Back To Life! A Personal Grief Guidebook

Personal Guidebook to Grief Recovery

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When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.

(W. Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Sadness is little studied in psychology. This failure is surprising given its widespread portrayal in art, the cinema, music, and literature. Instead, the more extreme variants of sadness such as grief, bereavement, and mourning, or disorders derived from sadness such as depression have dominated psychological study (cf. Barr-Zisowitz, 2000). The focus on the extreme and the abnormal may perhaps represent something of our cultural ambivalence towards sadness and its expression, although we will try to hold back from such wild interpretations, at least until later. We must note, though, that much of what we think about as sadness should more correctly be viewed as sadness combined with other basic emotions such as fear, anger, or disgust. For example, a common procedure used to study "sadness" in the psychology laboratory is to use a mood induction procedure such as the Velten card technique (Velten, 1968) in which the participant reads through a list of statements along the lines of "I'm worthless", "I'm a failure", and so on. Such lists encourage a state of self-criticism, which, as Freud emphasised in his classic work Mourning and Melancholia (1917), is a feature that distinguishes melancholia from mourning rather than representing a defining feature of it. Much mood induction work therefore may have studied sadness combined with disgust (directed towards the self) rather than sadness itself, although we would note in passing that studies of threat may have made similar errors and included many disgust-related stimuli (see Chapter 9).

A second point we must note is that sadness, like many other so-called "negative" emotions, is not inherently negative; thus, even though we associate sadness with predominantly negative phenomenological states, we may watch films such as Brief Encounter because they are "good weepies", or remain unconvinced by "bad" weepies because they fail to induce a persuasive state of sadness. As Shelley wrote, "Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought". We will also argue later, when we consider combinations of basic emotions, that sadness and the "opposite" emotion of happiness may combine, for example in complex emotional states such as nostalgia. Rapid oscillations between sadness and happiness can be seen in some cases of mania which may often be more of a disinhibited or emotionally labile condition rather than simply an abnormal and extreme variant of happiness (see Chapter 10).

So what is sadness? The sense that this question is similar to asking for a definition of the colour "red" perhaps adds weight to the proposal that sadness is basic, as we discussed in Chapter 3 in the section on basic emotions. Part of the definition of sadness emphasises the possible contexts in which it occurs; thus, it could be defined as that state appropriate to being in a graveyard in which one is reminded both of one's own mortality and of the loss of the people one loves. But is the gravedigger in a constant state of sadness? Presumably not. Again, we think of continuing or unchanging states as associated with abnormality and disorder; thus, even in extreme though normal grief reactions one may laugh, cry, and get angry with the lost person rather than remain in a constant state of sadness. We must define sadness, therefore, in terms of a number of features (cf. Lazarus, 1991), which in Chapters 2 and 5 we have identified as the key external or internal event, an interpretation, an appraisal, a physiological state, an action potential, conscious awareness, and overt behaviour. To elaborate on these and other points:

1 There is an appraisal of loss or failure, in which the lost object or goal varies in degree of importance and type; it could be a person, a place ("Oh to be in England, now that April's here"), an ambition that has not been attained, an object of personal value (e.g., a special pen, an important gift), or a loss of an ideal or moral value. The focus of sadness is therefore on the appraisal of loss of one or more goals across one or more domains.

2 The loss need not be permanent, but could be a temporary separation from a loved one or a loved place, or even a sadness experienced at the return to a loved one or a loved place following a period of separation. We would therefore disagree with analyses of loss that suggest that the loss need be permanent or irrevocable (e.g., Lazarus, 1991; Oatley & Johnson-Laird, 1987).

3 The focus of the loss may be on a significant other rather than oneself, for example, one's child failing an exam or being ill or injured. Indeed, the loss may be communal rather than personal as in the loss of a Head of State, a favourite film star, or a failure by one's national football team in the World Cup. In David Lean's film Brief Encounter, the focus of the loss is on two film stars acting a story that was filmed 60 years ago; therefore we are capable of setting aside these aspects of "reality" in our experience of sadness and other emotions.

4 The temporal frame of the loss may vary from past to present to future. One may reminisce and feel sad about the loss of childhood or of schooldays, just as one may feel sad about a current loss. However, the loss could be an imagined one that has not yet happened as in the imagined future loss of one's parents, or indeed it might never happen except in a dream or a daydream. Some of the most poignant experiences of basic emotions may be in dream states during which complex cognitive appraisals may be absent and the emotion may be activated by the direct route, as outlined in Chapter 5. That said, the prototypical time-focus of sadness is retrospective in contrast to say, anxiety, which has a prospective time-focus.

5 The phenomenological experience thereby differs considerably both in intensity and in duration according to these and other factors, and relates to our earlier discussion of emotions, moods, and dispositions (see Chapter 2). Sadness can be mild and last a few seconds as in the mention of an emotion-laden name in passing in conversation; it can last minutes when the hero dies at the end of a novel; it can last hours because of breaking a favourite ornament; and, in a sense, it can last a lifetime because of the loss of a homeland or of a parent or a child if the person is always remembered with sadness. The intensity of sadness can also be signalled through the involvement of tears or crying (Rottenberg, Gross, Wilhelm, Najmi, & Gotlib, 2002), a unique human response (Power, 1999), although crying can also signal intensity of other emotions such as happiness. Our vocabulary of sadness terms reflects these variations in the intensity and the focus of the loss or failure, as illustrated in Figure 7.1.









