Much research suggests that attachment styles play a significant role in how people grieve the loss of a loved one.
Most of us are likely to be profoundly impacted by a loss at some point in our lives. As one psychologist put it, ”life is the number-one cause of death’’.
Thus, grief and joy are intermittent polarities that are part of the human experience.
According to John Bowlby’s evolutionary theory of attachment, how we grieve the loss of a loved one stretches back to how we formed earlier childhood attachments to caregivers.
Bowlby’s attachment theory has spanned over many decades and has since had a profound influence on our understanding of relational dynamics.
For example, how and why people form specific attachments, why some people thrive in adult relationships while others tend to struggle, and ultimately, how the grieving process gets impacted by the attachment styles we develop.
According to Bowlby, our attachment system gets activated when a loved one passes away. Thus, in times of deep mourning, we use our attachment styles to cope with the trauma and adversity of such loss to regain our sense of security.
Essentially, attachment styles are patterns of feeling, thinking and believing. Such attachment styles allow us to make sense of our connections to others and increase our capacity to maintain stable relationships with those around us.
For example, in childhood, our attachment styles enabled us to adjust to parenting styles and the environmental conditions in which we grew up.
Different attachment styles
Bowlby explained that there are four main attachment styles, and depending on the type of attachment style a person develops in childhood will determine how they relate to others in adult life.
#1. Secure Attachment
According to attachment theory, if caregivers demonstrate consistency, responsiveness and availability towards their children, it is likely that the child will feel secure in their parental relationships and will not need to do much to maintain that security.
Such secure attachment bonds allow people to accurately perceive and respond to others, connect easily in relationships, and regulate their behaviours and emotions in healthy ways.
#2. Avoidant Attachment
When parental figures dismiss or reject a child’s need for reassurance and closeness, they will automatically learn to deny their own negative emotions and needs for close relationships.
Those with avoidant attachment styles tend to maximize their feelings of security in their parental/caregiver relationships by developing avoidant attachment styles (often referred to as ‘dismissive’ in adult life).
An example of this is when a person strives to win their parents approval through achievements such as in sports and academics. People with avoidant attachment styles usually act self-assured and confident.
#3. Anxious attachment
When caregivers demonstrate inconsistency towards their children – i.e. when they exhibit hot and cold behaviours (sometimes loving and warm and other times cold and rejecting), the child will adjust to these parenting styles by carefully monitoring their parent’s moods to maintain any remnants of security.
For example, when a parent appears cold or rejecting, the child will know to leave the room to stave off any further rejecting behaviours before they occur.
Attachment style struggles
Children with anxious attachment styles (sometimes referred to as ‘preoccupied’) usually experience intense grief responses in later life.
Their anxious attachment style has taught them to stay close to their loved ones, remain on guard for any rejecting behaviours, and thus, have a much harder time letting go.
People with anxious attachment styles tend to experience prolonged grief since they often struggle to understand what has happened and don’t like to let go.
#4. Disorganized attachment
Disorganized attachment occurs when children grow up in unpredictable environments where a parent is frightened (traumatized, terrorized or victimized) or frightening (abusive, bullying, angry).
In the above scenarios, children cannot develop organized coping mechanisms or adapt due to their unpredictable environment; thus, they create ‘disorganized’ attachment styles, sometimes called ‘fearful’ among adults.
Research suggests that people with disorganized attachment styles often struggle with losses in adulthood because they could never effectively resolve their earlier losses in childhood.
Furthermore, studies show that people who experience trauma in adulthood are more likely to develop mental health conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) if they have unresolved traumas earlier in life.
Of course, we each have individual coping strategies and different ways of processing loss and trauma.
Our bereavement reactions are likely to differ from those around us, and the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one are integral to how we process these painful experiences and move through the bereavement process.
For example, those bereaved by suicide will likely have less post-traumatic growth as they cannot question the motives of why their loved one decided to leave.
