Social Dimensions of Grief

María I Vera. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.

The complex experience of grief has been studied extensively as an individual phenomenon. The psychological literature has focused primarily on describing grief as a personal process and on offering the bereaved guidance to make sense of the loss and to resolve the grief. More recent sociological interest has focused on how the experience of grief is shaped by social factors, such as relationships with the deceased, social support, religious beliefs, age, gender, race, ethnicity, class, and the circumstances of death.

This chapter discusses grief as an individual and a collective socially sanctioned experience. It also examines the experience of grief as influenced by the meaning assigned to death, its circumstances, and the relationships mourners had with the deceased. In other words, grief is considered as a socially enfranchised experience. The discussion will focus on the social factors that influence the experience of grief over death and its expression in the United States. First, the notion of enfranchised and disenfranchised grief is discussed. It is followed by a discussion of grief as influenced by the circumstances of death, the relationship with the deceased, religious beliefs, the social characteristics of the bereaved, and social factors in the resolution of grief.

Grief: Enfranchised and Disenfranchised

Disenfranchised grief occurs when the relationship with the deceased, the loss, or the mourners are not recognized (Doka 1989). This experience of grief cannot be understood as purely personal and cannot be explained by psychological factors alone; it also needs to be understood as being shaped by social factors.

Disenfranchised Relationships

Disenfranchised relationships are based on ties other than those between socially recognized kin, which in the United States have been assumed to be the only ones that create truly close emotional connections. Relationships between lovers, coworkers, colleagues, friends, and caregivers who have had more meaningful relations with the deceased than kin are examples of these disenfranchised relationships. These nonkin connections are increasingly common because of the high mobility and diversity in American society, and they may have had tremendous influence in people’s lives. The companions in these connections often play meaningful roles and share daily lives in ways that families are not able or willing to do. For many, such relationships constitute the main social network from which a sense of identity and daily support is derived.

One of the most neglected areas of grief is nontraditional relationships, such as marital affairs and homosexual liaisons, associations that usually do not receive public support and often encounter negative responses in the community at large. Because of social disapproval of these relationships, the bereaved are often excluded from participating in the care of the dying person, funeral rites, and expressing their grief publicly. The exclusion from social support influences grief resolution and the adjustment following the death of a significant other (Kamerman 1993). The intensity and duration of the grief in these relationships also depend on the degree of emotional investment, commitment, ambivalence, and the meaning of the relationship to the partners. The level of secrecy that sometimes surrounds these relationships and the degree of social acceptance in social circles also influence the amount of social support available to the bereaved. Anger, guilt, sadness, depression, and loneliness are usually very intense after death in nontraditional relationships because of the loneliness and isolation that result from the withdrawal of social support.

The disenfranchisement of grief is also codified in personnel policies and legal norms. For example, most public and private organizations in the United States do not allow employees time off to attend funerals of close friends, lovers, unmarried partners, or pets. After the death of a common-law partner, the bereaved face legal problems such as inheritance, ownership of property, and other difficulties that arise because, typically, nontraditional relationships have no legal status.

Disenfranchised Losses

Disenfranchised losses are not considered socially significant enough for grieving and are not recognized as legitimate events to grieve. Perinatal deaths, such as those resulting from premature births, sudden death in utero, stillbirth, or miscarriage are examples of losses that do not have a socially sanctioned grief. Although research has documented that perinatal deaths and abortions are experienced as serious losses, these are downplayed as not being important events in a person’s life (Nichols 1989; Peppers 1989), yet failure to resolve this type of grief may lead to pathological grief (Rando 1984). The disenfranchisement of these losses is manifested socially in the lack of customs and rituals to acknowledge the loss, such as sympathy cards or funeral rituals. This illustrates the arbitrary nature of the social meaning assigned to death at different stages in life.

