Academic Minute Podcast

Jacob Sawyer, Alma College – Examining Myths About Grief and Bereavement

Grief carries many myths.

Jacob Sawyer, assistant professor of psychology at Alma College, determines what’s real and what’s not.

Jacob Sawyer is a counseling psychologist interested in factors related to mental health and well-being. His background and training as a clinician strongly inform his approach to his work as a faculty member. His career at Alma began in 2022.

Examining Myths About Grief and Bereavement

Do beliefs that people endorse about grief and bereavement correspond with recent research findings? It is likely that some do not, even among mental health professionals.

For the past several decades, researchers have suggested that myths about grief and bereavement are fairly common. One common myth is the notion that most people need to engage in intensive emotional expression during bereavement, or “grief work”, as originally proposed by Sigmund Freud. Another is the belief in linear stage models of grief, such as the five stages of grief. Researchers have increasingly noted that grief does not progress through predictable stages, and have cautioned that the belief in stage models of grief could actually be harmful for the bereaved.

To assess beliefs and potential myths, my co-authors and I developed a survey with 12 statements about grief and bereavement, and analyzed data from a sample of mental health professionals and the general public. While mental health professionals were less likely to endorse myths about grief and bereavement compared to the general public, 85% percent of mental health professionals significantly overestimated the proportion of individuals who go on to develop intense, long-term distress during bereavement, and close to half endorsed a belief in stage models of grief. Similarly, 68% of the general public endorsed a belief in stage models of grief.

Findings from the study highlight the work that is still necessary in promoting what researchers have termed “grief literacy”, which consists of knowledge, skills, and values related to grief. Increased grief literacy is necessary for the general public, since we will all experience grief, and for mental health professionals, who will need to competently assist bereaved individuals in their clinical work.

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