed it well when he wrote of the inability of Protestant, secular society to overcome the barriers created between the living and the dead. Modern, secular society, very much unlike 19th-century American society, articulates only with difficulty any relationships between mourners and the deceased.
The practitioners of the poetics of sentimentality faced a question that 20th-century Americans have not escaped: How do we explain the rupture to human bonds that death introduces? Nineteenth-century Americans mostly had a satisfying answer to that question: The rupture is not permanent, and we will be reunited with those who have died. Thus the poetics of sentimentality as well as later 19th-century mourning rituals were grounded in a trust that reunion with the deceased was ensured. Twentieth-century responses to death and bereavement emphasized the permanence of the rupture, prescribed letting go of any bonds to the deceased, and focused attention on the personal feelings of the mourner.
Departing from 19th-century norms that encouraged the public expression of grief and provided tangible community support, 20th-century norms in America prescribed keeping grief internal and private. The clinical lore (see Wortman and Silver 1989; also, Walter 1999) about grief and mourning accepted the Freudian notions of dealing with grief. As Walter (1999) phrased the matter, “socially required mourning has given way to privately experienced grief” (p. 131) in a reflexive, highly individualistic era of American society. As an example with widespread social implications, leave from work following a death in the immediate family became standard personnel practice and ranged from 1 to 3 days. As one analyst noted, bereavement was brought into line “with the business temporal code” and “bereavement has taken on the meanings of the business system, reflecting and reinforcing a social order based on businesslike management of time” (Pratt 1981:317).
Reaction and Reexamination of Death, Grief, and Mourning
A reaction against marginalizing grief and mourning started in the latter half of the 20th century. Despite later excesses in applications of her work, Kübler-Ross (1969) redirected attention to the emotional experiences of dying, and her book created a stir in American consciousness. Robert Kastenbaum (Kastenbaum 1977; Kastenbaum and Ainsberg 1972) drew psychologists’ attention to bereavement, grief, and mourning; Feifel (1959) and Shneidman (1967) drew sociologists’ attention to the meaning of death and the act of suicide.
The value of social support in dealing with grief gained adherents. Chief examples would be (a) the Widow to Widow program (Silverman 1986), which used prevention notions from community mental health and placed widows as a source of mutual help to each other following the deaths of their husbands; (b) hospice, which provides holistic, interdisciplinary, palliative care to families while a member is dying of a terminal illness and bereavement care for up to a year following the death (Barnard et al. 2000; Connor 1998); and (c) the Society of Compassionate Friends, a support program run by bereaved parents, which during the late 1970s became the most rapidly growing self-help group in the United States (Borman et al. 1979). The National Institute of Mental Health published a standing announcement in the 1980s requesting research into the effects of social support on bereavement.
Bereavement scholars began to notice that the experiences of some mourners did not match what the received theory that Freud (and Bowlby 1961, 1980) claimed was the norm. Thus Dennis Klass, who engaged in a 20-year ethnographic study of a chapter of the Society of Compassionate Friends, noted that bereaved parents’ mourning experiences did not fit the traditional notions of recovery from bereavement (Klass 1987-1988, 1988). In response to growing empirical evidence from scholars such as Klass, J. William Worden (1991), who had described four tasks for mourners, revised the final task: “withdrawing emotional energy from the deceased and reinvesting it in another relationship” was replaced by finding “an appropriate place for the dead in their emotional lives” (Worden 1991:16, 17). Klass and his associates (1996) reported that maintaining bonds with the deceased occurred far more commonly than scholars had acknowledged and was not a sign of pathology. In the same vein as continuing bonds researchers, Nancy Hogan and Lydia DeSantis (1992) reported that adolescents who were grieving deaths of siblings experienced an ongoing attachment to their dead brothers and sisters.