In cases of abortion, a common belief is that because the mother made the choice to end the pregnancy, she is not entitled to grieve. But women can be deeply affected by the decision to abort. Studies conducted after the legalization of abortion in 1973 have found that it is common among women who choose to abort to experience grief even prior to the actual procedure. Other social factors that may also affect the grief reaction to abortion are the stigma attached, the presence or absence of social support systems, religious beliefs, and the partner’s attitude. Women who fear rejection from their support system withdraw and avoid communication (Peppers 1989). When social norms and religious norms disapprove of abortion, the decision to abort may trigger contradictory feelings of guilt, ambivalence, and worry, as well as questions concerning one’s right to grieve.

Disenfranchised Mourners

he grief of individuals whose capacity to grieve is not acknowledged is also disenfranchised. This occurs when others perceive people as not having an understanding of the death of a significant person. Small children, developmentally disabled individuals, and the very old fall in this category. Contrary to popular belief, small children, the very old, and the developmentally disabled do mourn. Disenfranchisement deprives them of an opportunity to express their grief and to receive social support.

Grief and the Circumstances of Death

The same mechanism by which grief is enfranchised or disenfranchised operates in the attachment of social meaning to the circumstances of death. This process also involves the granting or denial of legitimacy to the expression of grief attached to various death circumstances. It establishes the meaning of the death for the bereaved and the community affected by the death. The following is a discussion of some of the circumstances and their attended meanings.

Grief Over Sudden Versus Expected Death

The mode of death is one of the most significant factors in the outcome of bereavement. Sudden, unexpected death produces shock, disbelief, and numbness in the bereaved. Death without warning creates intense grief, frequently disrupts the physical and emotional world of the bereaved, and brings other subsequent losses. The trauma of sudden death diminishes the capacity of individuals, families, and communities to cope and function. The grief is especially intense because there is no time to prepare, to say goodbye, or to complete the emotional tasks in the relationship with the deceased. The bereaved have difficulty in accepting the untimely death, experience a heightened sense of vulnerability, and have more difficulty in resolving their grief than those who have some time to prepare.

The capacity to respond to sudden death is compromised by the lack of preparation and comprehension of the situation. Many factors—the degree of preventability, intentionality, whether the death was the result of natural cause (such as tornado) or a hostile cause (homicide or terrorist attack), the immediate circumstances of the death, the amount of suffering of the deceased, the number of people affected by the unexpected death—can have an impact on the way the bereaved experience grief.

By contrast, an expected death is grieved over time in a continuum of emotions and thoughts that take place before the death, at the time of the loss, and thereafter. Although some deaths of sick and elderly individuals, such as ailing parents, may be anticipated, there is always grief over the actual loss, and only at the time of death that the bereaved are confronted with the reality of the loss and may begin to undertake the tasks needed for grief resolution. One of the many tasks following a parent’s death is the need to redefine relationships in the family, and siblings who lose one or both parents find their relationship changed as a result.

Grief over an expected death—called anticipatory grief—may be no less painful than that which follows a sudden death. Because the bereaved has had time to prepare, however, an expected death is experienced as less of on assault on the mourner’s coping abilities. Having time to prepare allows mourners to make sense of the upcoming loss and to direct their energy toward coping. In addition to the degree of expectedness of the death, the ability of a person to cope with a death is influenced by factors such as access to social support, psychological variables, cultural and religious values, the presence of other stressors, and the nature of the relationship with the deceased.

Grief over Disaster Deaths

Disasters are overwhelming events and circumstances that cause destruction of property, death, physical injury, community dislocation, and tremendous human suffering. Survivors of a disaster experience multiple losses, the most severe being the loss of family members and loved ones. Other potential losses include permanent physical injury and disability, and loss of friends, livelihood, home, community, documents, and other possessions. Furthermore, loss of safety, trust, identity, and hope for a future may delay the mourning process because these significant losses challenge the coping abilities of individuals and communities.

Disasters may be sudden and dramatic and may affect large numbers of people who suffer a range of acute psychological and social problems. They may also be gradual and persistent, such as drought, war, and famine, eroding over time people’s abilities to grieve and to cope with losses that inevitably follow such catastrophes. Regardless of whether they are natural or man-made, disasters cause individual and collective trauma that profoundly affect the social life of entire communities. The extent of these losses challenges the ability of individuals and communities to adapt to the changed circumstances brought about by the event. Evacuation, displacement, and destruction of communities bring permanent losses that need to be mourned along with the death of loved ones.

