A recent article in the New York Times  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/10/nyregion/ready-for-less-tearful-future-newtown-is-declining-tributes.html?pagewanted=all reported that the residents of Newtown, CT wished to stop participating in offers of events and memorials from outside groups in the interest of moving “into a quiet period, of rest, recuperation, and healing.”

Public mourning and memorials are not new. They do appear to be more frequent and “in your face” as we sadly encounter more mass tragedy and as we face a 24 hour news cycle that reports not only the tragedy but the responses and memorials that come from it. The public, not directly affected by the deaths in a mass tragedy, is often traumatized, shocked and grieving. The public’s focus of grief may not be as intensely on the death of the individuals who lose their lives or are maimed. While there may be sadness at loss as we mourn individuals, for the public there is also mourning the loss of trust and sense of security.

Of course, the individuals, who have directly lost loved ones will have the grief work and mourning of the loss of loved family members, friends or colleagues.

Public expression of grief is important for a society as much as grieving by individuals is important or their own reckoning with loss. We have many examples of public mourning and memorials. We have holidays dedicated to veterans and soldiers from wars. In the past it seems these markings have been solemn and public but not forced on the bereaved by massive publicity from media. Those wishing to participate could and those needing more privacy could have it as well.   

Some current public memorializing has a secondary purpose. Large events are designed and publicized to raise much needed monies for victims and families’ funeral and medical expenses. So, in addition to memorializing these losses there is an important charitable aspect. Politicians and others use such events to promote agendas for better or worse. If managed appropriately the potential for exploitation should be minimal but always watched for.

Yet it seems as though there needs to be great sensitivity to not overly prolonging and reminding the public or individual grieving people of the negative and tragic losses. Such can only set people back, prolong sadness, and interfere with letting go and moving forward.

A rule of thumb in helping in private mourning is to offer and organize help but then to allow the bereaved to accept or reject it while rechecking periodically. It is also generally accepted that public memorializing of private grief will shift to the families of the bereaved and become more personal as the public moves on.

What makes public mourning more painful over time is the difficulty for those who are ready to move on to get away from intense visualizations on television, at concerts, sporting events. One cannot always change the channel, leave the, stadium, etc. As I write this I do not propose a solution, but I believe we need to examine our public response and how long we continue to relive events beyond what is therapeutic and avoid what sells or is exploitative. 

A friend summarized his feelings succinctly.  "I'm in the camp of respectfully recognizing the lives of those who died, pay attention and give recognition to those who were injured, and then move on.  I think the Boston bombing was handled well.  Clean the site up and open it right away.  Don't let the terrorists have a reminder of what they tried to do."

How do you feel about public memorials and their impact on private grief? Please share your thoughts.

This weekend I was pleased to hear from my old friend James Bradley. James is the New York Times Best-Selling author of Flags of Our Fathers, Flyboys and The Imperial Cruise. He is also the son of Wisconsin funeral director John Bradley. James wrote with a wonderful review for my eBook & pamphlet Helping Your Grieving FriendThank you James!

"Many know that my father helped raise the flag on Iwo Jima.  After the war, John Bradley was a funeral director and an admirer of Dr. Donald Steele.  My father always said, "Funerals are about the grieving survivors,” and he read books about the psychology of grief.   Now Dr. Steele has written Helping Your Grieving Friend, a smart and sensitive guide on how you can make a difference at a difficult time." 

Helping Your Grieving Friend is available in eBook form through Amazon and as a 16 page booklet directly from Steele Publishing. You can order one copy for yourself or more for your funeral home, hospice, support group or other organization. Order today!

Maybe... Maybe not! Everyone grieves in their own way and it is most unfair to decide how another should or will grieve.
While psychologists do feel that many people who have had a long time to prepare for a loss may have an easier psychological adjustment than those dealing with a sudden loss. 

