I just finished a course on the psychology of death and dying. I took the class because I am planning my music therapy career in the hospice field, but what I learned from the textbook was eerily relevant just about every week of the semester. We were assigned to read the chapter on suicide the week before the NFL player shot his girlfriend and himself.
I wanted to share some excerpts from my textbook in light of yesterday’s shooting, in order to provide an objective, scholarly view on loss and coping.
Reference: DeSpelder, L. A., & Strickland, A. L. (2011). Last dance: Encountering death and dying (9th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
On children’s understanding of death:
[Maria] Nagy found three developmental stages in children’s understanding of death between the ages of three and ten. Her research showed that, in the first stage (ages three to five), children understood death as somehow being less alive; the dead “live on” under changed circumstances and can return to normal life. In the second stage (ages five to nine), children understood death as final but as avoidable and lacking inevitability and personal reference (“I will die”). In the third stage (ages nine and older), children recognized death as the result of a biological process that is final, inevitable, universal, and personal.
Although research generally has indicated that most children have acquired a mature concept of death around the age of nine, recent studies show that children begin to conceptualize death as a biological event at the same time they construct a “biological model” of how the human body functions. By preschool age, a potent animate/inanimate distinction serves “as the center of a vast cluster of conceptual distinctions,” including a naive theory of biology. Only after children begin to think purposefully about the biological functions of life-sustaining body parts (e.g., the heart is for pumping blood) do they become “life theorizers” able to reason that, without these parts, one would die. Older children are more apt than younger children to state that bodily functions cease at death (p. 51).
On children as survivors of a close death:
A particular child’s response to loss reflects the influence of such factors as age, stage of mental and emotional development, patterns of interaction and communication within his or her family, relationship with the person who has died, and previous experiences with death. Generally speaking, bereaved children experience grief reactions similar to those experienced by adults. However, children differ from adults in cognitive abilities, need for identification figures, and dependence on adults for support.
Adolescents’ developmental tasks of feeling in control, attaining a sense of mastery, and being able to predict events are compromised by death. In a study of adolescents’ responses to the terror attacks of September 11, 2oo1, researchers found that adolescents (especially girls) were frightened and reports concerns about dying from other disasters, such as tornadoes or earthquakes. These anxiety reactions are consistent with adolescents’ developmental issues related to vulnerability to death. Resilience, too, was seen in their efforts to make a coherent narrative of the events and to refocus on their daily living (p. 387).
Violence is one of the most potent of our encounters with death. It can affect our thoughts and actions even when we have not been victimized ourselves. Potentially, anyone may become its unsuspecting victim. In the most recent year for which statistics are available, nearly fifteen thousand murders occurred in the United States. In two-thirds of these, guns were used as the murder weapon. While slightly more than 16 percent of these murders were related to the commission of a felony, the larger percentage was related to gang killings, alcohol-influenced brawls, “romantic triangles,” and other, unspecified causes.
Emergency room physicians report being besieged with patients whose injuries are identical to wounds incurred by soldiers in combat. These wounds result from semi-automatic assault weapons that fire dozens of bullets per minute at several times the velocity of an ordinary pistol: “Organs that would have been merely grazed or even cleanly pierced by a handgun bullet are exploded by assault weapon fire, requiring massive transfusions of blood.”
Young people are disproportionately represented among victims of violence. Among the must troubling aspects of handgun violence “is the fact that children very often are the victims of fatal gunshot wounds, self-inflicted either intentionally or accidentally, or received as innocent bystanders in scenes of domestic or street violence.”
Children who witness violence have been called “silent victims.” They may be physically unharmed but are nevertheless emotionally affected as they hear gunshots outside their homes, witness shootings on the playground, or have a family member (often an older sibling) involved with violence (pp. 488-489).
Grief involves the whole person and is manifest in a variety of ways: mentally, emotionally, physically, behaviorally, and spiritually. When we limit the definition of grief, it reduces our chances of accepting all of the reactions to loss we may experience. Many kinds of thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and so on are a normal part of grief (p. 336).
When there is a substantial difference between a survivor’s emotional and mental responses to death, and the survivor believes only one response can be right, the result is conflict. To expect the head and the heart to react exactly the same to loss is unrealistic; disparity between thoughts and feelings is likely. When a person is grieving, many different emotions will be felt, and many different thoughts will arise. By allowing them all and withholding judgment as to the rightness and wrongness of particular emotions or thoughts, a bereaved person is more likely to experience grief as healing.
Survivors sometimes have rigid rules about what kind of emotions can be expressed in grief, and when–such as where and when it is acceptable to be angry or to be open to the pain and release an intense outburst of sadness. Permission to have and express feelings is important in coping with loss. We may think, “How can I be mad at someone for dying?” Yet, anger may indeed be a component of grief (p. 346)
Just as no two persons are alike, no two experiences of grief are alike. The circumstances of death, they personality and social roles of the bereaved, the relationship with the deceased–these are among the factors that influence grief and mourning. These factors offer clues about why some deaths are especially devastating to survivors (p. 354).
I would offer this: Articles are popping up everywhere about what to say and what not to say in this situation. Read them. These people are right. This experience can really teach us all how to support someone who has suffered a loss. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t judge. If you can’t think of anything to say, don’t say anything. The most important thing you can do for someone who is grieving is be there.