The United States is still recovering from the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, a tragic event in which approximately 3,000 people died. This disaster not only had an impact on those directly affected but also, because its horror and magnitude, has changed the course of history and perhaps the balance of power in the world. The human, material, and symbolic losses caused by this tragedy have been publicly mourned. The media has given massive support to selected victims, validated their pain, and provided a publicly recognized space to express their grief. This recognition and social support have not been equally distributed, however. It was apparent that the relatives of firefighters and other rescue personnel—considered heroes—were granted more media attention and public support than the families of foreigners who suffered comparable losses.

A unique characteristic of grieving after a tragedy of this sort is that the survivors must grieve in very public ways and must deal with the pressure of the media who intrude in their personal lives at a time of great emotional upheaval. In addition, the bereaved often must interact with the legal system and other bureaucracies to obtain needed assistance. These interfaces are experienced by the bereaved as a major intrusion and another form of victimization.

Grief over Suicide

The act of killing oneself is also highly influenced by social forces; thus suicide is one circumstance of death that deserves special attention as a social factor affecting bereavement. Suicide is 11th among the leading causes of death in the United States, with the highest rates of suicide occurring among white and American Indian males between the ages of 15 and 44 (National Center for Health Statistics 2002). Grief is highly variable depending on the type of suicide and the meaning given to the act by the community. In some cases, suicide is a sudden, unexpected phenomenon, whereas in others, as in the case of assisted suicide, it is expected.

Durkheim (1951) distinguished several types of suicide. Altruistic suicide is motivated by hope and the belief that self-sacrifice will bring a better life for others. The Palestinian suicide bombers in the Middle East kill themselves believing that self-destruction will bring their plea for justice to public attention and influence a political process. These individuals are highly integrated into a social movement, and they are inspired by beliefs that give meaning to their deaths and to the grief of friends and relatives. Egoistic suicide, by contrast, is prompted by incurable weariness and depression and is more likely to occur when social integration is weak. The third type is anomic suicide, which is more likely to occur when social boundaries are weak and moral and legal norms seem arbitrary. Anomic suicide, for example, tends to occur when sudden unemployment, divorce, or a community disaster weakens social ties and established social norms, creating a sense of alienation from the community. The fourth type, fatalistic suicide, is more likely to occur in situations in which regulation over peoples’ lives is excessive and renders individuals impotent to influence their destinies. This classic case is that of slaves who kill themselves because of the oppressive conditions in which they live.

The grief response to these four types of suicide is very different because of the social meaning attributed to the death. The reaction to altruistic suicide, for which the motivation and intent are understood, can be one of pride, as expressed by the mother of Wafa Idris, the first Palestinian female suicide bomber. Although her suicide shocked everyone, she was not socially stigmatized but praised by her neighbors and relatives. Her mother said, “I wish every man, every woman would do the same, be a bomber.”

In other types of unexpected suicide, the bereaved are initially shocked and left with a profound sense of despair, have an intense need to understand why it occurred, and wonder if they could have done something to prevent it. Mourners of suicide sometimes experience strong feelings of anger and blame toward the person who committed suicide because they cannot find an acceptable explanation for the loss. These feelings are difficult to cope with and tend to complicate the grief process because social beliefs may endorse fixing blame and holding the survivors somehow responsible for the suicide. Those close to the person who commits suicide may also be blamed for not recognizing the signs that could have prevented the death.

