Developmental Psychology

Unit 6 Developmental Psychology and Culture Subunit 2 Culture and Human Development: Adulthood and Old Age Article 3


How Death Imitates Life: Cultural Influences on Conceptions of Death and Dying James Gire Virginia Military Institute,

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Recommended Citation Gire, J. (2014). How Death Imitates Life: Cultural Influences on Conceptions of Death and Dying. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 6(2).



How Death Imitates Life: Cultural Influences on Conceptions of Death and Dying

AbstractAbstract Regardless of how or where we are born, what unites people of all cultures is the fact everyone eventually dies. However, cultures vary in how they conceptualize death and what happens when a person dies. In some cultures, death is conceived to involve different conditions, including sleep, illness, and reaching a certain age. In other cultures, death is said to occur only when there is a total cessation of life. Similarly, certain cultural traditions view death as a transition to other forms of existence; others propose a continuous interaction between the dead and the living; some cultures conceive a circular pattern of multiple deaths and rebirths; and yet others view death as the final end, with nothing occurring after death. These different conceptions have a noticeable influence on their lifestyles, their readiness to die for a cause, the degree to which they fear death, their expressions of grief and mourning, and the nature of funeral rituals. Any reasonably broad conceptualization of death issues would necessarily have to incorporate these various cultural variations.

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Two of the attributes that all humans share are the experiences of being born and the fact

that everyone would eventually die. Although we are excited about discussions concerning

birth, people in all cultures discuss death with extreme reluctance. However, even though

we may use the same words to describe death, the actual meaning and conceptualization

of death differs widely across cultures. The tendency for vast differences to occur in

conceptions about issues or events that, on the surface, seem very obvious is a major

reason why a cultural examination and analysis of every behavioral phenomenon should

almost be mandated. For example, eating is a behavior engaged in by most humans

several times a day. Yet, cultural variations in eating are enormous. Cultures vary in what

they eat, how they eat, when they eat and with whom. Even when cultures agree on what

should be eaten, differences arise in how it is prepared, who is expected to eat the given

item, and at what stage in time and age.

Kagawa-Singer (1998) provides a very fitting analogy of cultural diversity using

weaving as an example. Although weaving is a universal technique, the patterns that result

from this process are culturally unique and identifiable. Thus, even when they use the

same materials, patterns used in Navajo, Chinese, Persian, Japanese and French

tapestries are recognizable not only in terms of colors, but also of patterns and textures.

This range of diversity applies to issues about death and dying. In this respect, then,

issues of death imitate those of life. This reading explores some of the cultural variations in

death and dying, and discusses how these differences at once derive from a given

culture’s world view as well as influences its approach to death. These are manifested in

conceptions about death, death anxiety, bereavement, and burial rituals.

Conceptions of Death

The difficulty of having a unitary view of death or the death experience can be better

appreciated when we realize that it is problematic to even define what we mean by death.

For more than a hundred years, the clinical definition, referring to the absence of heartbeat

and respiration, was the basis on which a person was deemed to be dead. However,

advances in medical technology that made it possible for vital signs to be sustained by

machines, led to the modifications in this definition to whole brain death, which refers to

death as either the “irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or

irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem”

(President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical

and Behavioral Research, 1981, p. 4). Established alongside this definition are eight

criteria, all of which must be met before a person is declared dead: absence of

spontaneous response to any stimuli; completely unresponsive to even the most painful

stimuli; lack of spontaneous respiration for at least one hour; absence of postural activity,

swallowing, yawning, or vocalizing; no eye movements, blinking, or pupil responses; a flat

electroencephalogram (EEG) for at least 10 minutes; a total absence of motor reflexes;

and that there ought not to be any change in the above criteria if tested again after 24


Gire: Cultural Influences on Conceptions of Death and Dying

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hours. This definition not only represents a largely Western conception of death, but is also

a basically medical definition of the concept.

To complicate matters, there is no complete agreement even within the medical

definition as to what exactly constitutes death, or for that matter, precisely when death is

ascertained to have occurred. Stringently applied, this whole brain death definition requires

ruling out other conditions that might appear similar to death such as a deep coma.

