Understanding Loss and the Grief Process

Why Truly Understanding Loss and the Grief Process can help Divided Communities Heal Together

It has been called the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, Syria has gone from being the third largest refugee hosting country in the world, primarily for Iraqi refugees, to its current status of being the largest refugee producing country. Mercy Corps figures from October 2017 reveal more than 11 million Syrians are now on the run, let’s just contemplate that for a moment, that’s enough people to fill 200 Yankee Stadiums. Due to the ongoing conflict soon to enter its seventh year, many people have been forced to leave their homes, families and everything they possess. While 5.2 million have fled to find safety in bordering countries, there are more than 6.3 million people who are displaced in Syria and 13.6 million in need of humanitarian assistance. While those who find safety in neighbouring countries are considered to be the lucky ones, contrary to what may be widely assumed this is not the easy option. Adapting to a new country, language and way of life is not without major challenges and as a result, some people are choosing to return to their home country again.

Conflict and the resulting forced migration have a devastating effect on communities both for those that leave and those who choose to stay behind. In addition to the devastation of losing loved ones, those individuals who are forced to flee can experience multiple stresses that impact their mental well- being. These include, the loss of cultural norms, religious customs, and social support systems, adjustment to a new culture and changes in identity and concept of self. Migration involves the loss of the familiar – this includes language (especially colloquial and dialect), attitudes, values, and beliefs.

The complex interplay of the migration process, cultural bereavement, cultural identity, and cultural congruity, along with biological, psychological and social factors, is hypothesized as playing a significant role in the increased rates of mental illness in affected migrant groups. Most common symptoms reported include high levels of grief, anger, fatigue, fear and loss of control, anxiety, depression and stress affecting relationships within families, daily functioning and health. Psychologists have long acknowledged that the loss of one’s social structure and culture can cause a grief reaction, but in war the mourning process is complicated by three factors: sudden and unexpected loss, ambiguous loss, and the role of anger, hatred and the blaming of the other.  One of the most important parts of the mourning process is the search for an understanding of cause and effect.

While most of us will have suffered some type of loss in our lifetime, as a part of the normal process of loss, mourning allows us to deal with the chaos of grief and through this process most people can move into a new phase of life in a constructive way. But when the brutal violence of conflict results in death and loss, the mourning process, the search for a cause is likely to breed both anger and hatred, directed towards the political, ethnic or religious groups that are on “the other side” of such violence. All too often this anger and hatred cannot be openly discussed out of fear of retaliation and further violence. Any form of healing for the individual and communities as a whole, has to first anticipate and accept this hate and anger that is inherent in the understanding of cause and effect in war, and work with it.

Consideration should also be given to the vast body of literature from Western trained psychologists in postcolonial Africa on the integration of traditional concepts of death, loss, and healing in the aftermath of war and violence. While many rely on religious beliefs and practices as a primary source of support it has also been shown that in order to be fully adequate in addressing the effects of conflict, it was necessary to include traditional mourning practices in all programs for healing. From a psychosocial perspective, the actual importance of rituals, beyond the economic and spiritual aspects, is in the way that they provide a resource for a grieving person to be supported. The rituals in and of themselves are not the salient feature. It is the community mourning and solidarity that accompany them that gave the rituals their power and effect. Let us not underestimate the admirable strength and resilience of the human spirit itself and this exists in abundance particularly in the Syrian community and its people.

In conclusion to be truly successful in tackling mental health issues it is suggested that humanitarian organisations and MHPSS programming need to apply a deeper understanding of the multiple facets of loss and grief while also being attuned to the unique stresses and cultural aspects that affect migrants and refugees escaping war in order to best address those needs. While in no way is it suggested that psycho social support programs attempt to “heal” communities in order to return things to the way they were before conflict. Rather they should try to accompany refugees as they look for ways to work through their multiple experiences of grief and loss.

Aislinn Bradley is a Capacity Development Intern at Trust and a registered Psychologist specializing in children and working in the Psycho Social Care Sector. She has an MSc in Humanitarian Relief & Emergency Management from Dublin City University.

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