In addition to the endless search for an explanation, several factors can complicate bereavement after suicide. One of the major struggles of the bereaved is dealing with feelings of abandonment and betrayal resulting from the social stigma of suicide. Because such deaths become a legal matter, families must deal with the public scrutiny and the criminal investigation that make them vulnerable to a more intense grief. Those bereaved by suicide tend to be more psychologically distressed than those who lost someone close in an accident and more ashamed than those who lost someone through a heart attack or an accident. Researchers have found that the stigma makes it difficult for persons bereaved by suicide to discuss their experiences, even when a large number of persons are affected by the death. In addition to the difficulty of expressing grief, these mourners express concerns about family relationships, financial worries, and physical and mental health problems. The wide array of concerns indicates that the lives of persons bereaved by suicide are significantly affected by the event and that the grief experience is likely to be complicated if isolation and guilt are not resolved. Some mourners who cannot rely on the support of family, friends, and others in the community to resolve their grief choose to see trained therapists for help with their grief (Provini, Everett, and Pfeffer 2000).

Grief and the Relationship with the Deceased

Among the social factors that influence the experience of grief, the relationship between deceased and bereaved stands out as one of the most important. Early research on the symptomatology and management of grief established that the severity of the grief reaction could be predicted by the intensity of the relationship a person had with the deceased before death and that the role that the deceased played in the life of the bereaved was also crucial (Lindemann 1944). For example, given the intense emotional attachment that usually exists between a mother and her child, one should expect a severe emotional reaction in the mother after the death of a child. By the same token, grief will be intensified by the need to make major adjustments in lifestyle when a person with a key social role in one’s life dies. Sometime these adjustments consist of the bereaved’s taking over the functions and roles of the deceased or relocating to a new community and needing to establish new roots and support network. A wife who did not work outside the home in order to stay with children may be forced to seek employment after her husband’s death and may have to relocate close to relatives to survive. In her grief, she will have to cope with the death of her spouse as well as with the other losses that resulted from it.

Parental Grief

The bonds between parents and children tend to be stronger than most other kin relations because they represent a love object as well as a psychic energy that unites families. Thus the loss of a child may reactivate earlier disappointments and losses in the parent’s lives. After the death of a child, parents may feel emotionally fragmented as they also grieve lost aspects of themselves. In addition to being a physical part of the parents, the child shares a social world with them. Often, children are emissaries of the family in terms of establishing connections between the family and the community. When the child dies, the parents often lose the connection between the child and that world.

Parental grief is often marked by guilt and anger. These strong emotions may stem from thoughts of not being able to prevent the child’s death, failing to protect the child, being punished for past transgressions, or not behaving appropriately at the time of death. The opportunity to withdraw from daily responsibilities to ventilate feelings of yearning, guilt, and anger is essential in the period immediately after the death to help parents initiate the grief process.

Grief over a Spouse’s Death

The death of a spouse is considered one of the most significant losses of adult life, and the reactions and sequels to this event have been extensively studied. The loss of a spouse is a stressor of immense proportions that may have debilitating effects on the survivor, but the intensity and duration of the bereavement is clearly associated with the meaning attached to the death by the surviving spouse.

The loss of a spouse is accompanied by many possible other losses, including those of a sexual partner, a protector, a companion, a friend, social status, and many others. At the same time, when the deceased spouse was ill and dependent, the surviving spouse may experience relief from responsibilities and freedom to engage in new pursuits. When a spouse dies, not only is the emotional support removed from the other, but also a multitude of tasks and needs are usually left unattended. Filling these roles alone can be an overwhelming task in itself. The redefinition of roles and tasks becomes one of the major challenges during the grief process. It is then not surprising that the loss of instrumental and emotional support and the loss of social identity are powerful stressors that affect the grief process. The bereaved partner and the entire family system need to reallocate roles and tasks in order to cope with the disruption caused by the death of a spouse and parent. As is the case with other deaths, receiving social support from friends and family can be helpful during this readjustment period.

The influence of culturally sanctioned gender roles is also observed in spousal bereavement. In some social groups, a widower might avoid crying in public because it is viewed as a sign of weakness and shame, whereas in others, expressing grief through tears is encouraged and accepted.

Grief over Death of a Parent

For an adult child, the death of a parent inevitably represents the end of a long-term relationship, and it symbolizes an important loss regardless of the age. Parental death generally brings emotional upheaval because adult children have to face the loss and make important and social transitions. An adult child tends to experience low grief when the loss of a parent is associated with advanced age, loss of functioning, institutionalization, and low degree of engagement with the parent. Death in these cases is anticipated long before its occurrence, and in many instances, the surviving child expresses the absence of grief by planning disposal of the body with limited ceremony.

