1976: Funerals And Unresolved Grief After One Year Of Bereavement

Funeral Behavior and Unresolved Grief is the preliminary report of a psychiatric research project titled “Mortality and Grief Studies in Alachua County,” which was funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health. Its purpose was to study people with “unresolved grief” by comparing their “sociotemporal characteristics and funeral behaviors” with people whose grief was considered resolved.1

Subjects: 24 adults who had lost next-of-kin approximately a year earlier. 16 were under the age of 65, and 8 were over 65. Half were judged to have resolved their grief; the other half were still suffering from unresolved grief. Alachua County, Florida.

The idea that mourners who grieve for a longer time and/or more intensely than others are in any sense abnormal has been questioned by many people since the 1970s when this study was conducted. But whether classified as unresolved, complicated, traumatic, or by any other name, some grief experiences are more extreme than others. Without saying it is pathological, we can say some grief remains unresolved longer.

To better understand if there are certain external factors that might cause people to have longer-lasting grief, or certain behavior associated with long-lasting grief, researchers compared experiences of the two groups of subjects.

Based on the work of some scholars who suggested that the full experience of funeral ceremonies has a beneficial psychological effect, the study hypothesis was that “insufficient participation in funeral ceremonies” would be related to unresolved grief.

The full range of twentieth-century funeral elements were supposed to be important in helping people through grief. According to some writers of the time, participating in funeral rites would “allay suffering” and “promote the adjustment of individuals and the integration and survival of societies”. Psychiatry’s increasing concern with grief had even been attributed to the decline of the wake.

By providing meaning, confirming social status, helping a group adjust to the loss of a member, giving people something to do during a crisis, and providing comfort and an opportunity to share grief with others affected by a death, funeral ceremonies were supposed to help participants resolve their grief better than mourners who did not participate.

The study found the opposite.

A higher percentage of subjects who participated fully in funeral rites, including viewing the body and crying, were found to suffer from unresolved grief.

  • Subjects in the “unresolved” group participated fully in the funeral events—the “conventional” funeral of that era—which is what I have called the twentieth-century funeral.

  • Subjects with unresolved grief were personally in charge of arrangements at slightly higher rate than people in the resolved group.

  • Almost all of those in the unresolved grief group “viewed the body, attended the funeral service, attended the burial, and cried at the burial, compared to about 75 percent of those in the resolved grief group.”

  • Equal percentages of those with resolved grief and those with unresolved grief had received emotional support from family and friends.

  • Another surprising finding was that those whose loved one was ill for a longer time before death were more likely to have unresolved grief. “Anticipatory grief had not taken place.”

  • Viewing the embalmed body was not associated with healthy resolution of grief, as expected, but was more likely among those who suffered from unresolved grief.

  • One explanation for the findings, according to the researchers, might be found in the work of the psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes, who said that grief is “a process of realization.”

    According to Parkes, “reality testing” too early in the grief process—as the funeral invariably is—may do more harm than good. He says the funeral service is usually held “too soon after death to be of great positive psychological value for the bereaved.”

  • The researchers surmised that absence of a social support system may be a factor responsible for unresolved grief. The unresolved subjects “had received comfort and aid from family and friends during the funeral ceremonies, but for only a short time thereafter. Within weeks they felt lonely and bereft.”

    Isolation after the event may be more dangerous than missing out on parts of the funeral ceremonies.

  • Overall, the study found a “somewhat surprising lack of differences between the resolved and unresolved grief groups.”

  1. John J. Schwab et al., “Funeral Behavior and Unresolved Grief,” in Acute Grief and the Funeral, ed. Vanderlyn R. Pine et al. (Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas, 1976), 241–46