Psychology, a science exploring human behavior and mental experience is interested in understanding why we do what we do, feel the way we do and think about things in particular ways. Psychology is also interested in helping people who suffer. In a previous post, I presented you with the ideas associated with attachment theory to demonstrate our social nature and need for others. Attachment theory is a seminal theory for understanding what happens when we can no longer be in a relationship with someone who provided us with important emotional support because of their death or some other form of separation. We make strong emotional connections to other people, particularly those responsible for our care, safety, and nurturing. While John Bowlby believed this connection is grounded in survival needs, theologically we might argue this connection forms between people because we are social creatures needing to connect to others. Again, that was addressed in the previous post.
In psychology, terms are immensely important. Up to this point, we’ve been talking about psychology in pretty general terms. In this chapter, we’re going to talk about a particular type of suffering called grief. While the words grief and mourning are often used interchangeably, there are distinctions we need to make in order to talk about the psychology of grief more accurately. When we talk about grief we’re talking about an individual’s subjective experience related to the death of a loved one. People “experience” grief. When we say someone is grieving we’re implying they’re experiencing a particular “state” of bio/psycho/social existence. Additionally, we cannot label grief as pathological. People who grieve are not necessarily in need of professional psychological help. I have often seen concerned family members ask their loved ones to talk to a professional shortly after someone dies. That’s not really necessary for most people. People in a state of grief are experiencing normal, or to use a more clinical term, “uncomplicated” grief. Uncomplicated grief is the way we psychologically heal the emotional wound caused by the trauma of losing someone incredibly important to us. You can think about it in the same way you understand what your body does when it’s healing from a physical wound. The soreness you experience is part of healing. Grief is the same as that sore experience your body feels when trying to heal from a physical wound. Grief after the death of someone you love and are deeply connected to such as a spouse, child, or parent is normal.
Having said that, there are times when grief can become pathological. Psychologists call pathological grief “complicated” grief. It is a type of grief that continues to impact an individual’s life to such a degree that they’re incapable of participating in their daily life routines. Yes, there will be a period of time in which someone experiencing grief is not able to go about their daily business, but after some period of time, it’s expected they will begin to engage life more and more as time goes on.
Uncomplicated grief is resolved effectively by a process called mourning. While grief, both complicated and uncomplicated is the subjective experience that follows the death of someone you love, mourning is the process one undergoes to facilitate the healing. It’s this process psychologists help people with because when mourning is completed appropriately people heal. When it’s not, people remain in a state of suffering
As we continue to explore suffering through these blog posts I am going to turn my attention on how we mourn, what happens when we can’t mourn, and how we deal with this complicated grief. It is difficult for those of us as Christians to mourn at times because we tend to believe our mourning is in some way a betrayal of the belief those who die in Christ live more fully with him in paradise. But this is not the case, and in fact, because we are human beings like all other human beings, we must honor the means God gives us to overcome grief and that way of overcoming grief is indeed through mourning.