For many people, the death of the mother is harder and grieving is longer than with the death of the father, perhaps in part because of the nurturing and caregiving roles that mothers adopt in families. Another reason can be that because of the longer life expectancy of women, they are normally the last parent to die, confronting the adult child with the realization that they can no longer view themselves as children.

Religious Beliefs and Grief

Religion has long been regarded as a significant factor in understanding bereavement because it appears to be a dimension of life virtually everywhere. Religious organizations function along with families and communities as a significant source of social support. Religious beliefs also provide meaning to make reality understandable and influence the way people cope with death. How people understand death and how they deal with grief is shaped by the beliefs and values they hold about life, death, and life after death. Different religious orientations also provide a sense of meaning and a sense of belonging.

The use of religious beliefs, interpretations, and ritual at the time of death may assist the bereaved in dealing with the fear and uncertainty of death. There is considerable variation in beliefs about God and how these beliefs relate to grief. Some have hypothesized that the certainty of God’s existence is positively associated with the perception of divine comfort and that these perceptions are also positively associated with a sense of meaning, purpose, and well-being. Others indicate that certainty in the belief of God’s presence and spiritual intimacy with the image of God provide comfort and guidance, strength, and meaning in the face of the loneliness of grief. On the other hand, when death is seen as caused by the wrath of God or lack of compliance with God’s will, grief may be complicated by guilt, fear, and anger toward a punishing God. In these cases, the bereaved may have difficulty in finding comfort in long-held religious beliefs.

Belief in life after death has been widely regarded as having an important connection with grief, partly because it denies the finality of the loss and because it involves a sense of reward to compensate for the hardships of the present life. The traditional concept of afterlife provides meaning to the bereaved by devaluing the circumstances of their current existence, eliciting positive feelings about the fate of the deceased, and decreasing anxiety about one’s own death. Religious organizations appear to function as a major locus for social involvement for a large number of people. Studies on involvement in church activities and social contacts within the church reveal that people derive much satisfaction from these contacts and feel their support during times of grief or tragedy. Although church attendance has a beneficial impact on the symptoms of grief, the most significance influence in emotional well-being of the bereaved derives from the presence and closeness of family members.

Gender, Age, Social Status, and Grief


Most of what we know about the gender differences in the grief experience comes from research on spousal bereavement, and what has been learned about spousal bereavement can be said of other types of grief (Stroebe 1998). The comparison of grief between men and women has been done primarily among whites; thus caution should be exercised in generalizing results to other ethnic groups.

The differential impact of grief in men and women can be observed in their mental and physical health, roles and relationships, and coping styles. Findings indicate higher levels of psychological distress among widowers, even when the men were living with an adult child. Widowers have higher rates of postbereavement mental illness than do widows compared with same-gender controls. Women are more likely to become depressed after a death, but men are more likely to develop substance abuse disorders while denying the presence of emotional distress. In general, widowers tend to be more vulnerable to physical illness than widows and tend to have a higher use of medical professionals, medications, and hospitalizations than do married counterparts. Widowers are at a relatively higher risk of dying after bereavement than widows, and suicide is one of the most frequent causes of death (Stroebe 1998).

Studies that have examined the social roles and stressors in marriage have found that men tend to have fewer close relationships with others and rely primarily on their spouse for friendship and emotional intimacy. Women, on the other hand, tend to have friends outside the marriage with whom they share feelings and to whom they reveal their problems. These different styles of relating are reflected in the way men and women cope with loss. Social sanctions enfranchise women’s expression of grief emotions; thus they are likely to receive social support during bereavement. Men, by contrast, tend to deny, repress, and postpone their feelings of grief and focus their attention on practical matters and distracting activities in an effort to return to a sense of normalcy in their lives. It is socially acceptable for women to seek out others to cope with grief, whereas men are at a disadvantage in terms of receiving the support they need to resolve grief.

