New research provides evidence that the relationship between existential isolation and prolonged grief symptoms vary across different cultural groups. The findings, published in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, suggest that the link between existential isolation and grief is stronger in individualistic cultures compared to collectivist cultures.
Existential isolation, introduced by Irvin D. Yalom in 1980, differs from loneliness or social isolation. While loneliness refers to the distressing feeling stemming from the gap between desired and actual relationships, existential isolation concerns the awareness of an unbridgeable chasm between oneself, others, and the world. It manifests as a sense of profound aloneness in one’s subjective experiences, where it seems others either cannot share or understand one’s perspectives.
The researchers conducted this study to explore the relationship between existential isolation and prolonged grief symptoms in bereaved individuals from different cultural backgrounds. Prolonged grief disorder is a mental disorder characterized by severe and persistent grief reactions that can lead to functional impairments and significantly affect a person’s life.
“Our research interest is bereavement and grief,” said study author Ningning Zhou, the Mingyuan Chenhui Scholar at East China Normal University. “When we communicate with bereaved people, we find existential isolation is a common phenomenon reported. For example, they may say that they are different from other people and they are on an island by themselves.
“They are isolated from the people around them. It seems that there was an unbridgeable gulf between themselves and other people and the world. Additionally, we also find people’s experiences of existential isolation vary according to culture. Therefore, we want to explore the different experiences of existential isolation among bereaved people in different cultures.”
The researchers conducted this study as part of a larger project focused on measuring and assessing prolonged grief disorder in both China and Switzerland.
Participants had to meet specific criteria: they needed to be adults over 18 who had lost a loved one between 6 months to 10 years before the study. Those with severe psychiatric disorders or currently undergoing psychiatric or psychological therapy were excluded. Participants were recruited through a blend of online ads and offline groups.
Of the 431 participants who met the inclusion criteria, 267 resided in China and 158 in Switzerland. Their ages spanned from 18 to 77 years, with an average age of 34.24 years. Various instruments, including the Existential Isolation Scale, the International Prolonged Grief Disorder Scale (IPGDS), and the Social Acknowledgment Questionnaire, were utilized to gauge diverse facets of grief and social interactions. Additionally, participants reported their social network size and levels of loneliness.
Consistent with prior research, Zhou and her colleagues found that the Existential Isolation Scale demonstrated good reliability and validity. It exhibited the expected correlations with social factors such as social network size, social acknowledgment, and loneliness.
Surprisingly, the researchers did not identify significant differences in existential isolation based on cultural group (German-speaking vs. Chinese) or gender. However, the scores for existential isolation in both cultural groups were consistently higher than those reported in the general population, indicating elevated existential isolation levels among bereaved individuals.
Notably, the study unearthed a significant positive association between existential isolation and prolonged grief symptoms, suggesting that individuals experiencing higher levels of existential isolation tend to exhibit more severe and persistent grief reactions.
Furthermore, the relationship between existential isolation and prolonged grief symptoms was influenced by cultural group. In the German-speaking participant group, there was a significant correlation between existential isolation and elevated prolonged grief symptoms. However, the situation was different for Chinese bereaved individuals. In this group, the correlation between existential isolation and prolonged grief symptoms was not significant.
“Bereaved people from collective cultures may tolerate existential isolation better or they may be better at grieving alone, as existential isolation is not related to their grief adaptation,” Zhou told PsyPost.
These findings underscore the intricate interplay between cultural factors, existential isolation, and the experience of grief in bereaved individuals. Overall, this research contributes valuable insights into understanding and addressing the complex dynamics of grief across different cultural contexts.
“We should be aware that bereaved people may experience existential isolation, and they may isolate themselves from the outside world,” Zhou said. “If we have such a family or friend, we should respect their feelings and should not force them to share their feelings or emotions. Despite this, we could let them know we are there. They can rely on us if they need to.”
However, like all studies, this research isn’t without its limitations.
“The causal relationship between existential isolation and prolonged grief needs to be investigated,” Zhou said. “Because it is a cross-sectional study, we can not say existential isolation predicts prolonged grief.”
The study, “Existential isolation and prolonged grief in bereaved people: The moderating role of culture“, was authored by Ningning Zhou, Yiming Zhao, Kirsten V. Smith, Clare Killikelly, Eva Stelzer, Andreas Maercker, Juzhe Xi, and Peter J. Helm.