Cruse Bereavement Care DOI

©2013 Cruse Bereavement Care DOI: 10.1080/02682621.2013.779821
16 BereavementCare
A culture of silent grief:
the transformation of bereavement care in 20th
Century England
Patricia Jalland
PhD, MA, BA (Hons), PGCE, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, London;
Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences Australia
Professor of History, Australian National University
[email protected]
Abstract: Why was Cruse Bereavement Care created in 1959? This article explores that and other questions in the broader
context of the twentieth century history of bereavement in England. Ignorance and silence about death and loss were
widespread in the fifty years after 1914: cultural norms were transformed by two world wars, the decline of religion,
and demographic change. In the inter-war years responses to bereavement varied widely, according to class, gender,
region and religion. The two world wars had a profound and cumulative impact on the prolonged process of change
in the attitudes and behaviour relating to death and bereavement. The Second World War created a greater break with
the past as a pervasive culture of avoidance, minimal ritual and suppressed grieving became entrenched in the English
psyche. From the 1970s cultural change encouraged the revival of expressive grieving and the increasing popularity of
bereavement counselling. Psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes introduced the lay person to bereavement in his influential
1972 pioneering work. Increasing emphasis today is placed on diversity in grieving, reflecting our changing cultural
Keywords: Bereavement, history, England, Cruse, rituals, emotions
In 1959 Margaret Torrie founded the Cruse Bereavement Care organisation for widows, after recognising their suffering while working for the Citizens Advice Bureau
(BBC, 1960a). It is difficult today to appreciate how
widespread and deep-rooted was the ignorance, silence
and embarrassment about grief in the fifty years or so
from 1918. It was almost impossible for the bereaved to
appeal directly for help in a society where the majority
preferred to ignore grief. Bereavement could be an isolating
and frightening experience up to the 1960s, with society
offering minimal emotional and social support, and little
advice. Harold Orlans observed in 1957 that the growing
literature of modern psychology had thus far conspicuously
failed to deal with the fundamental human problems of
death and grief. Even the churches and religious authors
were not offering the leadership which might have been
expected, until the publication of CS Lewis’s book,
A Grief
, in 1961 (Orlans, 1957; Lewis, 1961).
Cultural norms relating to death and bereavement have
shifted dramatically in England over the past hundred years,
shaped powerfully by the decline of religion, the two world
wars, demographic change and the medical revolution. This
article will explore these themes and draws on research for
the author’s recent book
Death in War and Peace. A history
of loss and grief in England, 1914 – 1970
(Jalland, 2010).
This book was informed by unpublished letters and diaries
and other primary sources in English archives, which were
vital sources in a field of historical study where so little has
been published. I have documented a gradual change from
a dominant Christian culture of open acceptance of death
and loss in England in the 1850s to avoidance and reticence
a century later.
Christianity still played a powerful part in the lives
and deaths of many Victorians, offering families hope of
immortality and a model of acceptance of death as the will
of God. Christianity allowed individuals to express sorrow
in overtly emotional terms, using the familiar language
of the bible and popular hymns. Victorian women were
traditionally more active than men in the care of the dying
and in performing the important rituals which facilitated
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the process of grieving. They also played a major role
in offering practical support and helpful consolation to
relatives and friends in bereavement, often reminiscing
about lost loved ones for hours at a time (Jalland, 1996).
Expressions of grief varied according to class, as well as
gender, region and religion. Julie-Marie Strange shows that
the nineteenth century British working-class culture of grief
was often expressed through symbolic rituals rather than
more overt emotion and formal language. The working
classes were all too familiar with death, but they tended to
be resigned and pragmatic in managing their emotions, even
on the deaths of babies and children. Grief might be silent
and inarticulate but it was nonetheless genuine. Mothers
would often conceal intense grief on the deaths of children,
instead showing their affection and respect through their
prolonged performance of complex last rites involving
family and community. Care of the corpse in the home,
viewing of the dead, dignified funerals and communal
wakes were part of a vital working-class culture which
survived in some communities into the 1940s (Strange,
Whereas religious faith was a dominant force in the
history of death and loss in England in the nineteenth
century, after 1914 it became just one of several important
variables, playing a more diffuse and less influential role.