Social sanctions also affect how men and women express their grief. Males, more than women, are taught to be in control of their emotions and their expression, and this social prescription often prevents them from reaching out for help and comfort. Consequently, men often feel torn between the social expectation of stoicism and the presence of feelings, the expression of which would allow them to cope with the death and to resolve their grief.

With respect to the death of elderly parents, gender of the adult child is associated with the way in which the person responds to the loss. Daughters express considerable more emotional upset, experience more somatic distress, and have stronger ties with the deceased parent, while sons are more accepting of the death (Moss, Resch, and Moss 1997).


It has been shown that children grieve differently from adults. For a child, the most significant loss is the death of a parent. Parental loss for young children and adolescents is not a benign event, and the intensity and duration of the loss is clearly influenced by events that precede the death. Changes in the family’s lifestyle during a parent’s chronic illness, the absence or withdrawal from family functions, and economic changes may have an adverse effect on the child’s functioning before the death. Children have high levels of anxiety and depression during a parent’s terminal illness, and these symptoms lessen after the death, suggesting that the period preceding parental loss is one of great psychological stress for the child. The relationship of the child with the surviving parent along with family cohesiveness and warmth seem to be the most critical factors affecting the outcome of the child’s bereavement. Studies consistently report that sudden, unexpected death gives no time to prepare the child, and this can contribute to a more problematic period of adjustment (Furman 1983; Kranzler et al. 1990; Worden 2001).

Bereaved adolescents are vulnerable to losses because these take place at a time when they are going through a transition from childhood to adulthood. Adolescents, however, tend to exhibit resilience that may lessen long-term effects of such losses (Glass 1991; Ringler and Hayden 2000). A recent study that examined the grief experience of adolescents found that the loss of a relative or a friend was a frequent experience and that these losses were commonly associated with depressive symptoms. Most of these bereaved young people did not feel the need for professional help, but those who wanted to discuss their feelings felt that they were able to do so with relatives and friends (Harrison and Harrington 2001).

Social Status

Social status and social worth of the deceased and bereaved are important dimensions of the experience of grief. The media inform the public daily of the death of the rich and famous whose funerals are often broadcast around the world. The tragic death of Princess Diana of Wales in 1997, for example, had extensive media coverage from the moment it happened. The social significance of her death was manifest in the worldwide public expressions of grief. The princess was immensely popular because of her beauty, poise, and position in the British royal family. The pageantry and solemnity of her funeral, watched by billions all over the world, demonstrate how individual and collective grief experiences can assume a global dimension. In the 1960s, the assassination deaths of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., provoked similar global grief experiences.

The social status and social worth of the bereaved and the deceased are also upheld by participation in funeral rituals. The death of persons with a high public profile, such as government figures and entertainment personalities, draws the participation of individuals and groups who want to express grief and their support for the survivors. In these funerals, prominent persons praise the role and contributions of the deceased to society. At the other end of the continuum, the homeless in the United States, more often than not, are cremated or buried quickly in common graves. In these instances, death does not draw community support because of the perceived lack of social significance of the deceased. As discussed in the next section, rituals of mourning are highly variable depending on factors such as ethnicity and social class, and they are important social factors in the resolution of individual grief.

Social Support, Mourning Rituals, Ethnicity, and Grief

The grief experience also differs as a result of the meaning attached to the circumstances of death, the relationship with the deceased, and social support. From the perspective of the resolution of grief, the type and availability of social support and the public expression of grief are the most significant social factors. Social support has been found to protect against the impact of stressful and traumatic life events and has been thought of as comforting and facilitating the resolution of grief (Worden 2002). Public expression of grief in mourning rituals, along with the participation of friends, family, and members of religious organizations, has also been found to have a beneficial effect in the outcome of grief, but there is a wide variation in the usefulness of mourning rituals and ceremonies to the bereaved individual (Haig 1990).