Moreover, some insist that the cessation of brain activity must occur both in the cortex and

in the brainstem. The cortex processes higher level functions such as consciousness, the

kind of things that make us uniquely human. The brainstem, on the other hand, controls

vegetative functions such as respiration. When a person’s cortical functions cease (in

other words, the person is not conscious), but his or her brainstem activities such as

heartbeat and respiration continue, they are said to be in a persistent vegetative state, a

condition from which they are unlikely to recover. This condition can come about from

several causes – massive traumatic head injury, stoppage of blood flow to the brain or

even drug overdose. The person stands almost no chance of regaining consciousness but

is not declared as dead. They are technically alive, in a state that Jennet and Plum (1972)

referred to as wakefulness without awareness, but only as an artifact of modern

technology. Because this can, and has presented family members with serious ethical

challenges, some in the scientific and philosophical communities have called for the

replacement of the whole brain definition with that of cortical brain standard – the

irreversible loss of capacity for consciousness (e.g., Steen, 2007; Truog, 2004). Based on

this proposed standard, a person in a permanent coma who met the criteria for persistent

vegetative state would be declared dead. The same person would be deemed to be alive

under the whole brain dead standard.

The foregoing reflects the difficulty and controversy involved in defining death even

within the medical or Western perspective. Not surprisingly, conceptions and definitions of

death vary widely across cultures. According to Counts and Counts (1985), some South

Pacific cultures believe that life, as is generally construed, departs the body of a person in

different situations, such as when one is ill or asleep. Thus conceptualized, people can be

said to “die” several times before the final death. This also means that a person can be

defined as dead without meeting many of the criteria listed in the above definition or

definitions found in the social and medical literature.

The differences in conceptions about death extend to what exactly happens when

one is dead, however defined. Some religious and cultural traditions, such as Hinduism,

envision a circular pattern of life and death where a person is thought to die and is reborn

with a new identity. This exit and reentry into life can occur multiple times. This contrasts

with the Christian view where death is believed to occur only once. However, Christians do

not believe that everything ceases at death. The person sheds his or her bodily form but

continues on in spirit where there are consequences: the faithful – believers who kept the

faith – are rewarded with eternal joy in heaven, and sinners proceed to hell where there is

endless pain and suffering. Among some Native American tribes and certain segments of

Buddhism, the dead and the living coexist, and the dead can influence the well-being of

the living. If the dead (ancestral spirits) are properly propitiated, the likely outcome is a


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benevolent spirit that protects the interests of the living. If not accorded the appropriate

treatment, the result is an unhappy spirit that may ignore the wellbeing of the living,

leading to misery. There are, of course, some cultures in which death signals an abrupt

and permanent disengagement. In some instances, people are prohibited from even

mentioning the names of the deceased in the fear that doing so may actually endanger the

lives of the living or prevent the ghost from leaving this earth and attaining peace.

Irrespective of how death is defined, each culture has notions of how death ought to

occur. Kellahear (1990) makes a distinction between an “acceptable death” and a “good

death” for the person who is dying. An acceptable death is said to be non-dramatic,

disciplined, and with very little emotion. This is the atmosphere that seems to exist in

structured settings such as hospitals in the West where most people die. On the other

hand, a good death is said to be one that allows for social adjustments and personal

preparation by the dying person and his or her family. This is a time when the dying person

attempts to complete unfinished tasks, to say farewells, and for the family to begin to

prepare for life without the dying. Among the Kwahu-Tafo of Ghana, a good death is one in

which the dying person has accomplished most of what he or she set out to do and has

made peace with others before dying (van der Geest, 2004). In Nigeria, death of one that

has lived a long, and for the most part a successful, life can often be inferred from the

nature of the captions in their obituaries. In such cases, the preambles go along the lines

of “with gratitude to God for a life well spent….” captions that would never be seen for one

that has died an early death or death that has occurred under very tragic circumstances.

Yet in other societies, a good death may be one in which a person dies in service of his

country or religion; in other words, the person is regarded as a martyr (Rosenblatt, 2008).