Instead, demographic change and the medical revolution
were more fundamental in the twentieth century history of
grief and bereavement. A striking new demographic pattern
started about 1870 with a continuous decline in mortality
from infectious diseases and increased life expectancy. The
sulphonamide drugs and penicillin from 1935 onwards
revolutionised modern medicine and vastly increased
doctors’ power to cure. The loss of a patient represented
failure; death and bereavement became topics to be evaded.
Moreover, death increasingly moved from family control at
home to hospitals which were concerned with medical and
technical efficiency to prolong life (Jalland, 2010 pps 5-7,
182-4, 197, 249-51).
The two world wars had an immense and cumulative
impact on the transformation of responses to death and
bereavement in the fifty years from 1914. The enormous
number of dead soldiers and the nature of their deaths were
horrific in World War 1, and communal grief overwhelming.
But there were powerful pressures for both soldiers and
their families at home to remain stoical about their personal
losses – to ‘keep up appearances’, the English ‘stiff upper
lip’, to maintain morale. Indeed in letters home serving
sons and husbands urged their families to be brave if
they died, and to grieve for them in silence. The
was confident in 1916 that the huge sacrifices
at the Somme would be borne ‘with Spartan courage’ by
the brave women of Barnsley. They must show ‘the same
fortitude under affliction’ as their men at the front, in the
national interest (Jalland 2010, Barnsley Chronicle 1916).
David Cannadine has argued that interwar England was so
obsessed by death in the face of widespread bereavement
that conventional mourning rituals were unable to cope.
Victorian death practices and rituals seemed both inadequate
and inappropriate (Cannadine,1961 pp 187-242).
The interwar generation grew up in a bleak atmosphere
of economic depression and mass mourning for the soldiers
of the Great War, whose photographs on mantelpieces
provided poignant reminders. The ex-servicemen themselves
often tried to forget their horrific experiences in the
trenches, as Tony Walter observes:
This sets up a pattern in families in which stress, by women
as well as by men, is coped with by not talking about it.
Children in the inter-war period typically had parents who
chose to remain silent about wartime experience and who
bore the depression of the 1930s with great stoicism; their
children were required to fight in the Second World War
confirming the necessity for courageous silence (Walter,
1999, p40).
In the interwar years responses to death and bereavement
varied widely, according to class, region and religion. In
the North of England, the Midlands and the Celtic fringe
there were powerful continuities with the working-class
culture of death and loss before 1914. Older traditions
were often surprisingly resilient in these areas, especially
among the lower working classes, older people and women.
Strong working-class resistance to the modern invention
of cremation continued into the 1960s. The picture was
complex and multilayered (Jalland, 2010, pp 83-4).
Outside the depressed mining areas ritualised grieving
remained a vital aspect of Lancashire working-class life.
Elizabeth Roberts’ interviews with 160 older women in
Preston, Barrow and Lancaster reveal that spiritual beliefs
and folk religion were still influential, while families
accepted the loss of babies and children stoically but sadly.
The performance of long-established rituals was seen as
vitally important in providing comfort. From 1800 to 1940
death, like birth, remained in the experienced care of female
family members and neighbours. Continuity with the past
was powerful. A respected neighbourhood layer-out washed
the body, dressed it in a clean nightgown, and placed
The two world wars had an
immense and cumulative
impact on the transformation
of responses to death and
bereavement in the fifty years
from 1914.

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pennies on the eyes, a loving procedure offering sympathy
and respect. The body in the open coffin was kept at home
in the front parlour, surrounded by flowers, with curtains
drawn, as kin and neighbours paid their last respects
(Roberts, 1984, 1989).
A ‘good send-off’ at a crowded, respectable funeral was
considered vitally important in Lancashire. Funerals were
acknowledged to serve the needs of the living, allowing
them to confront the reality of the death and start the
grieving process. The funeral tea with ham sandwiches was
prepared for mourners after the funeral by the layer-out or
neighbours. As Roberts notes, ‘the funeral tea was a time
for family solidarity with stories and reminiscences about
the dead person’. The family then went into mourning for
a considerable time, though the twelve months mourning
which was usual before 1914 declined in the interwar
years. The family wore black mourning clothes and severely
reduced their social activity:
People were given time to grieve, indeed they were expected
to grieve. There appears to have been little expectation that
they should smile brightly and pretend nothing happened.
