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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Nack

What is grief and how can people cope with it?


Grief is an unpleasant and unavoidable part of the human experience. It comes as a result of significant loss. It can look different depending on stage of life, cultural beliefs and values, it can be acute or last a long time, and the symptomatology of it can look different for everyone. Some people may even meet the criteria for major depressive disorder or other disorders as a result of it. Grief could also be the result of something other than death such as losing a relationship as a result of moving away or a breakup. Grief could even be a result of a non-relationship loss such as a big life change, an identity-shift, or even the change of a relationship dynamic with a loved one. In general, grief is a response to loss, in whatever form that may be. There is a belief in affective neuroscience that grief is actually essential for human survival, and it is necessary for maintaining social bonds. Even so it comes with risk such as increased risk of suicide (Peña-Vargas et al., 2021).

One researcher posits that in chronic stress due to loss, which is stress that lasts longer than 6 months, a failure to adapt leads to higher morbidity rates. Acute and chronic stress both show worse function at the biological level. In contrast, normative adaptation to loss led to normative morbidity rates. In other words, in the long term, being able to adapt to loss makes individuals no more likely than their peers without stress from loss to die. In terms of specific measurable health differences aside from mortality statistics, research has pointed to differences with rumination, inflammation, and cortisol disregulation between people who have adapted to loss and those who have not (O’Connor, 2019, pp. 731-738).

One way that many people tackle grief is through social support. Loneliness and poor social support can have a negative impact on physical, emotional and mental states, and is associated with earlier death as well. It can also have a negative impact on depression, psychosocial adjustment, coping skills, behavior that is not health promoting, well-being, quality of life, and self-actualization. Having strong social support seems to be a protective factor from these consequences, even on the purely biological health level. Quantity and quality of support seems to lead to better outcomes for people who are grieving, but the number of people that someone has in their social network does not guarantee well being. Quality of those relationships is important. Social support has been split into four categories: informational, instrumental, appraisal, and emotional. Informational support involves providing information, data, and resources to aid the bereaved. Instrumental support includes providing food, shelter, transportation, and/or money. Appraisal support involves providing information that is helpful in self-evaluation. Emotional support is showing compassion, empathy, caring etc. to the bereaved. While these types of support may not speed up the healing process, it may make it easier to cope. People often find family and friends to not be enough of a social support in times of bereavement, and people often need additional support. Counseling or support groups may be a good solution for people who feel they need that extra support. Additionally, the need for support continues past when people tend to stop receiving it. In a survey conducted on people who had lost a loved one, just over one third of the participants said their post-loss social support was good or excellent and 38% said it was poor or very poor. Of the participants that scored support as good or excellent included animals, support groups, counselors or therapists, and friends as making up over half of the support received. The majority of participants rated animals as highly satisfactory in social support for grief (Cacciatore et al., 2021).



Resources


  • Cacciatore J, Thieleman K, Fretts R, Jackson LB (2021) What is good grief support? Exploring the actors and actions in social support after traumatic grief. PLOS ONE 16(5): e0252324.

  • O'Connor M. F. (2019). Grief: A Brief History of Research on How Body, Mind, and Brain Adapt. Psychosomatic medicine, 81(8), 731–738.

  • Peña-Vargas, C., Armaiz-Peña, G., & Castro-Figueroa, E. (2021). A Biopsychosocial Approach to Grief, Depression, and the Role of Emotional Regulation. Behavioral Sciences, 11(8), 110.


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