It is important to examine these cultural variations in conceptions of death and dying

because they have significant implications on how people act in life, how they approach

death, whether or not they fear death, and on their funeral and bereavement practices. An

obvious implication of how notions about death and dying influence actions is the

phenomenon of suicide bombings. This is a fairly recent phenomenon, believed to have

started in the early 1980’s by Lebanon’s Shi’ite extremist Muslim group Hezbollah, which

was influenced by the way Iran used humans as minesweepers in their war against Iraq.

By 1994, two Palestinian groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad took up the practice. Initially,

only a few people joined the suicide squads, and even then, with little enthusiasm. They

had to be subjected to several months of training in what appeared to be extreme

indoctrination. Today, people willingly compete for the privilege of being selected into the

suicide squads. The major change from the initial reluctance and the current enthusiasm

seems to be the modification in their conception of death and what awaits them after


According to some Islamic teachings, the great Prophet Mohamed stated that the

sins of a shahid or martyr (as the suicide bombers are called by their compatriots) will be

forgiven when he sheds his first drop of blood. In addition, he can admit 70 relatives to

paradise and will personally be married to 72 beautiful virgins upon his arrival in paradise

(Van Biema, 2001). Although this approach to death is said to be associated with the

Islamic faith, this represents a clear case of how religion interacts with other aspects of


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culture. It also represents the manner in which extended interactions between cultures and

groups, especially in the age of information technology, have influenced cultural and

religious practices around the world. Until just a few years ago, the practice of suicide

bombings appeared to be localized to the Middle East and was almost nonexistent among

millions of practicing Muslims in other parts of the world. However, this practice has spread

to countries such as Nigeria where the Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group, has used

suicide bombings to attack churches and other government or symbols reflecting Western

values (e.g., the suicide attack on the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, the capital)

primarily in northern Nigeria (Roggio, 2012). The other implications of the varying

conceptions of death and dying are discussed in greater detail in the next few sections.

Death Anxiety: The Fear of Death

One of the few outcomes that we all share is the certainty that we shall one day come

face-to-face with death. Notwithstanding this reality, most humans would rather not

contemplate the idea of reaching the ultimate end of our sojourn on earth. Thus, the most

common response to the thought of one’s death, or the death of other loved ones, is fear.

For almost 30 years researchers employing the social psychological perspective have

used terror management theory to explain death anxiety (Burke, Martens, & Faucher,

2010; Tam, 2013. Terror management theory (Solomon, Greenberg, & Psyzczynski, 1991;

2004) posits that both humans and other animals have an instinctive drive for self-

preservation. Humans, however, have evolved advanced and complex cognitive abilities

that enable them to not only be self-aware, but also to anticipate future outcomes. These

sophisticated cognitive abilities make possible the awareness of the inevitability of death –

and that it can occur at any time. Thus, the friction between the desire for self-preservation

and the awareness that death is inevitable and unpredictable can induce feelings of

anxiety and terror whenever situations arise that remind them of their mortality. From the

terror management point of view, then, much of behavior is motivated to deal with this

potential death anxiety or terror, and can influence such behavior in both positive and

negative ways. On the positive side, this viewpoint suggests that people who are afraid of

dying tend to do whatever it takes to ensure that they stay alive. Staying alive contributes

to the continuity and socialization of the species because people so driven are more likely

to want to have children and to raise them according to their society’s acceptable

standards. This is perhaps why every president of the United States tries to make an

enduring contribution that would be recorded as a legacy of his administration. However,

the same death anxiety can become a destructive force and could even result in both

physical and mental problems.

Death anxiety is a multifaceted construct that is difficult to define but has been

conceptualized to include: fear of death of oneself; fear of death of others; fear of dying of

self; and fear of the dying of others. In addition, each of these components can be

examined at the public, private, and non-conscious levels. Thus, the fears about death that

we may relay publicly may differ from what we may believe and express privately, which


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may be different from the fears that we may not even be consciously aware that we are

exhibiting. Due to the complexity of this construct, death anxiety is likely to manifest itself

in various ways. One of the most obvious ways in which we display death anxiety is

through avoidance (e.g., Kastenbaum, 1999). Avoidance may involve a public as well as a

conscious manifestation of death anxiety. Some people consciously refuse going to

funerals or visiting friends and loved ones who are dying because it makes them uneasy or

uncomfortable. Unconsciously, the person may avoid doing so because he or she is too

busy to attend to these obligations. Other people may display death anxiety by engaging in

activities that seem to confront or defy death (Kalish, 1984); they may repeatedly engage

in risky activities such as skydiving, and rock climbing, or may become soldiers of fortune.

