For many years, we have conducted research on people who have suddenly lost a loved one after mass death disasters and single incidents such as suicide, homicide, accident, or sudden child death. We have found that society treats the bereaved differently, depending on whether the death occurs singly or as part of many at once. Is it true, as many seem to assume, that grief is easier to bear when it receives attention from mainstream society? Alternatively, are there advantages to having a more private grief?
The term «infernal single-grief» was used by a father, who, in a thought-provoking article in a Norwegian newspaper, described his lonely sorrow after losing two young daughters by two different modes of deaths (Kløvstad, 2015). Both he and others (Hansson, 2015) have described their own and others’ experiences after a major event, and such experiences have once again attracted much media attention. Significant events are remembered and memorized over time, assisted by governments, communities, and support associations. In contrast, one’s own «single» grief gets little attention outside the close family, especially as time passes. After experiencing a single fatality, the bereaved emphasized that it is not about envy when they express their frustration that the deaths of their loved ones happened in the same way as others (e.g., murder). Instead, they were frustrated that they are treated differently by their support system and society at large, as well as by their social networks. Some said that they felt forgotten and that their own losses seemed to be less important.
Previous research has documented that municipal services have not always been aware of those who are bereaved by a sudden single fatality. This oversight has resulted in the bereaved not receiving the necessary assistance (Dyregrov, 2003). Everyone who is bereaved needs recognition of the loss he or she has suffered. However, those who experience a single fatality may feel less supported than those who are bereaving big events (catastrophes).
Great society’s focus is both supportive and burdensome
After the terrorist killings in Utøya, we interviewed 22 parents whose children had been murdered. They explained that the great attention paid by the mainstream society had been both supportive and stressful (Dyregrov, Kristensen, Johnsen, and Dyregrov, 2015). We consider it important to describe this phenomenon in order to create a balanced argument and to show how attention from mainstream society is not always a good thing.
The extensive public empathy expressed by the King and Prime Minister in the wake of the Norwegian tragedy, with a rose parade, memorials, etc., was a great support and comfort to many. One mother said, «I felt that every soul who cried with us had an immense importance, and I have lived for a long time on this public support.» Yet there were also many bereaved who did not perceive or were not ready to receive the massive support. They were still in shock or had not yet received final confirmation of their loved one’s death.
However, they felt that they received better help from the support system because «when I say that I have lost my daughter at Utøya, everyone knows what it is. I do not need to explain anything more; everyone is familiar with the case, somehow. Had she died in an accident, I would perhaps have to explain a little more. We do not have to» (a mother).
The bereaved parents also found that the government’s implementation of systematic and proactive follow-up of municipalities, national weekend gatherings with other bereaved parents and professionals, and collective visits to Utøya were supportive measures (Dyregrov, Dyregrov, Straume, and Grønvold Bugge, 2014; Dyregrov et al., 2015). They were aware that these measures were arranged due to the event’s major scale.
When the private grief drowns in the national trauma
However, there are also stressful aspects stemming from the strong focus mass death disasters receive. Although such aspects are rarely discussed or recognized, many of the bereaved Utøya parents have had such experiences. They pointed out that while the trauma (i.e., the terrorist act) is a national matter, the consequences, first and foremost, represented a great personal grief for individuals and families (Dyregrov & Kristensen, 2015).
Furthermore, because the event and its consequences are closely linked, the personal grief of those who had lost a loved one was affected by the sustained attention associated with the event and everything that happened in relation to it. In particular, the parents described how their «personal grief [got] drowned in public noise.» They experienced a delayed grief process, partly because of the enormous media attention, the sane proportionality assessments of the perpetrator, the trial, the commission work and report, and the memorial discussions. These events did not give enough space and time for private grieving. The consequence for many was that their grief process was put on hold for the first year and, «in a way, we lived in a vacuum.»