The dead were constantly remembered, they were talked
about, their photographs were displayed and their graves
Family members went to the cemetery most Sunday
afternoons to tend the graves: ‘And [the dead] went on
living, so to speak, in conversation and memory for some
considerable time’ (Roberts, 1984, 1989).
The important roles of layer-out, family and community
were gradually replaced by the formal professional care of
doctors, nurses and funeral directors. With the introduction
of the National Health Service in 1948, health care became
more a matter for the hospital, and home nursing was
supervised by the district nurse. From the 1940s death was
increasingly taken over from the community of women by
male professionals, notably funeral directors and doctors
(Roberts, 1984, 1989; Adams, 1993). Although workingclass attitudes to death changed very slowly over decades,
many old customs were gradually abandoned or attenuated.
But the rate of change varied greatly by region and class. A
surprising number of rituals described by Roberts survived
among the northern working classes into the 1960s, often
in a reduced form.
The coalminers in the north of England and Wales
experienced more deaths in peacetime than the rest of the
working class, and responded in ways that were deeply
rooted in the past. They faced appalling disasters frequently,
losing about a thousand men annually in the five years up
to 1931. Miners were often compared to soldiers in the
trenches in the Great War, in which a quarter of miners
enlisted. In the interwar mining catastrophes, as in the
Great War, suppression of emotion was common and
necessary to help men survive the ordeal (Jalland, 2010
pp 84-6).
Strict cultural conventions governed the behaviour
of the mining communities and the press in dealing with
bereavement. The role models for the bereaved families
were the miners and the soldiers of the Great War – an
entirely masculine model. The long ‘watch of agony’ at
the pithead was maintained by stoical families seeking
to suppress their distress. Crowds of thousands would
wait in silence for news, day and night. As bodies were
recovered, the colliery yards were ‘crowded with dry-eyed
but woebegone women’. Even at the dreaded public ritual
of identifying the bodies there were usually ‘no emotional
scenes’ and widows maintained a ‘dignified calm’. The
newspapers respected the privacy of the bereaved to a
degree inconceivable today (Jalland, 2010 pp 86-92).
The emotional needs of so many bereaved families were
not recognised as they would be today. Support mechanisms
such as bereavement counselling and mutual help groups
were a phenomenon of the future. Family sorrow took
place behind the drawn blinds and closed doors of little
cottages: families dealt with their loss privately as best
they could, with limited neighbourly support. We can
only speculate on the effect of so many violent pit deaths
on the consoling family rituals practised elsewhere in the
north, such as the laying-out of the corpse and the wake
held around it. The circumstances of pit deaths often made
these social rituals impossible, especially as many victims’
remains were buried in the pit. Widows were likely to
be pauperised by the loss of breadwinners and bereaved
families were often obliged by poverty to move away
(Jalland, 2010 pp 86-92).
During the Second World War the defence forces again
provided the stoical model for the country to follow, as
they had in the earlier world war. As George MacDonald
Fraser noted, after fighting in Burma, ‘The celebrated
stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is
not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just
plain common sense’ (Mac Donald Fraser 1993, pp 76-
90). Civilians willingly followed the soldiers’ example
in response to Churchill’s call for courage and stoicism
during the German air blitz on British cities. The dark
side of the blitz story was suppressed or sanitised to
sustain morale in the interests of survival. The government
encouraged civilians not to dwell on the fatalities and the
intense distress of individual bereaved people in wartime.
Manchester Guardian in 1945 regretted the massive
price paid for victory, in ‘the suffering of those who bear
these losses silently within their families’. Indeed, mass
bereavement in one sense devalued the grief of individuals
Manchester Guardian, 1945; Jalland, 2010).
The Second World War marked a deeper break with
the past than the Great War. The change in cultural
norms affecting death and bereavement was more intense,
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widespread, and long-lasting from the 1940s. Open and
expressive sorrow was more strongly discouraged in favour
of a pervasive model of suppressed, privatised grieving
which became deeply entrenched in the nation’s social
psychology. The cultural prescription which privileged
stoicism and silence in the face of loss had long affected
upper-middle-class men, soldiers in wartime, the unskilled
working classes, and the poor. But in the twenty years after
1945 it spread more broadly across much of the English
community (Jalland, 2010).