Other people could express death anxiety through changes in lifestyles, use of humor, or

getting involved in jobs that deal with death such as funeral parlors or retirement facilities

for the very old. They may also make changes in physical appearance. This might account

for why some people may undertake cosmetic surgery – by making themselves appear

younger, it might help reduce the anxiety that death might be approaching (Tam, 2013).

Even though there is some evidence of death anxiety in almost every society,

cultures vary widely in the magnitude to which death anxiety is expressed. Some cultures

appear to manage the idea of dying comparatively well that they are referred to as death-

affirming societies; in other cultures, the aversion to the idea of dying is so strong that they

can be classified as death-denying or death-defying cultures. The United States, and

probably most of the societies in the West, is a death-denying/defying society where even

the idiom of expression is that of resistance. People also conjure images of fighting illness,

or fighting the enemy (death) (Kalish & Reynolds, 1981). On the other hand, other

societies appear to be more accepting of death. Eastern cultural beliefs are said to largely

conceive of death as a mere transition, and that the most effective way to defeat death is

to accept it as a primary fact of life. In contrast, Western traditions incorporate materialistic

views and also equate death of body with death of self, and thus should result in higher

death anxiety. Consistent with this premise, Schumaker, Barraclough and Vagg (1988)

found higher death anxiety scores among Australian (Western cultural viewpoints)

participants than Malaysian participants that displayed Eastern cultural beliefs about


Considering that death anxiety is a multifaceted concept, it stands to reason that

differences would exist between cultural groups or ethnicities on different aspects of death

anxiety. In a study using a multifaceted measure called The Multidimensional Fear of

Death Scale (MFODS; Hoelter, 1979; Neimeyer & Moore, 1994), DePaola, Griffin, Young,

and Neimeyer (2003) found significant differences between elderly African Americans and

Caucasian Americans on different dimensions rather than on more global death concerns.

Specifically, Caucasians showed higher death anxiety on the MFODS Fear of the Dying

Process subscale than their older African American counterparts. According to DePaola et

al. (2003), death anxiety about the process of dying may be higher in Caucasian American

elderly because the majority of Whites are likely to die in hospitals, nursing homes,

hospices, or other institutions (Aiken, 1994). Thus, older Caucasians may fear dying in

hospitals or nursing homes where they are very likely to be isolated from family members.


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Another reason for this difference may be related to the finding by Hummert and

Nussbaum (2001) that dying patients who are able to communicate report that they often

suffer moderate to severe pain during the last weeks of their lives that did not seem to be

alleviated by medication. Therefore, the fear of a prolonged and painful dying process,

particularly for older adults who are institutionalized, may be a rational response to their

experiences. It also could explain why Caucasian families are more receptive of palliative

care interventions at the terminal stages of their lives.

In contrast, African American participants in DePaola et al.’s (2003) study were more

anxious than their Caucasian counterparts on the Fear of the Unknown, Fear of

Consciousness When Dead, and Fear of the Body after Death subscales of MFODS.

According to the authors, these are fears that might dispose African American elderly

toward extending life by any means possible. This interpretation appears to be supported

by the research finding that African Americans are more likely than Caucasians to want

aggressive treatment at the end of life (Mouton, 2000). However, African Americans show

very little anxiety on comfort care at the end of life, probably due to the traditional

involvement of the family in providing care and support during terminal stages of their

illness (Brown, 1990).

One of the interesting questions that has arisen in the discussion of cultural or

societal differences in death anxiety has centered on the factors underlying these

differences – that is, what are the variables within these cultures that give rise to

differences in death anxiety? An obvious basis for explaining cultural differences in death

anxiety derives from the terror management theory (Solomon et al., 1991, 2004) discussed

earlier. Based on the theory’s basic premise, humans have a profound fear of death, and

in order to cope with this fear, they have created a number of world views, such as the

belief in life after death, in order to manage this anxiety. Therefore, religiosity as a cultural

variable has received one of the most extensive examinations with respect to death

anxiety. The implication is that people who come from cultures whose religious beliefs

encompass a belief in afterlife would express less death anxiety than those in which

afterlife beliefs do not form an important part of the religion.

