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Keeping grief hidden can be a survival strategy after suffering a bereavement. However, new research released today shows that the social disconnection caused by concealing feelings of loss can increase psychological distress.

After bereavement people can feel afraid to open about their grief to others. Fear of becoming overwhelmed by feelings in front of friends and family can lead the bereaved to avoid social contact altogether.

Dr Kirsten V SmithAssociate Professor Jennifer Wild, and Professor Anke Ehlers – the researchers Kirsten Smithinvestigating the effect of social disconnection on psychological health after bereavement – have developed a new scale to measure the phenomenon. They used the scale to measure social disconnection after bereavement in 676 recently bereaved participants who responded to an online survey.  A second group of 275 people took part in the study and were followed up 6 and 12 months after their bereavement. The findings were published in The Masking of Mourning: Social disconnection after bereavement and its role in psychological distress, in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science.

The research, funded by the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, showed that being socially disconnected is linked to worse psychological health following loss. Specifically the findings showed that individuals who report being socially disconnected are more psychologically distressed in the first 6 months of loss. Similarly being more connected socially predicted better mental health.

Dr Kirsten Smith, lead author on the paper, says:

As a nation we are currently experiencing unprecedented amounts of loss in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study speaks to the need to reach out to those who may have suffered a bereavement.

Dr Smith relates the research findings to the stiff upper lip attitude that we often see in western societies and the idea that keeping our grief hidden is part of surviving.  In fact evidence shows that pushing emotions away results in a rebound effect which is more likely to result in problems. She adds:

Social disconnection after bereavement appears to be related to worries about being judged by others for grieving openly. As a result it feels safer to spend more time alone than to be authentic about one’s grief with others. These experiences can lead to people feeling socially changed after their loss; they struggle to tolerate social situations in the way they once did and feel alienated from their social networks.

The new research clearly points to the importance of emotional connectedness following a loss. So what can we do in practical terms to support the bereaved? Dr Smith suggests staying in regular contact with bereaved family and friends. She urges: ‘Let them know you care, keep checking in even if they don’t feel ready to talk yet. Even though physical distance is currently a necessity, emotional distance doesn’t need to be.’

Additional information

  • This research was funded by NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, NIHR Oxford Biomedical Research Centre and the Wellcome Trust.
  • The research was undertaken in collaboration with The Loss Foundation https://www.thelossfoundation.org/
  • Key contact for the research: Dr Kirsten Smith Kirsten.smith@psy.ox.ac.uk