Good Grief: Bereaved adjust well without airing emotion

Mental-health workers have long theorized that it takes grueling emotional exertion to recover from the death of a loved one. So-called grief work, now the stock-in-trade of a growing number of grief counselors, entails confronting the reality of a loved one’s demise and grappling with the harsh emotions triggered by that loss.

Two new studies, however, knock grief work off its theoretical pedestal. Among bereaved spouses tracked for up to 2 years after their partners’ death, those who often talked with others and briefly wrote in diaries about their emotions fared no better than their tight-lipped, unexpressive counterparts, according to psychologist Margaret Stroebe of Utrecht University in the Netherlands and her colleagues.

In most cases, “the bereaved have to cope with their loss in their own time and their own way,” the researchers conclude in the February Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. “There was no evidence that talking about the loss with others and disclosing one’s emotions facilitated [psychological] adjustment.”

The new findings are consistent with evidence that psychotherapy benefits only the small proportion of bereaved individuals who suffer from severe, unrelenting yearning for a deceased person and seek out professional help (SN: 1/14/95, p. 22).

In one of their new studies, the researchers contacted 105 widows and 23 widowers about 3 months after their spouses had died. Participants, all under age 66, completed questionnaires that asked about their psychological health and how much they had talked about their loss and related feelings. The volunteers also completed the questionnaires 1 year, 1 years, and 2 years after their partners’ deaths.

Bereaved individuals exhibited an overall improvement in mood and outlook over the 2 years, the researchers say. Those who frequently discussed their emotional lives with friends and family experienced no signs of speedier adjustment, such as a larger reduction in depression.

In the second study, 66 widows and 53 widowers completed questionnaires on their psychological health and emotional disclosure between 4 and 8 months after their partners’ deaths. They were then randomly assigned to write in a diary each day for a week or placed in a control group that didn’t keep a diary. Diary participants, in three groups, were told to write about bereavement-related emotions, daily problems related to the spouse’s death, or a mix of feelings and problems.

Six months later, bereaved participants in the two groups reported a comparable reduction in psychological distress. Also, people who had kept diaries for that 1 week reaped no apparent gains in physical health; they visited their physicians just as often as those who hadn’t, the researchers report.

Moreover, diary writing yielded no special benefits for individuals whose partners died unexpectedly rather than after a long illness or for those who said they liked to disclose their feelings rather than keeping them secret.

Other research suggests that grief work may do more harm than good if it fosters the expression of negative emotions, remarks psychologist George A. Bonanno of Columbia University. For example, he has reported that bereaved spouses who most readily show anger and other negative emotions in their facial expressions encounter the most problems adjusting to their loss. In contrast, those who spend relatively little time trying to comprehend their loss and cite mainly positive feelings about a deceased spouse exhibit the best adjustment, Bonanno says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.