The efforts to verify the role of religiosity in death anxiety through empirical research

have yielded inconsistent findings. Duff and Hong (1995) conducted a survey of 674 older

adults and found that death anxiety was significantly associated with the frequency of

attending religious services. This factor was particularly related to the belief in life after

death. However, another study found a strong negative correlation between death anxiety

and a belief in afterlife (Alvarado, Templer, Bresler, & Thomson-Dobson, 1995). That is, as

the degree of certainty in afterlife increased, levels of death anxiety decreased. This was

more explicitly confirmed in a later study by Wink (2006) using mainly Caucasian Christian

elderly in the U.S. He found that the relationship between religiousness and death anxiety

was not as straightforward as may have been implied by these previous studies. Rather,

religiousness interacted with a strong belief in a rewarding afterlife in predicting death

anxiety. In other words, it was the consistency between a person’s religious beliefs and

afterlife, rather than religiousness in itself that predisposed the individual to either fear or

not fear death. Neither variable by itself was a good predictor of death anxiety.


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In a cross-cultural and cross-religious exploration of this belief in afterlife variable,

Parsuram and Sharma (1992) compared people of three different religions in India:

Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. They found that Hindus (who had the greatest belief in

life after death) also tested lowest in death anxiety, followed by the Muslims, while the

Christians showed the highest death anxiety. A few years later, Roshdieh, Templer,

Cannon, and Canfield (1999) studied death anxiety and death depression among 1,176

Iranian Muslims who had war-related exposure during the Iran-Iraq war. They found that

those who scored higher on death anxiety were those who also had weaker religious

beliefs, did not believe in life after death, and did not assert that the notion of the existence

of life after death was the most important aspect of religion.

A plausible explanation for these seemingly contradictory findings comes from the

fact that a majority of the studies, about 95% of them, have used written questionnaires

(Neimeyer, Moser, & Winkowski, 2003). To compound matters, with the exception of a few

studies (e.g., Abdel-Khalek, 2002), very few of the instruments used in studies of death

anxiety ask the “why” question, so that we see differences in death anxiety without much

appreciation for the reasons underlying these differences. In a study that was more

nuanced with respect to religiosity and the belief in after death component, Morris and

McAdie (2009) compared Christians, Muslims and a non-religious group on death and

hypothesized that followers of the two religious groups (both incorporate a belief in

afterlife) would score lower on death anxiety than the non-religious group. They found

instead that Christians scored significantly lower on death anxiety than both Muslims and

the non-religious group. However, Muslims scored significantly higher than the non-

religious group. A closer examination of the responses showed that whereas the Christian

participants in the sample dwelt on themes of heaven and eternal life, Muslim participants

showed uncertainty in the outcomes following afterlife. Some of the Muslim participants

indicated that they did not know whether they were good Muslims or not and therefore

were unsure of their ultimate fate – if they would go to heaven or hell. Thus, in line with

Rose and O’Sullivan (2002), it is the reward expectation of afterlife rather than a mere

belief in it that is associated with low death anxiety. Even if a person believes in life after

death but the person also happens to expect to encounter punishment and not reward,

such a person would display much higher death anxiety than even those who do not

believe in an afterlife.

A fairly clear picture that has emerged from the foregoing findings is that studies on

death anxiety need to go beyond simply finding out whether people in certain cultures

score high or low on death anxiety, but should strive to identify the underlying factors

responsible for a given score. This could entail using more in-depth approaches to

exploring this construct. Using an ethnographic approach, Kawano (2011) examined death

anxiety and attitudes toward personal death among members of the Grave-Free Promotion

Society (GFPS) in Japan. Historically, most of Japanese funeral rites have required the

deceased to be cremated and the ashes put in a jar and buried in a family plot to be cared

for by the oldest male in the family. This would enable the deceased to become a

venerated ancestor. The presumption was that the peaceful rest and successful

transformation of the dead would be seriously compromised if the family (the oldest male


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in particular) failed to acquire and care for the burial place at the family plot, the desired

resting place.