Social Support

Social support has been shown to have a major impact on the physical and emotional well-being of people facing crisis situations (Caplan 1986). This beneficial influence stems from the well-established generalization that people who are integrated into cohesive social networks are less apt to experience disabling feelings of alienation and anomie. Support has been found to be enormously helpful to mourners in coping with their loss because grief is both a personal and social process, and talking about the dead, how they died, and what they meant to the bereaved, is a way to express grief and resolve grief (Walter 1996). Social support consists of a network of relationships that provide ongoing dependable assistance and companionship regardless of the presence of stress. This network may be activated during times of stress and creates the perception that support is available (Wethington and Kessler 1986). Social support depends on interpersonal connections in which people give and receive emotional, informative, and concrete assistance (Kaunonen et al. 2000). Emotional support consists of expressions of sympathy, love, and understanding; sharing of the sorrow; and talking with, listening to, expressing love for, and offering companionship to the bereaved. Informative support includes help with decision making, guidance, discussion, and resolution of problems. Concrete support consists of material help such as giving time and doing things to assist the other. Ideally, social support is a reciprocal connection, and both parties in a relationship are available to provide and receive needed assistance. The most effective form of emotional support comes from those who share a context of meaning with the bereaved—for example, coworkers, teammates, close relatives, and family members. In the past, most of the social support came from family and friends, but because of mobility, displacement, and alienation from extended families, the bereaved can no longer rely exclusively on these sources. Although sometimes the bereaved find it hard to obtain help from family and friends in a reassuring way, many feel ambivalent about turning to formal or institutionalized social support, such as mental health professionals, because of the stigma and the cost involved.

Support may be offered informally by those close to the bereaved or in an organized manner by some civil and religious communities. For example, customs prevalent among Jewish religious families who observe a number of traditions that allow for the expression of emotions, the celebration of the deceased, the consolation of relatives and friends and days for mourning provide close support for the bereaved. Although less formally organized, U.S. military personnel and their families receive peer support, comfort, information, and referral through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS).

Social and emotional support is now available through Internet sites such as Compassionate Friends (www., dedicated to providing grief counseling to parents whose children have died; Healing Hearts, Healing Hands (; and WidowNet ( that assist bereaved spouses. These Internet sites assist the bereaved in reaching a positive resolution of their grief by giving information about the emotions of loss, explaining the normal dimensions of the experience, and encouraging site visitors to share similar experiences. People mourning the death of a pet can also find a “cybershoulder” at Lightning Strike ( to discuss their thoughts, feelings, hopes, and fears with others who experience similar losses.

Despite the availability of organized social support, the overwhelming majority of the bereaved rely on relatives and friends to cope with the losses and stress of death. Religious organizations, along with the family and local communities, appear to function as a major locus for social involvement for a large number of people.

Mourning Rituals

Mourning rituals and other mourning practices, which vary in duration and timing across ethnic lines, are expected to meet the emotional and social needs of the bereaved by using familiar language and words, providing traditional ceremonies, and granting a socially sanctioned role to the bereaved. In addition to providing an approved way to express grief, funerals also make a statement about the place that the dead person occupied in society and the social network of the deceased and the bereaved family.

The question has been raised whether funeral ceremonies are equally beneficial for all the mourners. The answer seems to depend on the needs of the bereaved and the meaning of the loss. In the instance of the death of an elderly relative, the funeral may be a formal occasion to acknowledge the death and dispose of the body. In these instances, the loss is experienced as slight and produces “low grief.” On the other hand, the sudden unexpected death of a child or of a young mother is regarded as untimely and unfair; it is normally resented, and the bereaved experienced it as a “high-grief” loss. The social and emotional needs of the family, friends, and community in instances of high-grief loss are clearly greater than in low-grief losses, and the potential emotional and social consequences for the survivors more profound. In other instances, grief may not be present in a relative who is privately relieved at the death of an incapacitated elderly parent.

In situations of disenfranchised grief, discussed earlier, mourners are denied the participation in the funeral and other mourning rituals. Grief after such deaths is likely to be prolonged and complicated because of the lack of opportunity to grieve communally and for the lack of a ritual to mark the transition into life without the deceased. The legitimacy of the loss is not recognized in these cases (Kamerman 1993).