New tacks were taken in bereavement research, leading to the identification of new and the uncovering of concealed influences on mourning. Camille Wortman and Roxane Silver (1989) explored assumptions about grief and mourning and labeled much of what clinical lore touted as true to be myths; as an example, lack of grief following a death need not indicate complications but rather can simply indicate absence of being bereft. Kenneth Doka (1989) identified a socially reproved bereavement experience that he termed disenfranchised grief; in short, society does not grant a bereaved individual a mourning role following some losses. An example of mourners whose grief is disenfranchised are parents following a miscarriage; other persons whose grief is disenfranchised following death include homosexual partners, lovers in illicit affairs, divorced spouses, adolescent boyfriends and girlfriends, and pet owners. Mourners whose grief is disenfranchised are at the very least questioned if not publicly rebuked for their grief.
Margaret Stroebe and her colleagues (1992) noted that 19th-century perspectives accepted that bereavement left hearts broken but bonds intact. Stroebe and Schut (1999) proposed a new model for understanding how people cope with loss, indicating that grievers not only spend time confronting their distress (à la Freud’s grief work hypothesis) but also spend time restoring their lives. A danger, of course, is that a new norm of continuing bonds with the deceased will be prescribed to replace the 20th-century norm of detachment from the deceased. There may be and likely are bereaved persons whose mourning does not extend to an ongoing attachment. There are cases when deaths do not produce bereavement (Wortman and Silver 1989). But at the same time, it is clear that some of the notions of 19th-century America have reemerged: Restoration with the deceased is experienced as an ongoing or continuing phenomenon for a significant proportion of mourners.
A fruitful research program in recent years has tied the human quest for meaning to what is at stake in mourning. Constructivism, a distinctly contemporary approach to epistemology, is a guiding principle in most if not all these efforts. This research tack has involved scholars from several disciplines: philosophy, nursing, psychiatry, sociology, religious studies, and psychology to name a few (Attig 1996; Klass 1999; Neimeyer 2000; Neimeyer, Prigerson, and Davies 2002; Strack 1997). As one multidisciplinary team phrased it,
Human beings seek meaning in mourning and do so by struggling to construct a coherent account of their bereavement that preserves a sense of continuity with who they have been while also integrating the reality of a changed world into their conception of who they must now be. (Neimeyer et al. 2002:235-36).
At some point—and very soon, I expect—the current shifts in thinking about bereavement and mourning will manifest in new practices about accepting the place of the dead in our lives. From the creation of a scientific advisory committee (SAC) at the Center for the Advancement of Health (www.cfah.org/programs/grief_research.cfm), we already see efforts in rethinking the place of bereavement and grief in society. The long-term goal of the SAC project is to improve the ability of professionals and lay counselors to effectively diagnose, treat, and support grieving individuals and families. Improving the ability of professionals and lay counselors to effectively diagnose, treat, and support grieving individuals and families requires improved scientific understanding of the phenomena of normal and complex grief, development and testing of treatment interventions, and broad dissemination of the results of these scientific findings in useful formats to medical and mental health professionals as well as to lay and faith-based counselors. In addition, there is need to improve research by identifying the research questions that are important to service providers.
It seems highly improbable that the zeitgeist will call forth a social movement that takes hold of 21st-century Americans’ imaginations and leads to a revival of the poetics of sentimentality. A corner has been turned, however, in contemporary consciousness about the experience of bereavement and mourning, and the ongoing links between the living and the dead have been embraced, acknowledged, and affirmed. The effects of such a shift in consciousness on the practice of mourning will be noticeable to the generations of Americans who look back on these years and compare our expressions of grief with those of our 19th- and 20th-century forebears and with those who come after us.
It bears noting that not all scholars agree with the interpretation presented here. For instance, one colleague who finds the concept of evolution of mourning significant not only for historical understanding but also for comprehending social change, mentioned that he found problematic the “conceptualization of our enlightened newly emerging understanding of mourning” (Jeffrey Kauffman, personal communication, August 9, 2002). “The sense of historical perspective that is the gift that an evolutionary this chapter gets to the present. He expressed concern that the notion of continuing bonds was being offered as a norm rather than “being a cultural artifact in the ongoing evolutionary history of mourning.” In short, he sees as problematic the argument that the recent construct of continuing bonds is a recapturing of an earlier understanding rather than “an adjustment of normative concepts out of sync with private mourning needs/practices” because it raises continuing bonds to a status above cultural influence.