Parents bereaved by the death of a child and those bereaved by suicide or the sudden loss of a loved one are likely to experience complicated grief.
Research shows that people with attachment anxiety or insecure styles (e.g., avoidant, disorganized or anxious) are more likely to experience intense grief responses and less post-traumatic growth than securely attached children (Cohen & Katz, 2015).
For example, avoidant people report less post-traumatic growth after a significant loss. They also tend to repress their negative feelings and emotions by redirecting them to physical symptoms like stomach issues or headaches.
Furthermore, those with anxious attachment styles rarely repress their emotions; however, they usually experience more intense prolonged grief (Lai et al., 2015; Maccullum & Bryant, 2018).
Avoidant attachment style
Much of the research surrounding loss and attachment styles seem to correlate to avoidance-related behaviours on behalf of the griever.
Moreover, attachment avoidance depends mainly on a loved one’s death circumstances.
One study conducted by Adrienne M. Meier at the Department of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary analyzed grief reactions from two separate study groups to determine the effects of attachment on the bereavement process.
Meier analyzed 656 recently bereaved adults and looked at attachment influenced prolonged-grief symptomatology (PGS) in each control.
What the findings suggest
After examining the circumstances surrounding the death, for example, natural versus violent, and the type of relationship the participants had with the deceased, Meier found that attachment anxiety was more predictive of PGS than attachment avoidance (Adrienne M. Meier, 2013).
In another study by Meier, two individual control groups were observed to understand attachment styles and the effects on the bereavement process.
Meier looked at a group of bereaved individuals who had lost a loved one to violent death (191 participants) and a non-bereaved group with the same number of participants.
The study concluded that although anxiety attachment was a predictor for more extended and more profound complicated grief reactions in those who had suffered a loss, anxiety attachment and avoidance attachment affected both groups (Adrienne M. Meier, 2013).
Furthermore, the study scores suggest that although the bereaved group with anxiety or avoidant attachment styles did experience higher levels of PGS, the non-bereaved control groups with the same attachment styles experienced poor physical and mental functioning to a similar degree.
Attachment and loss
Meier’s study suggests that attachment styles are invariably unique predictors of mental wellness and are critical to managing stressful times and challenging life events such as the death of a loved one.
Furthermore, Meier explained that ‘when stressors are more traumatic, deactivating, and denial strategies more consistently emerge as non-effective, this can result in an inability to cope with bereavement.’
Meier stresses the importance of the therapist’s role in bereaved client groups saying that mental health professionals should pay special attention to the difference between resilient and avoidant behaviours in individuals with anxious and avoidant styles.
Perhaps the most pertinent takeaway from Meier’s study is her emphasis on establishing secure bonds with bereaved client groups.
When the platform for mutual bonding is secure, clients with anxious attachment styles are likely to move through the bereavement process more effectively.
Attachment endures long after death.
It is often the case that when we lose a loved one, a part of our personality also dissipates.
For the most part, the internal relationship we have with ourselves gets based on the dynamic we hold with our significant others.
As human beings, we manifest a different representation of each other. For example, the unique relationship you have with a sibling will be markedly different to the one you have with your mother or father.
Each person symbolizes a different aspect of our personality, and when someone close to us dies, we mourn them and the parts of us that have gotten lost in the process.
Whether you have a secure or anxious attachment style, the implications of multiple losses can be hard to bear.
We conceptualize loss depending mainly on death’s circumstances and our capacity to cope with adverse life experiences.
There is no doubt that attachment theory is vital to our understanding of loss and how effectively people cope, or not, as the case may be.
Furthermore, as Meier’s study points out, therapists must consider all the variables to support bereaved client groups with varying adult attachment styles.
Ultimately, the attachments we create with our loved ones are infinite; some might even say that such extensions continue long after death, that our bonds are invariably unbreakable.
Our connection to the deceased may be different, but it is never really gone.
If you are struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, you will likely benefit from counselling or trauma therapy.
Contact one of our specialists today who can help.