But we are told also that people who have been through a long illness with a loved one are frequently physically and emotionally drained. They may even be more susceptible to illness themselves. Having been through weeks or months of stress they may have eaten and slept poorly. They may feel guilty for feeling relief from their heavy burden. Those desirous of helping the grieving in these circumstances should be willing to assist with feelings. They also could help the bereaved to reorganize their life without the deceased, to get needed rest and, when necessary, to become active again.

However, it is important not to push the bereaved to "get back to normal" too quickly.  The death of someone we love can change our lives drastically. There are often major decisions to be made following a death. The house may be too large, we may have a sudden loss of income, we may have to raise the children alone. Adjustment to these changes may force us to make major decisions at a time when we are already distressed emotionally and least able to make good decisions. We may feel rushed to make decisions simply to avoid memories. 

Good decision making requires that you take time, have all the facts before you and be rational not emotional. Anyone who is faced with major decisions because of a death in the family should take time, get rest and get good information and wait until your emotions have subsided.

Be sure to ask for help from qualified professionals before making any major decisions, especially while you are grieving. Your lawyer, accountant and therapist can all help you make good decisions, while you work towards "normal".

Some people think grief ought to be over quickly. They'll tell you to get on with your life. Others say it's over after the funeral. Many psychologists and sociologists say that acute grief can last for a year or more, maybe even two years.

It takes time to put one's life back together again. There are feelings of anger, depression or loneliness. There are new tasks to be mastered. Cooking for one less, raising the children alone, cutting the lawn, managing finances, probating the estate -all can be difficult tasks. Death of a loved one is usually a major life change. Reorganizing life, managing our feelings and finding ourselves does not happen immediately. You may need support of friends and others who understand. If you feel overwhelmed do not hesitate to ask for competent help.

Where can you get help with your grief?

Sometimes grief does not go away in a reasonable period of time. When that is the case the bereaved should contact a social worker, counselor or clergy person. In addition on the resources page of this blog you will find several books and pamphlets that may be helpful to read.

There are many people willing to help and no good reason that anyone should be without help. Still, psychologists have noted that some people are depressed and simply do not have the get up and go to seek help. Others may feel embarrassment.

If you or a friend needs assistance make an extra effort, pick up the phone and call your clergy or mental health center. The extra effort will be a good beginning to help you help yourself!

When one of your parents dies, in spite of your grief, one of your first concerns will be to care for your surviving parent. The loss of a partner can be devastating to many people. Widowhood will require adjustment and you can be most helpful. While you will, of course, want to be helpful at the time of the funeral, there are many concerns and decisions to consider the memorial. 

A primary consideration will be the age and competence of your parent. If a parent is capable of making decisions they should be allowed and encouraged as much as possible. They need your support. Of course parents who are unable to make decisions will need you to make the decisions for them.


Sometimes with the best of intentions we rush in to help by making decisions for the survivor. Many parents will resent this infringement on their freedom, others may give in but become dependent or resentful. As a rule it is useful to offer advice and assistance while letting them know that the final decision is up to them. You may wish to offer to arrange funeral and memorial services, attend legal meetings, sorting and disposing of personal effects and helping with other practical matters. But it is not desirable to make funeral arrangements, legal decisions, sell property or dispose of personal effects without the full cooperation of a competent parent. While you have lost a parent, you need to remember that they have lost their life partner.

The death of a spouse will bring major life changes to your parent. Some decisions will have to be made immediately, but it is wise to advise your parent to avoid major life change decisions until time has been taken to permit reasonable decisions without regret. Grief can do strange things to our perspectives and decisions. In particular it is never wise to sell a house or move from an apartment when the pain of grief is intense. If a person thinks it would help them to grieve better or escape memories to be out of the home they shared with the deceased it might be wise to move to an apartment for several months first. After a reasonable trial a good decision can be made that will not cause unneeded financial hardship.

Your surviving parent was undoubtedly dependent on the deceased for many things. There will be a transition period where you can help the individual to learn many things needed for living without the deceased, such as cooking, taking care of finances, shopping and other practical matters.


