Positive Emotions: Do They Have a Role in the Grieving Process? Camille Workman Ph.D.*
What We Know
Positive emotions are surprisingly prevalent among the bereaved, even relatively soon after the loss. In one study on coping with the loss of an infant to SIDS, nearly half of the parents were experiencing positive emotions three months after the death.
Positive emotions need not be intense or prolonged to produce beneficial effects. In fact, mourners with just a minimal amount of positive emotions and a great deal of negative emotion do better than those with no positive emotions at all.
Positive and negative emotions are independent of one another, and co-occur along side of one another. Positive emotions play a role in regulating depression and other negative emotions that are associated with grief.
Those who show more positive emotions in the first few months following the loss are likely to exhibit less grief and distress in the future.
Shifting mourners’ focus from negative emotions to positive ones provides a psychological break or respite, and also allows them to replenish their resources.
Positive emotions can improve the way people cope with their loss. As a result of gaining some distance from negative emotions and being restored and replenished by positive emotions, mourners are more able to focus their attention on the tasks that are most important to them and make progress on these tasks.
It is more difficult to experience positive emotions following some kinds of loss than others. For example, those whose loved one dies unexpectedly are likely to show lower levels of positive emotion than those whose loved one’s death was expected
Can Positive Emotions be Enhanced?
Available evidence suggests that it is indeed possible for the bereaved to enhance their positive emotions. Two approaches for enhancing positive emotions are engagement and focusing on what matters now.
Many studies have shown that becoming involved in activities that engage one’s interests is quite effect in enhancing positive emotions. In fact, cognitive and behavioral interventions for depression have often relied on this approach. Being involved in an engaging activity can break the grip of negative thoughts, at least temporarily. Examples of engaging activities include going shopping, attending a sporting event with a friend, taking your dog for a walk, or going to the library. Involvement in an engaging activity will increase positive affect more than involvement in an activity that is less engaging. However, experts concur that involvement in just about any activity is better than not being involved. Because bereavement is often accompanied by a profound loss of interest in life, it may be difficult for mourners to become engaged in particular tasks. A strategy for breaking through mourners’ resistance is to encourage them to spend five minutes on a potentially engaging task, and telling them that they can stop after that. In most cases, mourners continue with the task once they are drawn into it.
In some cases, people are able to make an accurate assessment of what activities will engage them. In other cases, this may not be possible. As one woman indicated following the death of her husband, “One of my coworkers invited me to go line dancing with her after work. I have never tried line dancing but I hate dancing, so my expectations were low. To my surprise, it was a lot of fun, and we are going to go again next week.”
Focusing on What Matters Now
This approach for enhancing positive emotions asks mourners to consider the following question: given everything that has happened, what matters to me at this point in my life? One woman, who had lost her older son, decided that what mattered now was to be the best possible mother to her surviving son. “I arranged a sleep-over for my son, and cooked him his favorite dinner. It made me feel happy,” she said. A woman whose husband had died decided that what mattered now was staying healthy so that she could raise her children. “I had cancelled my two previously scheduled mammograms, but this time I kept my appointment. It felt good to do something for my family,” she said.
To some people, what matters now is working to prevent what happened to their loved one from happening to others. Such individuals are often drawn to organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where they are able to contribute energy and passion to the cause.
It is important to note that for the bereaved person, what matters now may not be the same as what mattered then (i.e., before the loss). As one woman explained, “Before my daughter’s death I was obsessed with decorating the house. This has no importance to me now.”
Utilizing these approaches can empower mourners and help them reclaim control of their lives. The research shows that just a small increase in positive emotions can produce beneficial effects. The more one engages in these practices, the more positive emotions will continue to increase. This can result in an upward spiral of wellbeing characterized by better relationships within the family, a greater feeling of connection with extended family and friends, and a greater appreciation for what is important.
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*Dr. Wortman is an expert on grief and bereavement, and has published more than 100 articles and book chapters on this topic. She conducted a large study on spousal loss that followed respondents for 7-10 years to identify the predictors of successful adjustment. Her main area of expertise concerns how people react to the sudden, traumatic death of a loved one. Her research demonstrates that those who experience this type of loss show enduring difficulties in many areas of their lives.