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How do people deal with grief?

A place to say goodbye: the quiet room on the palliative ward in Universitätsklinikum Erlangen. (Image: FAU/David Hartfiel)

FAU-Psychologin untersucht, wie wir Verluste bewältigen

People often have to say farewell to loved ones. Some cope with grief better than others.

by Matthias Münch, translated by the FAU Language Service

No matter how far medical care has advanced – sooner or later, everyone has to die. It is inevitable that at some point in our life we will be confronted with the death of a close relative or friend and we will have to find a way to cope with this loss. It is well known that everyone grieves in different ways. It is less well known, however, that our ability to cope with loss and manage our emotions hinges on experiences made in early childhood.

Dr. Johanna Behringer from the Chair of Developmental Psychology and Educational Psychology at FAU, headed by Prof. Dr. Gottfried Spangler, is researching the connection between bonding experienced during early childhood and strategies for coping with loss. ‘Attachment goes hand in hand with separation,’ she says. ‘Even whilst grieving, most people are still able to reflect rationally on this.’ However, some people do not have the necessary emotional and cognitive resources. This handicap is often passed on from one generation to the next, at least to a certain extent: parents who had problems coping with loss or were affected by traumatic experiences in childhood, such as threats or sexual abuse, often suffer from what is known as a so-called ‘unresolved attachment status’. Mothers are particularly likely to pass this status on to their children, who are then in turn more likely to find it difficult to deal with feelings, both in general, but particularly in difficult situations. Within the framework of a longitudinal project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), Dr. Behringer is currently researching whether such psychological, emotional insecurity influences the reduced ability to process bereavement as an adult.

The logical connection counts

Since 2014, Dr. Behringer and her team have interviewed a total of 120 men and women from the Erlangen area, who have all at the time of the interview experienced a bereavement between two and four years previously. Adult attachment interviews were carried out with participants aged between 22 and 50, in order to discover their early bonding experiences and current attitude towards attachment. Dr Behringer explains: ‘We ask questions about the relationship to their parents both today and in the past, whom they turned to for comfort in stressful situations during childhood, whether they experienced rejection or were maybe even threatened. Of course, we also ask about the bereavement and their relationship to the person who has died.’ The unusual thing about this interview is that instead of analysing the specific content, the focus is on assessing the coherence of the statements, for example checking whether there is a logical connection between past experiences and the attitude the person being interviewed has today. During the interviews, the participants may give indirect but clear signals indicating that the loss has not been handled well. According to Johanna Behringer, ‘individuals with an unresolved attachment status are often disoriented during the interview. This can become apparent, for example, when their state of consciousness suddenly changes during the interview, if they become tied up in details or give contradictory facts about times and places. Some cannot reliably remember whether they were present at the event or not.’

Approximately 20 percent of those questioned, according to the preliminary results of the Erlangen research group, still have difficulties processing the loss of a relative or close friend even after several years have passed. After looking at the analysis of the data, it appears clear that this is connected to difficulties in perceiving and dealing with their own feelings, wishes and needs. A hopeless situation? ‘If a considerable length of time has passed since losing a loved one and individuals still feel they are unable to regain their previous sense of well-being or notice negative changes in the way they deal with feelings, these individuals should try to open up and discuss their problem as frankly as possible, seeking support from family or friends,’ says Behringer. Professional help is also on hand for people who do not have a social network such as this or who find it hard to turn to family or friends in this situation: psychotherapists, in particular those who take the affected person’s biography and background into account, can help them to deal more effectively with difficult thoughts and feelings, to regulate their emotions and allow the person to ‘mature’ through new emotional experiences. Going to counselling services or sharing experiences with people suffering from similar problems, either now or in the past, may also prove beneficial. Drop-in centres offering get-togethers for those suffering from grief might be one way to get into touch with others in the same situation.


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This article was originally published in our research magazine friedrich. The current issue deals with all aspects of the topic of ‘End’: which of them are unavoidable? How do people deal with this? What does it mean for individuals? Is what people define as the end really the end? Sometimes things just change or develop and something new is created. Occasionally, the end is not an issue at all, with the human race striving for eternity. Is it possible for us to understand this term at all? Is innovation infinite? And do we live forever – on the Internet?

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