The war made emotional restraint the customary code
for all, regardless of gender, and thus affected women
more deeply than men. The gender gap was reduced as
women internalised their sorrow, and moved closer to a
traditionally male pattern of grieving. Women understood
during the war that it seemed self-indulgent ‘to spread one’s
own sorrows’ when thousands of others were suffering
in silence. Many women had taken to heart the wartime
prescriptions about the appropriate way to deal with grief:
‘you must hide your feelings: you do your mourning quietly,
alone. The same as you might do praying’. This shift in
female patterns of grieving made a major contribution to
the culture of silence about death and grief that was so
pervasive after 1945 (Jalland, 2010).
It is a particular challenge for a historian to explore
the nature of a culture of grief characterised by silence,
as in the two decades after 1945. Bereaved people lacked
guidelines to help them understand and cope with their
grief, except wartime conventions which dealt with public
morale not personal sorrow. They faced their loss before
psychiatrists had constructed theories of grief relating to
the broader culture. There were no mutual support groups,
bereavement counsellors or advice books. Bereaved people
were advised to keep busy, and move on, even if their hearts
were breaking. They must behave normally, pretend to be
cheerful, but grieve privately in silence.
Widows received little attention or community support
in the 1940s or 1950s. Many sought refuge from sorrow in
apathy and avoidance, while the community looked away.
One war widow spoke to sociologist Peter Marris on the
1960 BBC radio program, ‘The World of the Widow’. She
was deeply shocked by her widowhood at age 27: ‘I felt
completely at sea and it took me a long time to recover my
feeling for life at all’; emotional problems crowded in on
her. She had felt obliged ‘to put on a good show’ because
she had no choice and the community did not want to hear
about her grief. She noted that most people had no idea
what sort of effort it cost widows to ‘appear normal on the
surface’ (BBC, 1960b).
Audrey Deacon was one of many war widows whose
grief lasted for years because she tried to suppress it,
and those around her colluded in the silence. When her
husband, Terry Deacon, an army officer, was killed in 1943,
she threw herself into frenetic war work in the Women’s
Royal Naval Service. As Audrey noted in her diary, the
Normandy landings allowed her to block her grief through
hard work and exhaustion. In September 1945, fifteen
months after Terry’s death, she noted, ‘I’m not facing
life’, though ‘I don’t actively want to die now’. Audrey
acknowledged that she had lived without purpose, ‘in a
blind unthinking state of numbness mentally’. Years later,
in 1948, Audrey admitted that she had failed to ‘assimilate
the catastrophe’ into her life, and give it some meaning,
relapsing instead into a prolonged state of apathy. After
several years of depression she at last recovered with the
help of religious consolation and a successful career in
social welfare (Deacon, 1940-45).
Audrey Deacon’s story could be repeated many times
among war widows who found refuge from sorrow in
apathy and avoidance while the community looked away.
Margaret Torrie, a Quaker and pacifist, became aware of
the suffering of such widows during the 1950s in the course
of her work at the Citizens Advice Bureau. Consequently,
in 1959 she established the Cruse Bereavement Care
organisation for widows, initially to provide practical
services and meeting places, with associated doctors and
social workers. The title Cruse stood for charity to a widow
in the nineteenth century, and supposedly originated in a
miraculous cruse of oil given to a widow by the prophet
Elijah in thanks for sharing her last meal during a famine.
Margaret Torrie was supported in this endeavour by her
husband, Dr Alfred Torrie, a psychiatrist, whose own
therapeutic work had made him aware of the need for
social support. In 1960 the Torries were interviewed for
the BBC
World of the Widow programme, which explained
the results of Peter Marris’s research into the nature of
grief. The Torries emphasised the little-known fact that the
painful symptoms of grief were widely experienced and
usually normal. They explained that the Cruse club was so
urgently needed because so many widows felt completely
isolated, as most people avoided the subjects of death and
bereavement which were so little understood (BBC, 1960a).
