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The Sociology of Grief and Mourning

Grief has been often viewed by mental health practitioners as an emotion located within a given individual. But sociologists, on the other hand, have considered grief as a social outcome and many sociologists believe that grief is shaped by the pattern of an individual’s engagement with cultural norms and customs that are associated with grieving. This opinion of a good number of sociologists has been considered justified, but this justification needs proper explanation and evidence. It is to verify and eventually justify the perspectives of the sociologists on the actual relationship between grief, mourning, and social contexts that the paper is going to elaborate on certain theoretical frameworks that have related grief and mourning to the social norms and conventions.

In the article, “The Social Shaping of Emotion: The Case of Grief,” Lofland (1985) has pointed out that the nature and characteristics of grief and mourning are largely shaped in the context of interaction that occurs between the individual who is mourning, the individual for whom the mourning is going on, and the social context in which the entire relationship has been established. Lofland (1985) has suggested that the significance of interactional situation/setting that defines the relationship between factors like level of significance of the other who dies and the character of the self experiencing a loss through death. In this respect it can be said that there is a deep assumption related to social shaping of grief and mourning even though such contexts are changeable and variable on the basis of space-time variation (Lofland, 1985). It is noteworthy that even though many psychologists have identified grief as a mental/psychological phenomenon; many sociologists have considered grief and mourning as social phenomena. In the article, “Grief as a Social Emotion: Theoretical Perspectives,” Jakoby (2011) has suggested that, “Focusing on the social bond with the deceased, the self-concept of the survivor or the power of feeling rules, general sociological theories of emotion (symbolic interactionism, structural theory, behavioral theory) have the potential to deepen the understanding of grief as a social emotion.” So, it can be said that the assumption of social shaping that has been related to grief and mourning is not at all baseless. Moreover, justifying the validity of the assumption of social shaping of grief and mourning, in the article, “Mapping Grief.  A conceptual framework for understanding the spatial dimensions of bereavement, mourning and remembrance,” Maddrell (2016) has suggested that, there are spatial dimensions of the universal human phenomena of bereavement, and among this dimensions the social dimension deserves special mention. Maddressl (2016) has conveyed that, “Grief,  mourning and remembrance are experienced in and mapped upon (i) physical spaces, including the public and private arenas of everyday life; (ii) the embodied-psychological spaces of the interdependent and co-producing body-mind and (iii) the virtual spaces of digital technology, religious-spiritual beliefs and non-place-based community.” Going through Maddrell’s (2016) research article it can be understood that the socio-cultural dimensions of grief and mourning play an important role in shaping the pattern of such phenomena and “Culturally inflected, dynamic emotional-affective maps of grief can be identified, as a form of deep-mapping, which reflect the ways in which relationality to particular spaces and places is inflected by bereavement, mourning and remembrance.”

The Role of Social Norms in Shaping Grief and Mourning

The fact that mourning is a social phenomenon can be justified by exemplifying the conventions that are followed in Britain. In Britain it is customarily prescribed to consciously dress as a mourner and to resort to behaviors appropriate for mourning I the period of intense mourning after the funeral (Lindesmith, Strauss and Denzin, 1999). It is a kind of social etiquette and hence, in the context of the British society, like many other societies, grieving and mourning should be analyzed from a social and not only psychological perspective. In this regard one must take into account the fact that, “Mourning, although a social process and one that reflects each mourner’s relationship to the deceased, is concomitantly a ritual that is imposed upon the person by the social group” (Lindesmith, Strauss and Denzin, 1999). It is to justify this claim that Durkheim has suggested (cited in Lindesmith, Strauss and Denzin, 1999) that, it would be wrong to consider mourning only as a spontaneous expression of individual emotions; rather, it is not a natural movement of those private feelings that have been wounded by a loss of a near or dear one; and quite justifiably it is a duty that has been imposed by the social group on the mourner. Moreover, highlighting the assumption of social shaping, Durkheim has stated that (cited in Lindesmith, Strauss and Denzin, 1999), “One weeps, not simply because he is sad, but because he is forced to weep. It is a ritual attitude which he is forced to adopt…but which is, in large measure, independent of his affective state.” Moreover, the fact that mourning and grieving are results of social shaping is evident in the American ritualistic practices that are followed after the death of someone. In the contemporary American society, mourners are mandated culturally and socially to pay the debt of mourning in the form of purchasing floral arrangements, visiting the funeral home, and in the form of assisting the host in the preparation and distribution of post-funeral meals (Lindesmith, Strauss and Denzin, 1999). Furthermore, the fact that death, bereavement, grieving and mourning have social contexts is evident from the truth that the pattern of mourning or grieving has been changing according to the changes that are taking place in the urbanized societies on a gradual basis. In this respect it must be noted that, “The social organization of bereavement practices, as well as the social reaction to death and dying, has changed in response to epidemiologic and demographic transitions. The shifts in age-specific mortality patterns and cause of death that accompanied industrialization, urbanization, and economic development altered the relationship between death and the social structures that surround it” (Osterweis, Solomon and Green, 1984). Moreover, the argument that mourning and grieving are socially shaped and controlled can be supported by citing their patterns in the context of the modern American society in which social macro-institutions like the law, the workplace, the medical care system, and the funeral homes – all place significant constraints on an individual’s bereavement behaviors (Osterweis, Solomon and Green, 1984), pointing to the fact that bereavement and accompanied grief and mourning are social constructs apart from being psychological manifestations. Besides, the assumption of social shaping related to grief and mourning can be justified by citing the fact that the nature of grieving and mourning has been changing according to the changing demands of the modern society. Today, virtualization of grieving and mourning has become a common phenomenon on the Internet, and digital sphere should be held responsible for disrupting and altering material and aesthetic displays of death and related agonies (Church, 2013). As the society is tending towards becoming more virtualized and digitalized; death, grieving, and mourning are also evolving towards the same direction. And this proves the relationship between mourning and grieving and social contexts.