Major changes over the last few decades, both in the immediate and broader society

– reduction in family size, industrialization, and urbanization – meant that there were fewer

people left to carry out these functions, and a reduced likelihood of finding grave

successors. Even the families with older males willing to play this role at times found

themselves in cities far away from the family burial sites, increasing the likelihood that the

proper care of the deceased would be compromised. Thus, death anxiety was high among

families that did not meet these criteria; the implication was that they too, upon their death,

would not make the desired transition to the venerated status of ancestor, or would have to

burden family members or willing strangers in taking upon this burden. The GFPS was a

movement to cremate the deceased and scatter their ashes, thus returning the dead to

nature, in place of conventional interment of cremated remains in a family grave. Finding

an alternative to the traditional burial practice has been shown to substantially reduce

death anxiety among members of the GFPS. In other words, death anxiety among this

group was not because of lack of acceptance of their mortality, but because they had yet

to find an acceptable plan to accommodate their concerns about what would transpire after

their death. This is an important distinction, for it implies an anxiety that is unrelated to the

person’s fear of dying or the process of dying. Rather, the anxiety is based on what would

become of the person long after they are gone, given the uncertainty of identifying family

members willing and able to perform these important posthumous rituals.

There are many reasons why it is important to study and understand death anxiety,

prominent among these is the fact that death anxiety is associated with psychological well-

being, especially among the elderly. As the research presented in this section has shown,

culture is an important variable that moderates levels of death anxiety. However, simply

classifying cultures as high or low on death anxiety without uncovering the underlying

variables accounting for the differences is not, in itself, very helpful. The findings by

Kawano (2011) and other studies based on similar methodologies illustrate the need to

engage in in-depth explorations of the sources of death anxiety. Ability to find grave

successors has been found to be a major factor underlying death anxiety among the

Japanese elderly. Different factors might underlie death anxiety in other societies. This

also underscores the point that there are likely no (or at the most very few) culture-free

prescriptions of dealing with death anxiety. Therefore, counselors, social workers, and

other practitioners must show extreme sensitivity to, and consider cultural or societal

variables operating in the populations they serve, to enhance the likelihood of providing

effective interventions.

Grief and Bereavement

Events leading to death such as terminal illness do not end with the death of the dying

person. In fact, all humans, including the dying, experience grief as a response to

impeding or resultant death. Worden (2009) defines grief as the personal emotional


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reactions (e.g., sadness, anger, and guilt) that follow a loss. Bereavement refers to the

experiences that follow the death of a loved one, while mourning is the process through

which grief is expressed. Mourning thus represents the culturally accepted expression of

the personal feelings that follow the death of a loved one. There is a wide variation across

cultures in how people behave after a death and how they are expected to behave.

Regardless of the specific ways in which the grief process is manifested, it is postulated to

involve many themes and issues that people invariably confront (Kubler-Ross & Kessler,

2005). In some cultures, close relatives are expected to shave their heads, wear either

white or black clothing, and express grief for a specified minimum period of time. In other

cultures, mourning involves a lot of drinking, dancing, and in some cases, a person within

a certain kinship position is expected to marry the spouse of the deceased. In yet other

cultures, the requirements for dealing with a major loss are played out over the balance of

the lifetime of the survivor. This could be in form of rituals, what is worn, how one is to be

addressed by others, and one’s rights and obligations to participate in various activities

within the community (Rosenblatt, 1997).

Despite these differences, there are also some similarities. For example, grief

reactions expressed in the form of crying, fear and anger are so common as to be deemed

universal. Also, most cultures provide sanction for the expression of these emotions in

rites of mourning that follow bereavement (Parkes, Laungani, & Young, 1997). This led to

the suggestion that grief or mourning may involve a specific sequence – that grieving was

a process that consists of stages or phases (e.g., Parkes, 1972). However, the stage or

phase theories have many shortcomings; they imply a fairly rigid stages through which the

bereaved must pass, and the implication that there is an invariant sequence in some

instances linked to time (Worden & Winokuer, 2011). The presumption of an end-point by

way of recovery is also problematic.