Several widows who had joined Cruse were interviewed
for Marris’s BBC programme. One said she had come
to Cruse a month after her husband died: ‘It’s done me
wonders – I don’t know what I would have done without
it’, since it allowed her to share similar troubles with
other widows, who offered sympathy and advice. Another
woman said Cruse had been a great comfort as she had
Bereaved people were advised
to keep busy, and move on,
even if their hearts were

©2013 Cruse Bereavement Care
previously never known a bereaved person and had no idea
what grief was like: ‘friends sympathise but I feel they don’t
really understand’. It was a great consolation to have the
companionship and sympathetic bond of Cruse: ‘You just
can’t explain the feelings [of grief] to others who have not
experienced it’ (BBC, 1960a).
Dr and Mrs Torrie were delighted with Cruse’s early
achievements in the first eighteen months, with numerous
requests to extend the organisation and open up centres
across England. They emphasised that it was vital to bring
widows together for mutual help and support from other
widows and caseworkers, who provided the springboard
for return to their own community with a sense of renewal.
However, the development of the Cruse organisation had to
be professional and efficient: ‘We want a serious counselling
service’, they insisted, and not ‘a party of wailing women’.
The Torries succeeded in gaining the confidence of the
medical profession, statutory groups, and voluntary
societies (BBC, 1960a).
Dr Colin Murray Parkes and Derek Nuttall each
played a major role in Cruse’s subsequent development
and achievements. Dr Parkes succeeded Dr Torrie as
chairman of Cruse’s governing body, and Nuttall took over
from Margaret Torrie as director of Cruse. Both men had
earlier done pioneering work in developing bereavement
counselling for families following the Aberfan disaster in
1966. Parkes also worked with Dame Cicely Saunders
at St. Christopher’s Hospice, and set up the first hospicebased bereavement service in England in 1969. But as Dr
Parkes noted, Cruse ‘provided the opportunity to develop a
network of bereavement care across the whole of the United
Kingdom’, training ‘members of the caring professions as
well as volunteer counsellors in the skills of bereavement
care’ (Parkes, 1986 pp 17, 186-7).
There was considerable emphasis in the early years of
Cruse on Christian consolation, combined with practical
advice about coping with social and financial problems.
Cruse ultimately achieved remarkable success, becoming
Britain’s leading bereavement agency, placing increasing
focus on psychological and emotional counselling. Cruse
published the
Cruse Chronicle for bereaved people, and
the journal
Bereavement Care for all those with an interest
in bereavement. The service was extended to widowers
in 1980 and to all people bereaved by death in 1987
(Richards, 2009). By the 1990s Cruse had become a largely
secular organisation in which sympathetic understanding,
psychological counselling and well-tested grief theories
largely replaced religious faith (Parkes, 1986; Walter, 1999
pp 196-8).
As late as 1963 the social anthropologist Geoffrey
Gorer was so concerned about the community’s wish
to avoid the subjects of death and bereavement that he
undertook an extensive social investigation. This was
published two years later as
Death, Grief and Mourning
in Contemporary Britain
. Gorer was partly motivated to
write his book by the harrowing experience of his brother’s
death from cancer in 1961, leaving a distressed young
widow and two children. His widowed sister-in-law dealt
with her bereavement by trying to behave as if nothing
had happened, taking her children for a picnic instead of
attending the cremation ceremony. She could not bear the
prospect of losing emotional control and allowing others
to observe her grief. There were no rituals and she was
unable to mention her husband for months, even to her
own children. Elizabeth believed her friends avoided her as
if she was a leper. She was only socially acceptable if she
pretended nothing had happened: ‘She did not wear black
clothes, nor ritualize her grief; she let herself be almost
literally eaten up with grief, when she most needed help and
comfort she was left alone’. Elizabeth eventually required
longer-term psychiatric help to deal with unresolved grief
(Gorer, 1965, pp 216-8).
Gorer argued in his book that societies without
mourning rituals and rules of behaviour in bereavement
were dysfunctional. He deplored the decline of mourning
rituals in England after 1914, since they had once provided
vital support for the bereaved: without them many widows,
like Elizabeth, would hide their sorrow. Gorer found that
rituals were preserved more tenaciously among the working
classes, having been largely abandoned by the middle and
upper classes since 1914, especially in the south-east of
England. His results suggested that the vast majority of
middle- and upper-class people in 1963 acted in public as
if nothing had happened after a death. Giving way to grief
was stigmatized as morbid and unhealthy (Gorer, 1965,
pp 218-25).