It is important to remember that every person grieves differently. Recent studies have shown that the death of a spouse has profound, but very different effects on men and women. The New York Times has an excellent article which sums up the differences between how men and women grieve as well as more information on the subject. The same research has shown that men benefit greatly from men only support groups. The National Widowers Organization has a listing of resources specifically for men who have lost spouses. 

There are many resources available online and within your community (and many online resources can connect you with local grief support groups). Both Widowed Village and WidowNet are good places to start your search for information on bereavement support for your parent. 

Please share some ways you have found to help a parent cope with the death of a spouse.

Some death and illness can leave us shattered and seeking meaning and purpose. The existential question of "why" which many ponder can become quite personal and be framed in personal terms as "why me".
We may never get a completely satisfactory answer to either the "why" of life or the universe or to the "why" of what happens in our own lives.
Victor Frankl was a psychiatrist imprisoned in Hitler's death camps. He survived and wrote a book entitled "Man's Search For Meaning". For those of us surviving losses of all kinds Dr Frankl's work is inspiring and not patronizing. I often recommend it as it helps those struggling with loss, illness and tragedy.

My research is based on interviews and conversations with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people. Over the years of graduate study I researched grief and spoke with leaders in the field. With the help of the National Funeral Director association and the Dodge Company, I met numerous funeral directors who wanted to help and who reported similar stories of people' helplessness and lack of knowledge about helping.

To get practical knowledge two friends, a pastor and a psychologist and I offered a simple program in Madison. We began a group meeting entitled "The Grief You Feel" and advertised it around Madison Wi. We were stunned when on a below zero night in January 16 people suffering all kinds of death related losses showed up.
One of the most striking and significant observations we observed in working with the bereaved is the multiplicity of losses when we lose a loved one. We not only lose the person who dies we lose all of the small and large things that person meant to us.  The person we love is gone and we will be sad for that. Over time we will also find ourselves being sad, angry, lonely as we realize all the ways the person intertwined in our lives. The loss of a companion to talk or relax with, the loss of a helper  with chores , the loss of the dream that a growing child brought to our lives, the loss of a spouse to help with and enjoy the happiness of our children. These individual losses  make every loss unique. In many ways they also   prolong our feelings of loss as we encounter thee individual meanings at times we most would have wanted to be with or needed  the deceased. Enjoyable holidays, graduations, weddings, walks in the evening, help with housework and many more seemingly mundane activities that we shared, enjoyed or counted on our lost loved one are like pin pricks stabbing us with the painful reminder that our loved one is no longer here and can uncover our sadness or anger or other emotions  when we least expect it. It is not uncommon to be caught off guard at such times. While it may be startling it is also common. 

It is okay to discuss these feelings with those we love and to understand that our relationships are more complex based on love of the person as well as needs, dependencies, hopes dreams and trust.
Wisdom from the past invites us to prepare for the future. There are many important life events that we should and do prepare for. Some, like weddings, or buying a house are pleasant and we eagerly look forward to gathering information and planning for them. Others, like death and funerals are more difficult to think about ahead of time. They are no less important! 

Your lawyer, accountant and funeral director can help you plan for your & your family's future. If you don't have any of these, that's OK. There are many websites out there to help you figure out what you can and should do to prepare for your death. The most prominent website is the rather crassly (but aptly) named, http://getyourshittogether.org. Created by a young woman who lost her husband in an accident, only to discover that they weren't prepared at all. She spent 3 years straightening out their financial life after the passing of her husband and decided to do her best to help other people to not fall into that same trap. Take a look at the Get Your Shit Together! checklist http://getyourshittogether.org/

Seven Ponds (http://www.sevenponds.com) has extensive materials for both planning before death as well as a step by step guide for what to do both before and after a loved ones' death. Seven Ponds also has a lot of information on alternatives to traditional funerals including cremation and natural burial. 

