What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the Sunset.
Simone de Beauvoir

What someone experiences after a death is very personal and no two people react the same way or on the same time line. Even identical twins may respond to the loss of a parent differently. Which reactions each person has can vary in intensity from time to time and from one death to another.

The various factors that can influence grief include:

Who was the deceased and how was he/she related to the bereaved?

The first factor we will look at is the most obvious – who was the deceased and how was he/she related to the bereaved. Was the deceased a work colleague, a national figure, a lover, a friend, a grandparent, a parent, a sibling, a spouse/partner, a child, etc.? In each case, the grief will be different. For example, most of us assume that the likelihood of dying increases as we get older (which statistically is true). Therefore, an elderly grandparent’s death typically does not impact us as much as the death of a child does. Similarly, the death of a spouse is different than the death of a parent.

What was the relationship between the bereaved person and the deceased?

The second factor is the nature of the relationship between the bereaved person and the deceased. Was it a close, loving relationship, an abusive one, an ambivalent one, or a combination? Every relationship has its good and its bad sides. Does the good outweigh the bad or vice versa? Was it a conflicted relationship that now produces conflicted grief? An example of conflicted grief could be a combination of sadness and a sense of freedom after the death of an abusive parent. “I loved my Dad, but I’m glad the S.O.B. is dead! He can’t hurt me anymore.” Conflicted grief can be difficult to work through as these two divergent feelings are resolved.

The relationship with the deceased also highlights the concept of secondary losses. The primary loss is the actual death of the deceased person. The many secondary losses are those losses represented by the deceased. For example, the loss of parents can lead to a feeling of loss of basic security – “I am an orphan now and have no ultimate sanctuary. I am truly on my own.” A secondary loss from the death of a child could be a feeling of having no legacy to leave behind, or there is no one to take care of me when I grow old. The secondary loss from the death of a bread-winning spouse could be the loss of financial security. The list can go on, but the point is that the deceased is no longer here to fill the various roles that he/she previously did. Our grief, then, is not just for the person who died, it is also for ourselves and what our lives are like now. Grief we have for ourselves is not a selfish response; it is a realistic response to how we view our current situation.

How did the death occur?

The third factor affecting our grief responses is how the death occurred. Did it occur after a long-term terminal illness or was it unexpected like a sudden heart attack? Was it seemly preventable (e.g., an automobile accident), violent/traumatic (e.g., a homicide or natural disaster), or ambiguous (e.g., an MIA in wartime or an unrecoverable body from the World Trade Center on 9/11). Perhaps the death is a stigmatized death (e.g., suicide or AIDS) that leads to disenfranchised grief.

What experience has the bereaved had with previous losses?

The fourth factor affecting grief responses is what experience the bereaved has had with previous losses. The reactions of someone who has had experience in adequately grieving previous losses will differ from someone who has never had a loss.

What are the personality and developmental characteristics of the bereaved?

The fifth factor is a group of personality and developmental characteristics of the bereaved. Such things as age, gender, ability to cope effectively with stress, positive vs. negative outlook on life, degree of self-esteem, and beliefs and values all enter into this factor. The impact of these is so important and extensive that I address them more fully in the discussion about mourning.

To what extent does the bereaved person have an effective support system?

The sixth factor affecting grief responses is the extent to which the bereaved person has an effective support system. While many people think we mourn in private, we really mourn both privately and in a social community. The support of others from our family, friends, church, etc. is critically important. How individual and social support affects the bereaved is another area I address them more fully in the discussion about mourning

What else is happening in the life of the bereaved?

The final factor affecting grief reactions is what else is happening in the life of the bereaved. A bereaved person who is healthy and vibrant will react differently than someone who is ill and frail.

As you can see, there are many reasons for two different people to experience different reactions to the same death. No two people are exactly alike, no two relationships are exactly alike, and no two deaths are exactly alike.