Gorer concluded that many women, in particular, would
deny their feelings to themselves, as well as in public, and
fight against giving them expression. This could lead to
prolonged or chronic grief, identified by psychiatrist Dr
Colin Murray Parkes as intense and lasting many years.
Parkes thought chronic grief had become a more common
problem in the 1950s and 1960s among people who kept ‘a
stiff upper lip’ in grief. It could involve years of continued
pining for the lost loved one, severe distress and social
isolation. Gorer believed widows from the comfortable
…the Cruse club was so
urgently needed because so
many widows felt completely
isolated, as most people avoided
the subjects of death and

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classes were particularly prone to suffer the despair of
prolonged grief (Gorer, 1965; Parkes, 1986).
Most people in Gorer’s study who hid their grief were
women. As we have seen, cultural norms had altered since
1914 so that women felt they should grieve more like
men. Gorer identified 15% of his eighty interviewees as
‘in despair’, palpable to him as interviewer in their long
silences and toneless voices. Most said they would never
recover from their grief. Many readers wrote to Gorer
in the 1960s, endorsing his picture of widows in despair
among the middle classes in the south of England. Gorer’s
contribution to the history of grief was substantial, but
ironically his book was not widely read because of the very
silences about which he protested (Gorer, 1965, pp 224-32).
Even Christianity and the churches offered little
leadership for the bereaved until the publication of C S
Lewis’s book,
A Grief Observed, in 1961. This was written
after his wife Joy died, and later popularised by Richard
Attenborough’s film ‘
Shadowlands’. The book offered an
elegant and harrowing analysis of Lewis’s own personal
experience of bereavement. It became an instant best
seller, telling readers what grief was actually like for Lewis
and selling well ever since, helping many thousands. It
demonstrated the complexities that profound religious faith
could add to the grieving experience, and also suggested
the longer term consolations of faith for believers. It almost
certainly had more influence as a popular guide to grief
in the 1960s and 1970s than the works of the early social
science experts (Lewis, 1961; Jalland, 2010 pp 236-44).
Some sociologists have argued that the gradual
secularisation of English society caused an inevitable decline
in religion, but most historians have resisted this hypothesis.
There is some justification for the argument that the churches
allowed leadership relating to death and bereavement to shift
to medicine and psychology. Still, the churches have survived
in England since the 1970s and continue to offer some
comfort to the bereaved, reinforced by new immigrants’ ways
of dealing with grief in a multicultural society. We also need
to take into account the survival of folk religion in rural and
more isolated areas, perpetuating a popular belief in a God
and an ill-defined afterlife.
Most research on grief until the 1950s addressed
psychiatric problems of abnormal responses to loss, such
as pathological or prolonged grief. Freud’s 1917 essay
on ‘Mourning and melancholia’ had included only a few
paragraphs on the ‘normal emotion of grief’ which derived
from Freud’s theories on psychoanalysis (Freud 1984,
pp 251-67). However, these few paragraphs were the basis
for the later influential concept of ‘grief-work’, with its
prolonged struggle to reconcile contradictory impulses.
The first British psychiatrist to introduce the lay person
to grief was Dr Colin Murray Parkes in his classic 1972
Bereavement: Studies of grief in adult life. This
offered a valuable analytical framework for the symptoms
of grief, drawn from his own empirical research and clinical
experience. Parkes’s book was a unique and pioneering
account in 1972 and subsequent editions have stood the test
of time. He emphasised that the phases of grieving were not
a neat progression of fixed stages, but varied significantly
between individuals: ‘grief is a painful process of change,
by which someone gradually gives up one world and enters
another’ (Parkes, 1986).
A significant change since the 1970s has been the
revival of expressive grieving, led principally by middleclass women. This is a striking reversal of the process
over the previous fifty years, whereby women tended to
follow men’s more restrained pattern of grieving. This
change in English cultural norms began in the 1960s, as
one facet of a so-called ‘counter-culture’ or ‘expressive
revolution’. Significant changes in the cultural, intellectual,
and social climate encouraged more liberal attitudes
and greater freedom of emotional expression, the latter
affecting women more than men. A shift in ideas, attitudes
and modes of behaviour included a new receptiveness to
more permissive ideas from the United States. Sociologist
Bernice Martin argues that the process influenced broader
cultural values, though middle-class women and the caring
professions were most strongly affected (Jalland, 2010,
pp 252-4; Martin, 1981).