 It's important to consider the challenges that your loved ones will face after you die. Your death will be hard enough without having to deal with the financial and legal repurcussions should you die without a will.

That is a common statement. There is a problem with it, however, when someone we love dies survivors react with strong emotions. A funeral, while technically honoring the dead, is really more about the living. We've lost a very important part of our life and we feel sad, we are upset and we cry. We find it hard to believe that death has come. 

Often we need the formal ceremony, to begin the process of recognition as well as to realize and recognize that we do have support from friends and loved ones. By not seeing the deceased we lose the chance to confront the reality of death. Often seeing the body is an important first step to acceptance.  Many people ask why at funerals and visitations we view the body of the deceased. Psychologists tell us that viewing is usually helpful because our natural tendency is to deny death. Visitation acknowledges that a death has occurred. Seeing is believing, where simple telling is not always helpful. Visitation and viewing also play a social role. The deceased usually has many friends who would like to express their sympathy. Seeing the deceased in the presence of friends eliminates shock and disbelief. Friends are given a chance to say their goodbyes and to provide a family with some needed support.

The lack of a funeral can cause loved ones to have trouble accepting and beginning the process of moving on. While choosing not to have some type of memorial will have no effect on the deceased, it can have serious consequences to the survivors. 

I have a friend whose father was living overseas for 4 years before his death. He died overseas and, because they had a very contentious and difficult relationship she made the decision to not repatriate his body, and specifically requested that no one talk to her more about it or send any of his personal effects. After some difficulty involving embassies and language and cultural differences his friends overseas managed to put together a small but fitting funeral for him. Nothing formal, just some friends at the cemetery speaking about someone they loved, followed by a bonfire on the beach in front of his favorite bar. 5 months later, his daughter called one of his good friends to ask more about her father, and admitted that she was having trouble accepting his death. She had trouble believing he was really gone and not just "away", and she asked for some of his personal effects. His friend, having anticipated this reaction, sent his most treasured belongings (a ring, a hat, and pictures of his daughter and grandchildren), as well as pictures of him and a short video of people speaking about the man they loved, her father. This video exposed his daughter to a side of her father she had not known, the part that other people saw. It also helped her to see that he was really gone and begin the healing process, both grieving his death and making peace with a father who was not ideal, but, as it turned out, wasn't the worst.

That is a complicated question. The purpose of all ceremonies is to mark events in the lives of people and communities. Weddings mark new families; baptisms and bar mitzvahs welcome children and adolescents into society. Death marks the end of life. Students of human behavior tell us that ceremonies for saying goodbye have existed as long as man. The funeral acknowledges that a life has been lived. People express their feelings about life through ceremony. 

Funerals today come in all shapes and sizes, and that is OK. Many people have chosen to move away from the traditional funeral in favor of something that more accurately reflects the nature of the person who has passed away. Often people choose to use the opportunity to celebrate the life of the person who has died. he point of a funeral is to remember the person for who they were, and what is important is that the living have a chance to say goodbye and to grieve. 

Funerals are important to the survivors because they provide a socially accepted way for people to come together at a central point to show support for the grieving family. Many people welcome social support and going to a visitation or funeral is an important way to show someone that you care, both for them and for their loved one.

    Join our mailing list

    * indicates required


    As part of my doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, when information on grief, bereavement, death and dying was scarce, some colleagues and I began group work with the bereaved. Out of that work grew interviews with widowers, training with funeral workers, clergy, social workers, hospice and medical personnel. 

    View my profile on LinkedIn


    August 2013
    July 2013
    June 2013


    Get Help
    Helping Your Grieving Friend
    Personal History


    August 2013
    July 2013
    June 2013

    Copyright 2013, Dr. Donald Steele, Ph.D.
    NOTICE: All content within this blog is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. The author is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a user based on the content of this site. The author is not liable for the contents of any external internet sites listed. Always consult your own GP if you're in any way concerned about your health.