Some parents also pointed out that because the event was a great societal concern, their private grief became public. One mother expressed it this way: «It was so hard; we had so little of the private grief in a way because everything concerned everyone. Although Johnsen on the corner did not have someone who was affected, the attack on Norway concerned everybody.» Even two to three years after the event, some parents had trouble distinguishing between what was private and what was public in relation to their grief process. One mother stated, «…In a way, I cannot maintain my private grief when there are so many other people experiencing the same thing. My child has become a crowd of deaths.» Many felt that they had no emotional capacity to accommodate everyone else’s grief. Yet they could not avoid hearing about everyone else’s pain on top of their own.
Another consequence of large events is that the media affects personal grief. After the Utøya terror, many of the bereaved parents felt that they could not personally control when they wanted to, or had the energy to, relate to their grief. One father explained, «Because it has been so public, we have also been confronted with the event and loss when we wanted to distract ourselves from it—on TV, on the radio, and in newspapers.» Another aspect of the media exposure was that everyone knew who was killed, the exact place where they had been killed, and how they had been killed. The dilemma then was that if the bereaved wanted to shield themselves from the media, they would risk their neighbour knowing more about their own child than they themselves did.
The important oscillation between dealing with the loss and the event, while distancing themselves from it and taking steps to move forward in life (Stroebe & Schut, 2010), might thus be disturbed by external circumstances beyond the bereaved parents’ control. As previous research has highlighted, it is very important that the bereaved find their own pace and way of grieving, both for themselves and their families. If one is constantly drawn into the painful images and reports in the media, the emotional burden will be so overwhelming that «…the grief work stops; it has been stopped all the time and put back, simply» (a mother). As other parts of our study show, the bereaved need to avoid and distance themselves from the constant barrage (Dyregrov, Kristensen, & Dyregrov, submitted).
All of the bereaved must be recognized and receive the necessary support and assistance
Grief processes are individual and are influenced by the various contexts the bereaved people live in. From the reports of the bereaved, we see that regardless of whether the death occurs individually or simultaneously with many others, the grief process is influenced by additional burdens or factors that may facilitate it (see Table 1).
What is crucial for the necessary support of everyone experiencing a loss is that mainstream society, professionals, and social networks understand and respect the different situations of the bereaved. Thus, professionals and networks should encourage the bereaved to alternately relate to the loss and try to move on with life (Stroebe & Schut, 2010).
We must understand and respect the different situations of the bereaved.
Dyregrov, A., Dyregrov, K., Straume M., & Grønvold Bugge, R. (2014). Weekend family gatherings for bereaved after the terror killings in Norway in 2011. Scandinavian Psychologist, 1, e8. doi: 10.15714/scandpsychol.1.e8.
Dyregrov, K. (2003). The loss of child by suicide, SIDS, and accidents: Consequences, needs and provisions of help. Doctoral dissertation (dr. philos). HEMIL, Psykologisk fakultet. Universitetet i Bergen. ISBN 82-7669-099-8.
Dyregrov, K., & Kristensen, P. (2015). Utøya 22. juli 2011 – senfølger for etterlatte foreldre [Utøya July 22nd 2011 – Sequela for bereaved parents]. Scandinavian Psychologist, 2, e13. doi: 10.15714/scandpsychol.2.e13.
Dyregrov, K., Kristensen, P., & Dyregrov, A. (submitted). Etterlattes opplevelser av medienes rapportering etter Utøya terroren [Bereaveds’ experiences of the media reporting after the Utøya terror]. Norsk Medietidsskrift.
Dyregrov, K., Kristensen, P., Johnsen, I., & Dyregrov, A. (2015). The psycho-social follow-up after the terror of July 22nd 2011 as experienced by the bereaved. Scandinavian Psychologist, 2, e1. doi: 10.15714/scandpsychol.2.e1.
Hansson, K. M. (2015, 22 December). Til deg som ikke mistet noen i Paris [To you who did not lose anyone in Paris]. Psykologisk.no.
Kløvstad, B. A. (2015, 9 February). Vi som sørger alene over våre døde. Uten pomp eller prakt, uten konge, uten statsminister [We who are mourning our dead alone. Without glory, without the King, without the Prime Minister]. Kronikk, Aftenposten.
Stroebe, M., & Schut, H. (2010). The dual process model of coping with bereavement: A decade on. Omega – Journal of Death and Dying, 61, 273–289. doi: 10.2190/OM.61.4.b.