Expressive grieving became more common from
the 1970s, encouraged by the expansion of the popular
bereavement counselling movement. Cruse counsellors for
widows focused on the individual, working through the
phases of grief in one-to-one sessions or in groups. Many
bereavement counsellors and their clients are women, and
the care they offer focuses on the expression of feelings.
By contrast, mutual help groups such as Compassionate
Friends for bereaved parents see themselves as communities
in which common experiences of loss can best be shared
with others suffering in the same way. The oral testimony
of Val Hazel describes the support she found in a mutual
help group after her 9-year-old son Jeff died from a rare
brain tumour in 1976. After the funeral Val found that
people outside the family tried to avoid her, because they
didn’t know what to say, and thought that she should
grieve quietly at home. But Val needed to talk about Jeff
and she found the ideal outlet for her feelings in sharing
her sorrow with other bereaved parents she had met at
St Bartholomew’s Hospital. She was in touch with many
such parents ‘all in the same boat… And we just rang each
A significant change since the
1970s has been the revival of
expressive grieving …

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other and we were talking about the children endlessly.
And it wasn’t all doom and gloom’. This informal mutual
help group was invaluable because other people who had
suffered in the same way could sometimes help more than
family or friends. Val tended to show a brave face to the
outside world, not revealing her real feelings. Her husband
John found bereavement particularly challenging because he
internalised his emotions: ‘he’s a very quiet person anyway,
who does hide feelings. And I think he found it extremely
difficult, not being able to let go of his feelings’. John
didn’t join Val in talking to other parents at Barts Hospital,
sharing the reluctance of many men to attend mutual help
groups (British Library, 1991). This reflects many men’s
inclination to contain their feelings in bereavement and to
focus more on solving practical problems.
Though many more people have expressed their sorrow
openly in England since the 1970s, the influence and
geographical spread of expressive grieving should not be
overstated. Those affected are more likely to be educated
middle-class people, particularly women, from the cities,
large towns, and the south. White working-class families
in the north, the Celtic fringe and rural areas are more
likely to have retained vestiges of their traditional ways of
mourning. We can be sure that diversity continues.
In the last twenty years a substantial theoretical
literature on grief and bereavement has been published
by social scientists. More emphasis has been placed on
diversity in grieving and far less on prescriptive stages
and time limits. In 1993 the psychologist Paul Rosenblatt
observed that grief is shaped by its social context: ‘cultures
differ widely in defining death and in defining what is an
appropriate expression of grief’ (Rosenblatt, 1993). A
number of experts over the last two decades have suggested
that people may show their sorrow in a variety of ways,
and that patterns of behaviour may change over time and
across gender and different cultures. Margaret Stroebe and
Henk Schut proposed that grief is not a simple universal
process with a succession of fixed stages. Instead healthy
oscillation is needed, between dwelling on the death, the
grief, and the emotions on the one hand, and dealing with
the practical consequences on the other. (Stroebe and Schut,
1999). Such theories are now passed on to bereaved people
by helpful counsellors and practical advice manuals: fewer
people today should suffer as Audrey Deacon and many
others did in the 1940s and 1950s.
Gorer proposed in 1965 that new and inspiring secular
mourning rituals were needed to help the bereaved (Gorer,
1965 pp 76-7, 110-16). He would no doubt have approved
of the revival of expressive grieving from the late 1970s
and the new enthusiasm for celebrating the life of the
deceased at remembrance ceremonies. He might also have
welcomed the green burial movement, though perhaps not
the ubiquitous roadside memorials. Gorer’s own failure to
propose appropriate new rituals underscored the challenges
involved in a more secular and individualised society.
Different views about socially acceptable behaviour for
grieving reflect our changing cultural boundaries. The
public expression of private grief and the nature of the most
appropriate bereavement care remain contested, deeply
influenced by our social and cultural history.

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