Positive Emotions: Do They Have a Role in the Grieving Process?
Camille Workman PhD*
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
Those who show more positive emotions in the first few months
following the loss are likely to exhibit less grief and distress in the
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
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
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