Vicarious bereavement is the state of having suffered a vicarious loss. A vicarious event is one that is experienced through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another person. Therefore, vicarious grief refers to grief stimulated by someone else's loss. It usually involves deaths of others not personally known by the mourner. Vicarious grief is genuine grief. It is differentiated from conventional grief insofar as it is sparked by another individual's loss, that person being the actual mourner, and it typically involves more psychological reactions than behavioral, social, or physical ones. Vicarious grief was first reported by the scholar and thanatology expert Robert Kastenbaum in 1987.
There are two types of vicarious bereavement. In Type 1, the losses to the vicarious mourner are exclusively vicarious, and are those that are mildly to moderately identified with as being experienced by the actual mourner. For instance, the vicarious mourner feels that this is what it must be like to be in the actual mourner's position.
In Type 2 vicarious bereavement, Type 1 vicarious losses occur, but there are also personal losses sustained by the vicarious mourner. These personal losses develop because: (a) the vicarious mourner has relatively intense reactions to the actual mourner's loss (e.g., the vicarious mourner feels so personally stunned and overwhelmed in response to the actual mourner's losing a loved one through a sudden death that he or she temporarily loses the ability to function normally); and/or (b) the vicarious mourner experiences personal assumptive world violations because of the loss. An assumptive world violation takes place whenever an element of an individual's assumptive world is rendered invalid by the death. The assumptive world is a person's mental set, derived from past personal experience, that contains all a person assumes, expects, and believes to be true about the self, the world, and everything and everyone in it.
Assumptive world violations occur in vicarious bereavement because the vicarious mourner has heightened identification with the actual mourner (e.g., the vicarious mourner so identifies with the actual mourner after that person's child dies that the vicarious mourner feels his or her own sense of parental control shattered, which invalidates one of the fundamental beliefs in the vicarious mourner's own assumptive world) and/or the vicarious mourner becomes personally traumatized by the circumstances under which the actual mourner's loved one dies (e.g., the vicarious mourner is so badly traumatized by the death of the actual mourner's loved one in a terrorist attack that the vicarious mourner experiences a shattering of his or her own personal security and safety in his or her own assumptive world). While Type 2 vicarious bereavement does stimulate actual personal losses within the vicarious mourner, technically making vicarious a misnomer, the term is retained because it focuses attention on the fact that bereavement can be stimulated by losses actually experienced by others.
Three sets of factors are especially influential in causing a person to experience vicarious bereavement, primarily because each factor increases the vicarious mourner's emotional participation in the loss and his or her personal experience of distress or traumatization because of it. These three sets of factors include: (a) the psychological processes of empathy, sympathy, and identification; (b) selected high-risk characteristics of the death—particularly suddenness, violence, preventability, and child loss; and (c) media coverage of the death that overexposes the person to graphic horrific images, distressing information, and/or distraught reactions of actual mourners.
Notable events prompting widespread vicarious grief include the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Oklahoma City bombing, the explosion of TWA Flight 800, and the Columbine school massacre. The phenomenon also explains in part the profound public reactions witnessed following the deaths of certain celebrities. For instance, the deaths of Princess Diana and John Kennedy Jr. appeared to catalyze unparalleled Type 2 vicarious bereavement, although in these cases other factors were present that further intensified that grief. These factors included what these individuals symbolized, what their deaths implied about the average person's vulnerability, and social contagion processes. Social contagion occurs when intense reactions became somewhat infectious to those who observed them and stimulated within these observers their own intense responses to the death.
Vicarious bereavement can provide valuable opportunities to rehearse future losses, challenge assumptive world elements, finish incomplete mourning from prior losses, and increase awareness of life's preciousness and fragility. On the other hand, it can be detrimental if the vicarious mourner becomes disenfranchised, propelled into complicated mourning, traumatized, bereavement overloaded, or injured from inaccurate imaginings or insufficient information. Many questions still remain about this experience and what influences it.
Kastenbaum, Robert. "Vicarious Grief." In Robert Kastenbaum and Beatrice Kastenbaum eds., The Encyclopedia of Death. Phoenix, AZ: The Oryx Press, 1989.
Kastenbaum, Robert. "Vicarious Grief: An Intergenerational Phenomenon?" Death Studies 11 (1987):447–453.
Rando, Therese A. "Vicarious Bereavement." In Stephen Strack ed., Death and the Quest for Meaning: Essays in Honor of Herman Feifel. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1997.
THERESE A. RANDO