Figure 7.1 Examples of terms used to describe the basic emotion of sadness according to variations in intensity and focus.

Figure 7.1 Examples of terms used to describe the basic emotion of sadness according to variations in intensity and focus.

In relation to the key question that we have addressed of all emotions, we must ask what might be the functions of sadness and what are its adaptive features? The fact that we have to ask this question with a hint of surprise reflects something of the bad press that sadness receives in our culture. In many cultures sadness is not considered to be inherently negative, because sadness, or states akin to sadness, are more valued (e.g., Kleinman & Good, 1985; Lutz, 1985); for example, a state of sad reflectiveness may be considered a step along the road to salvation in many Asian societies. These schematic-level goals are therefore both culturally inspired and culturally maintained and may be shared goals between the self and significant others. As Barr-Zisowitz (2000) emphasises, the variation across cultures in the approach to sadness reflects a culture's view of the perceived lack of self-mastery, and the perceived "demands" that may thereby be placed on others in the social network as a consequence of sadness. Both lack of self-mastery and demandingness on others are viewed negatively in cultures that emphasise individuality rather than collectivity and activity rather than passivity. In Western cultures, when a soccer player sheds tears in public, he becomes headline news. One important social function of sadness, therefore, is that it may lead the individual to make emotional and practical demands on others; it can thereby strengthen social bonds and lead to altruism in which others feel sympathy or pity (Izard, 1993).

In addition to its social functions, sadness also serves a more personal function, although this may be overemphasised in our culture because of the emphasis on the active individual. This personal function is the increase in self-focus that may occur in sadness; in such a state of self-focused sadness the individual may review priorities given to important goals and roles in the light of an experienced loss or the possibility of such loss. Such reviews may enable individuals to alter the balance of their lives, for example to reassess the overvaluing of one goal such as work at the expense of others such as personal relationships. Following an irrevocable loss such as that of a partner, the implications for shared goals and plans may be so widespread that the individual may take a considerable length of time to realise the extent of the loss (e.g., the first holiday or the first Christmas without that person) let alone to replace both the person and any mutual plans.

Definitions of emotion that emphasise an "action tendency" (e.g., Frijda, 1986; Lazarus, 1991) associated with each emotion often express a puzzlement because sadness is not associated with an obvious action tendency. This apparent absence even leads Lazarus to question whether or not sadness is an emotion!

In sadness there seems to be no clear action tendency - except inaction, or withdrawal into oneself - that seems consistent with the concept of a mood ... If we treat sadness as a mood, then we are relieved of having to resolve certain difficult issues such as specifying an action tendency. (1991, p. 251)

Along with other researchers we have included "propensities for action" as defining features of emotion (see Chapters 2 and 3). However, we do not experience Lazarus' problem, which leads him to query whether or not sadness is an emotion because it does not fit the Procrustean Bed of his definition. An alternative approach may be to question his definition instead. At the same time, we suggest that there probably is a "propensity for action" in sadness; as outlined above, sadness prompts the individual to make demands for help from members of the social network especially in cultures in which help-seeking is a cultural norm. Indeed, when considered developmentally (e.g., Harris, 1989) it is hard to see what function the accompaniments of sadness such as tears and crying might have in the pre-linguistic infant other than to communicate information about an internal state to the infant's caretakers. This social "propensity for action" is typically inhibited in Western culture because stoicism in the face of adversity is valued. In fact, in the face of extreme disasters such apparent stoicism has been shown to increase the risk of developing elevated post-traumatic stress symptomatology in the longer term (e.g., Joseph, Dalgleish, Thrasher, & Yule, 1995; see Chapter 6). In the Ifaluk, a group of Pacific Islanders studied by Lutz (e.g., 1988), who seem to focus primarily on the interpersonal implications of emotion, the nearest term for sadness is "fago", a type of sadness-compassion felt for someone else who is in need or who has lost someone and who therefore needs help from others. As a tailnote, it should be remarked that the Ifaluk treat happiness as a "negative" emotion and disapprove of it because the "sufferer" may as a consequence come to disregard others.

Another indirect way of inhibiting a culturally unacceptable emotion is to convert it into another more acceptable one. In Western cultures males are not meant to express fear and sadness, so these emotions may be "converted" into more acceptable ones such as anger and excitement. A dramatic example of such a conversion culture is the Ilongot in the Philippines (Rosaldo, 1980). The Ilongot encourage the expression of anger in their young men, because it is seen as a positive emotion. However, emotions such as sadness or grief are not so valued and the practice of head hunting was traditionally used as a means of transforming an extreme and unwanted emotion such as sadness into a positive one such as anger. Fortunately for visiting anthropologists, the practice of head hunting has apparently now stopped.

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