Mourning rituals assist in the resolution of grief because they can help the bereaved to make a transition of social status and roles while providing opportunities for a public display of grief. Funerals may facilitate separation from the deceased by marking the finality of the death and initiating the grief process (Fulton 1995). They also provide an opportunity for performing religious rituals, expressing profound emotion, and reaching closure in the relationship with the deceased. The way in which social factors sanction the collective and the individual expressions of grief can be observed in the different funeral rituals prevalent around the world and in the United States. For example, a funeral in New Orleans, with mourners in a street procession following the coffin behind a jazz band, expresses a collective grief similar to that of U.S. midwestern mourners who follow a hearse in their cars on a busy highway. These ceremonies, however, express different degrees of social solidarity, involve different patterns of interaction among mourners, and allow for very different emotional expressions. The same can be said when one compares a solemn church funeral ritual for a wealthy and important person with the funeral of a working-class person. Even within the same religion, funeral rituals vary in the type and size of the locale in which they are held, in the presence or absence of music, and in the pageantry and ceremonials that reflect the station in life of the deceased.

In funerals, the expression of sorrow by relatives, friends, and acquaintances, regardless of their true feelings, is socially obligatory. Notwithstanding, cultures allow for varying opportunities for the individual expression of grief. Some require special dress, such as black suits, neckties, and armbands for men and black or white dresses for women. Others prescribe that mourners abstain from attending social activities such as parties, weddings, and the like for various periods of time. Funeral rites are one of the central ceremonies in which the bereaved are allowed and expected to release emotions publicly and to commemorate an individual’s death. These rituals also provide the bereaved with a defined social role to help them go through a period of adjustment following the death.


There is also considerable variation in mourning rituals and manifestations of grief among various ethnic groups. For example, it is apparent that in the United States African Americans express grief in some ways similar to and in other ways different from those commonly used by whites. These variations are also present within and across other social divisions; it is apparent that better-educated middle- and upper-class people tend to behave and believe differently than do poor and relatively uneducated individuals.

There are differences in mourning practices and in how death and grief are expressed among Southern Baptists, Northern Unitarians, and white and black Catholics. Southern American mourning practices involve organized and elaborate efforts to aid the bereaved during the various stages of grief. When the news of a death spreads in a black community, help arrives from the church “sisters,” who prepare meals and assist in many ways, and from the church “nurses,” who help with the body of the deceased. The pastor, along with the funeral director, assists with the services. Public manifestations of grief and sorrow in black funerals and throughout the grieving process vary considerably, and some black funerals have become more like those in the white community (Perry 1993).

It is important to mention that violent death is a familiar experience in many African American communities, and these violent deaths—from lynching, race riots, police brutality, and murders—have been followed by massive public expressions of grief. For example, in 2001, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, after the police killed a black male, there was a massive public expression of grief. In 2003, firehouses in Benton Harbor, Michigan, went up in flames in a riot following the killing of a black motorist by the local police in a high-speed chase. These and other acts of violence against the black community have been followed by expressions of grief unknown to other ethnic groups.

Among all ethnic groups, great value is given to community support and participation. Community participation seems more evident in small towns and rural areas than in the more urban centers where funeral rituals are completely commercialized. In urban areas, where more educated and secularized segments of the population live, professionally organized funeral rituals are common, community participation is minimal, and the arrangements of funerals are turned over to the professionals at a funeral home.


There is immense variation in the individual experience of grief because it is strongly influenced by psychological and social factors. The examination of social factors has shown that gender, age, religious beliefs, the circumstances of death, the type of relationship with the deceased, social support, and the public expression of grief have a significant impact on how persons respond to the loss. It is evident that the magnitudes of the losses that follow deaths, such as those that occur during a natural disaster, intensify the grief and delay its resolution. Each person takes a different path to recovery, and most are able to make the adjustment to the changes in circumstances created by the loss. The importance of social support and the public expression of grief have been emphasized as key factors in the successful resolution of grief.