“When someone dies, what can I say or do that’s helpful?”
I hear that question all the time. And, as a hospital chaplain, I offer answers. (I even wrote a book about it.)
But I want to know more about what actually helps. I’m asking people what they found helpful. And I’m gathering a bunch of those stories as a way of saying, “Here’s what our stories together say.”
I’m pretty convinced that people are different. And situations are different. And knowing about those differences can help us be helpful. Especially at really hard times.
[I’m sharing this article as a note on research in process. It’s not a final draft, it’s not a set of conclusions. But I’m finding this research and study helpful already, and I’m guessing it may be helpful to others, too.)
There are a couple parts of the project swirling in my brain. One is the theory learning part, one is the gathering and processing data part. Eventually, there will be helpful practical applications so that, for the first time in my life (almost), I can say, “my research suggests…”
1. A recent model of bereavement coping
On the theory learning part, I’m working with this new-to-me model of bereavement coping called the DPM, Dual Process Model. It was first published by two researchers in the Netherlands in 1999 and has since been expanded and tested to see if it’s helpful in explaining what is going on as we are grieving a death.
The DPM suggests that there are two clusters of bereavement stressors: loss-oriented and restoration-oriented. Loss-oriented stressors cluster around the loss we experience. “This leaves a hole in my heart.” “This is the other half of me.” “I’ll never have those conversations again.” “They aren’t here.”
Restoration-oriented stressors cluster around the practical steps of living we have to figure out. “How am I going to pay the bills.” “What do I say when people ask where he is?” “What do I call myself now? “Do I move?” “How can I grieve my daughter when I now am caring for my granddaughter?”
But these stressor and responses don’t come in a list or in any order. In fact, in my conversations with families, I can hear these comments almost simultaneously.
What the model suggests is something called “oscillation.” We bounce back and forth as we feel these kinds of stressors and try to figure out how to respond to them. At times, the bouncing is a coping, and can be, for the moment, a helpful avoidance. “I can’t think about that, I need to take care of this.”
There is also the idea of overload, the feeling that “this is all too much.”
I appreciate that this isn’t a stage model or a wave model. Instead, it acknowledges what we are dealing with in two broad categories and describes some of the process that we go through. And I believe (and will write more about) that there are ways that we can help other people and ourselves as we are in this processing.
(Even as simple as saying, “It makes sense that you are bouncing back and forth. That’s what people do.” Or “the funeral home will help you with the death certificate.” Or “This is hard.”)
Links to the DPM research that already exists
The dual process model of coping with bereavement: rationale and description – PubMed (nih.gov)
(PDF) The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement: A Decade on (researchgate.net)
A Systematic Review of the Dual Process Model of Coping With Bereavement (1999-2016) – PubMed (nih.gov)
(PDF) The Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement in the test of the subjective experiences of bereaved spouses. An interpretative phenomenological analysis (researchgate.net)
Bereavement in Times of COVID-19: A Review and Theoretical Framework – Margaret Stroebe, Henk Schut, 2021 (sagepub.com)
2. My research project: “How can I be helpful in loss?”
On the data gathering and processing of side, I did a survey asking people four questions: what they found helpful in what people said or did or gave in grief support materials, and what people wish someone had said or done. The survey also asks for demographic information about the loved one and about the respondent.
So far, I’ve got 155 completed or mostly completed surveys.
This work is, at the moment, separate from the theory learning above. I’m looking at what people say. I’m still early in the process, but some things are coming out. I started with the “what do you wish” open-ended answers.
1. Some people want to tell the stories of their loved one. (“What’s the most normal thing about your mom?”)
2. Some people what to hear the stories of their loved one (“Your grandmother was so helpful to me when I was going through a hard time.”)
3. Some people want their loss to be acknowledged (or validated. I’m not sure of the best word to use. (“This is hard” is an example of that.)) “Losing a brother-in-law is really hard.”
4. Some people want what I’m calling orientation. (“I wish someone had told me that my pain was going to last a long time”, “Pain looks different in different people.”
5. Proactivity seems to be helpful, though not pushiness. So showing up and then being quiet is proactive.
6. Some people are really helped by spiritual support.
7. Nothing is identified by everyone, suggesting that there isn’t a cookie cutter or recipe.
I also asked people to identify anything about personality tests that they know (e.g. enneagram, Myers-Briggs) A bunch of people responded, but I’m still working on coding the diversity of these responses and then using that to sort out differences in responses.
Where I’m going next
There are several projects that will come out of this work.
1. I need to be able, for my own sake, to explain the Dual Process Model.
2. I need to finish coding and analyzing the current survey responses. Often for research, I’m part of a research group. My work is usually the analysis and “so what” work. For this project, I’m on my own and learning about attention management.
3. I asked “Were you given any grief material that was helpful?” A majority of respondents said “no” or couldn’t remember. As I look at the things that people could remember, and as I look at the help that people wanted, I expect to be more helpful myself and to help others provide helpful materials. And I know that this helpfulness may include working with churches, funeral homes, hospitals, and other providers to be systematically helpful.
4. The difference that our individual differences make in being helped and in being helpful still drives my thinking. I’ve not had the time to connect the personality information to the responses.
You can read more about the project at Being Helpful in Loss (beinghelpfulinloss.com)
Jon Swanson, PhD, is a hospital chaplain and writer.
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