An alternative approach views the grieving process in terms of tasks (Worden, 2009;

Worden & Winokuer, 2011), not stages or phases, because of the implied passivity on the

part of mourners embedded in these two terms. Tasks imply some action on the part of the

mourner, and suggest that the grieving process can be subject to external intervention.

Indeed, Ivanovich and Wong (2008) have suggested that whereas people do not have

control over bereavement, they can and do have choices in the grieving that can range

from confronting the reality and emotions associated with the loss, to using religion as a

way of assuaging the pain and anguish. This tends to provide some hope that there is

something the bereaved can actively do about the situation. Worden (2009) and Worden

and Winokuer (2011) propose four tasks of mourning.

Task 1: Acknowledge the reality of the loss. This acknowledgement has to be

both at the cognitive and emotional levels. A person may believe that a loved one

is dead, but might still check the person’s bedroom to see if they are in there. This

uncertainty about whether or not the loss has occurred is common but must be

overcome before the mourner can deal with the emotional reality of the loss. This

can be enhanced by viewing the corpse, attending memorial services, and



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Task 2: Process the pain of grief. This can be very challenging as some deaths

are really painful to process. Death of a child, especially suddenly, can present

serious issues for the bereaved. The pain may be so intense that the person

might appear to be stuck in guilt, anger, sadness, etc. In certain cases they may

manifest in somatic form or reappear months or even years later (Worden &

Winokuer, 2011). Trying to avoid pain can actually prolong the course of

mourning and may lead to what is termed abnormal grief (a concept that is

discussed in greater detail in the next section).

Task 3: Adjust to a world without deceased. This task involves several

adjustments – external, internal, an spiritual (Worden & Winokuer, 2011). An

example of external adjustments refers to the activities and roles that changed

significantly following the death of a loved one. In case of marital couples, if the

deceased was principally responsible for preparing meals, the survivor may

encounter difficulties adjusting to this new reality. Internal adjustments may

involve modified self-definitions, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Suddenly realizing

that one is a widow or widower, or an orphan may require a serious readjustment.

Spiritual adjustments may challenge an individual’s faith. A person who lost some

siblings during a war seriously questioned the existence of God as he found it

difficult to believe that a just and powerful God would allow such a fate to befall

innocent children.

Task 4: Finding a way to develop an enduring connection with the deceased

even as they embark on a new life. People sometimes feel that it may be a

betrayal to the deceased loved one if they somehow do not keep a permanent

presence for them. They may do so by keeping intact the deceased person’s

room, as if the person was still there. The requirements for this fourth task is to

find a way for the bereaved to stay connected with the deceased but in ways that

enable them embark on their new life without the deceased. This could be by

finding a more suitable place for the deceased in the life of the survivor so as to

enable the survivor live an effective life. For example, the name of the deceased

could be given to a newborn offspring of a relative.

Many theories have been proposed to account for the grieving process, among which

include the attachment, cognitive, psychodynamic and general life-event theories (Stroebe

& Archer, 2013; Stroebe, Schut, & Boerner, 2010). Each of the theories derive more or

less from broad general theories and thus appear inadequate to be usefully applied to

explain the grief process. Consequently, two integrative approaches have been proposed

to more specifically enhance the understanding of how people process grief. These are the

four-component and the dual process models of grief and bereavement.

The four-component model, which is based largely on emotion theory and has some

commonalities with the transactional model of stress, suggests that four things are needed

in order to understand grief: the first is the context in which the loss occurred – death could


Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, Unit 6, Subunit 2, Chapter 3




be expected or unexpected; sudden or gradual. The second is the continuum of meaning

associated with the loss. This could range from examining what one may do on an

everyday basis to reflecting on the long-term and substantial issues of what the loss

entails. The third issue deals with changing the representations of the lost relationship over

time. As time passes, the survivor may begin to modify their previous roles and begin to

adapt to new ways of functioning. The fourth is the part that coping and emotion regulation

processes play in all coping strategies that survivor uses in dealing with grief (Bonanno,

Westphal, & Mancini, 2011; Bonanno, 2009). These issues involved in the four-component

model clearly indicate that processing grief is complicated and its outcome is often

unclear, and becomes evident only after some passage of time.

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