Grief and Mourning as Social Constructs

Furthermore, it has been observed that the paradigm of emotions that are related to grieving and mourning are typically social constructs at the micro and macro levels. In the micro level it is the social psychological factors that influence one’s emotions at the time of grieving or mourning, and at the macro level it is the structural and cultural aspects which endorse what emotions one would show in the context of mourning or grieving. Emotion, from the sociological perspective, is a dependable variable when it comes to grieving or mourning, and this is particularly true because social constructs play an important role in determining the pattern and frequency of grieving or mourning at the loss of a near or dear one (Thoits, 1989). It is also to be taken into account that though “numbness, anger, despair, and even guilt are natural emotions connected with the experience of bereavement, grief is often described as a psychological illness, to be tackled by mental health practitioners, or as a problem to be resolved by psychologists” (Thoits, 1989).  But having said so, it must also be stated that grieving or mourning is not always a psychological phenomenon. This is because there are instances in which a person cries in grief at the loss of a distant relative by being amidst others who cry relentlessly in agony for losing a closer, near, and dear one. This proves the fact that the situational and interactional aspects of grief and mourning cannot be overlooked, and as situations and interactions are often sociologically related, mourning and grieving should be considered sociological constructs too. Moreover, the fact that grieving and mourning are sociological constructs that are impacted by cultural undertones either explicitly or implicitly has also been admitted by anthropologists. Quite interestingly, both anthropologists and sociologists have, often, described the different mourning customs and death rituals in different societies as culturally instituted ways of paving the path for grief to channelize and to put grief under social control (Thoits, 1989). Such admission on the part of anthropologists and sociologists is also a pointer to the fact that grieving and mourning are social constructs and hence, the assumption of social shaping of grieving and mourning should be considered related to sociological aspects and not only to psychological aspects. It must be noted that “In Western culture the traditional consolation for the bereaved is death denial based on their faith in religion, art, or other means of honouring the dead. A customary method to ward off human fear of death is by transferring the notion of mortality to death itself. After the sleep of death, a Christian can survive and will come to enjoy eternal life in God’s kingdom” (Wong, 2012). Hence, it can be seen that as religious contexts are related to social existence and as the aspects of religions are often considered as social constructs, it is hard to believe that mourning or grieving are acts of psychological manifestations. Rather, it should be stated that both psychology and sociology play together a crucial role in shaping the structure and pattern of grieving and mourning after bereavement.

The Changing Patterns of Grief and Mourning

In conclusion, sociologists have considered grief as a social outcome and many sociologists believe that grief is shaped by the pattern of an individual’s engagement with cultural norms and customs that are associated with grieving. This opinion of a good number of sociologists has been considered justified, but this justification needs proper explanation and evidence. It is to verify and eventually justify the perspectives of the sociologists on the actual relationship between grief, mourning, and social contexts that the paper is going to elaborate on certain theoretical frameworks that have related grief and mourning to the social norms and conventions. Furthermore, the fact that death, bereavement, grieving and mourning have social contexts is evident from the truth that the pattern of mourning or grieving has been changing according to the changes that are taking place in the urbanized societies on a gradual basis. As the society is tending towards becoming more virtualized and digitalized; death, grieving, and mourning are also evolving towards the same direction. And this proves the relationship between mourning and grieving and social contexts. Furthermore, it has been observed that the paradigm of emotions that are related to grieving and mourning are typically social constructs at the micro and macro levels. In the micro level it is the social psychological factors that influence one’s emotions at the time of grieving or mourning, and at the macro level it is the structural and cultural aspects which endorse what emotions one would show in the context of mourning or grieving. Hence, it can be seen that as religious contexts are related to social existence and as the aspects of religions are often considered as social constructs, it is hard to believe that mourning or grieving are acts of psychological manifestations. Rather, it should be stated that both psychology and sociology play together a crucial role in shaping the structure and pattern of grieving and mourning after bereavement.

References

Church, S.H. (2013). Digital gravescapes: Digital memorializing on Facebook. The Information Society, 29(3), pp.184-189.

Jakoby, N.R. (2010). Grief as a Social Emotion: Theoretical Perspectives. Death Studies , 36(8).

Lofland, L. (1985). The Social Shaping of Emotion: The Case of Grief. Symbolic Interaction, 8(2), pp. 171-190.

Lindesmith, A., Strauss, A. and Denzin, N. (1999). Social Psychology. 1st ed. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Maddrell, A. (2016). Mapping Grief.  A conceptual framework for understanding the spatial dimensions of bereavement, mourning and remembrance. Social and Cultural Geography,17(2).

Osterweis, M., Solomon, F., and Green, M. (Eds) (1984). CHAPTER 8: Sociocultural Influences. Bereavement: Reactions, Consequences, and Care . Washington, DC: National Academic Press.

Thoits, P.A. (1989). The Sociology of Emotions. Annual Review of Sociology, 15, pp.317-342.

Wong, L.L. (2012). The Personal Lyric of Grief. Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, 27-47.

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