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How Might We Grieve in a Death-Denying Society? (Part 1)

Death is making its presence felt around me at the moment; in my work, in my family, in my circle of friends. So I’m thinking a lot about grieving, and the challenges of doing it in a society that would rather forget about death altogether.

Not so long ago, we generally did our dying at home, surrounded by the people we loved and the places we knew.

Now, more often than not, in the western world our dying is ‘outsourced’ in some way. Many of us will die in hospital and then be washed and dressed for our funeral by strangers. Handled ‘discretely’ behind closed doors.

All of this makes it easy for the whole business of dying, and therefore the business of grieving, to become taboo. Consequently, many people feel uncomfortable about grief (‘What should I say to the bereaved?’) and, collectively, it seems we’d rather that any grieving was kept quiet and ‘respectable’. 

So, in light of this,
how might we grieve when it comes time for us to do so?

Especially given that we no longer have the traditions that might once have protectively shrouded us in black clothing for weeks or months, and let others around us know that we were mourning. Instead, we’re now expected back at work, and back to ‘normal’, within days… 

There are theories about this stuff.
Some of the earlier theories on (western) grieving involved ‘steps’, ‘stages’, ‘tasks’ and goals to achieve.

For example, you probably know that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggested there were five stages of grief through which we might travel:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

And James William Worden envisioned a more active process of four tasks of mourning:

  • To accept the reality of the loss
  • To work through the pain of grief
  • To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
  • To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life

One commonality amongst most of the earlier grief theories was the idea that we ‘should’ ultimately ‘accept the death’ of the person and just ‘get on with life’ without them.

‘Failure’ (and that was often the word that was used) to achieve this was usually seen as problematic – a sign, perhaps, of a thing called ‘complicated grief’.

A sign of trouble…

But grief theory is evolving and can now embrace less linear, less predictable approaches. It’s starting to accept that each of us may have to find our own, often painful, path through the darkness. It’s starting to see that the territory of grieving changes with each unique relationship, and so perhaps cannot be completely mapped-out in advance. 

And, in the theory that resonates most for me, a different possibility altogether is foreshadowed: the idea of ‘continuing bonds’ (from Klass, Silverman & Nickelman).

Basically, this continuing bonds theory shelves the ideas of ‘letting go’ and ‘moving on’ in the way that many other grief theories define those things.

Instead, continuing bonds let us move toward our future without having to let go of everything from our past – and without having to completely ‘let go’ of the person who died.

So what about you?

Do any of these sorts of theories describe how grief actually feels in your life?

Or is it pointless to try to capture something as deeply felt and personal as grief can be?

Have there been  particular things that have helped you through grief or loss?

Maybe certain traditions or rituals?

Or maybe even social media?

In Part 2 of this blog post, we’ll look into the idea of ‘continuing bonds’ a little more… and see what you make of those, too.

Photo: Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar (Grad Dip Counselling & Psychotherapy) is a Sydney psychotherapist in private practice at One Life Counselling & Psychotherapy. Gabrielle also co-facilitates telephone support groups for people who are living with cancer, for their carers, and for people who have been bereaved through a cancer experience. She is the editor of a journal on counselling and psychotherapy, the author of a private practice blog, and she provides regular therapeutic updates on facebook and Twitter @OneLifeTherapy.

How Might We Grieve in a Death-Denying Society? (Part 1)

Gabrielle Gawne-Kelnar

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APA Reference
Gawne-Kelnar, G. (2014). How Might We Grieve in a Death-Denying Society? (Part 1). Psych Central. Retrieved on February 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Dec 2014
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