Grieving among Finns has changed: displays of emotion and the personification of grief rituals emerging alongside Lutheranism

Cleaning out the possessions of the deceased, talking about shared places of importance and the idea of the continuation of life or of an emotional bond are examples of various ways of grieving. According to Professor Auli Vähäkangas, the way in which Finns grieve has changed.

Grief does not progress in linear fashion, nor is it a task composed of certain stages. People have different ways of grieving, none of which are right or wrong. This is a message reiterated by today’s experts, and this is also how grief is perceived in grief research in the humanities. However, this notion does not have a very long history.

“Finns’ grieving has undergone a change in just a few decades,” says Auli Vähäkangas, professor of pastoral theology at the Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki.

Vähäkangas heads the Meaningful Relations - Patient and family carer encountering death at home research project, which investigates grief by interviewing patients in home-based end-of-life care and their family carers. Most of the interviewees are grieving family members, some of whom serve as family carers. In addition to spouses, widows and widowers, the group includes grown-up children, friends and siblings who are caring or have cared for their relatives, as well as dying patients.

The interviews reveal that displaying emotions (article in Finnish only), for example when grieving, has become more acceptable than before in Finnish culture. These days, the need to avoid overmedication for grief is also a common topic of discussion.

“It’s a marked change from 10 or 20 years ago. At that time, I often encountered in my position as a parish priest the fear expressed by widows that they would be unable to hold themselves together at the funeral. Many reported taking sedatives, for example, to avoid smudging their make-up by crying. In our current project, not a single interviewee referred to crying at a funeral as a bad thing. Others noted that crying was not part of their grieving habits to begin with.”

Rituals of remembrance also help with moving on

As the interviews conducted by Vähäkangas’s research group demonstrate, there are a range of ways to grieve. Giving consideration to grief is often delayed, with people embarking on the process only after the many practical arrangements perceived as stressful, such as the funeral and dealing with the estate of the deceased, are over.

“It may be that when someone close to you dies, you simply don’t have the time, desire or capability to grieve. Weeping later, for instance, at the funeral of a not-so-close person is evidence of the individual giving themselves permission to grieve,” Vähäkangas says.

Some people who have lost a person close to them employ various methods to avoid grieving.

“For example, they go on with their hobbies or continue living in a new apartment in a deliberately emphatic manner to avoid thinking about grief.”

Some find it important to remember the deceased through various rituals, be they religious or not.

According to grief researchers, reminiscing about the departed loved one with the help of rituals provides a means to maintain a connection to them. However, not all rituals of remembrance are used to maintain a link to the deceased; rather, some of them are used to help with moving on. Cleaning out the personal possessions of the deceased is a typical example.

“It boils down to putting away objects that remind us too painfully of a dead family member, with the exception of certain selected photographs or other memorabilia,” Vähäkangas explains.

In the material collected by the Meaningful Relations research group, cleaning out possessions has been a particularly prevalent practice among those who have been widowed for a longer time, both men and women. Still, not everyone wants to do such cleaning out.

“A widow I interviewed was very apologetic about the boots of her late husband still standing in the hall. Even though it had already been a year since her spouse had passed away, she hadn’t wanted to throw away the shoes. ‘They were his, after all’, the widow sighed,” Vähäkangas recounts.

Relationships in reconstituted families may complicate grieving

One of the key factors affecting grief appears to be whether the surviving spouse has any children or significant others in his or her life. What also matters is the kind of relationships the widow or widower has with them.

Receiving practical and emotional support from one’s children alleviates grief, while strained relations with one's immediate circle increase the burden of grief. Such strain is typically exacerbated by disputes over the distribution of the estate and tense relations in reconstituted families.

“The actual relationship between the deceased and the surviving spouse may not have been disharmonious, but relations in a reconstituted family may well be. A surviving spouse talked in an interview of their inability to visit the grave of their spouse to grieve, as the children of the deceased had made it clear that the grave belonged to their father and mother.”

Painful events in relationships also take their toll.

“A widow bitterly recounted in an interview how her husband had had a number of extramarital affairs in middle age. The widow had been a family carer for several years, and recounted cursing the other women for not being around during the difficult times. Grief brought to the surface the repressed emotions of being cheated on,” Vähäkangas says.

Grief is talked about in many ways – or not at all

There are great personal differences in voicing grief. Vähäkangas comments that some interviewees talked about their grief surprisingly openly, as if talking about ‘current events or going to the sauna’. Then again, some told the interviewers that they didn’t want to talk about grief even with their closest ones, because it was too hard.

“Men talk less about grief than women. Or people avoid talking about grief in itself, yet touch on it quite a lot through some tangible change in their life brought about by the death of a loved one.

The grief of the surviving spouse is greatly affected by whether the final stages of life of the deceased or their experiences of poor care or pain instilled feelings of guilt in the bereaved. Silence in particular seems to make grieving more painful and difficult.

“In certain cases, death has come so suddenly that the postponed moment of serious conversation never came, resulting in troubled feelings.”

Finnish grief remains Lutheran, although rituals of grief are personalised

Vähäkangas believes that the expression of grief in Finland is still profoundly Lutheran in its form. Compared to other Protestant Nordic countries, our special characteristic is the frequent visits to graves: the oceans of candles at graveyards are a familiar scene in Finland on Independence Day and at Christmas. This custom originates in the visits to war graves after the Second World War.

Non-religious funerals feature among emerging trends, in addition to which rituals of grief are becoming increasingly personalised. When encountering death, people think about what would suit the departed.

“Funeral ‘customisation’ has been studied in a number of countries through, among others, undertakers. This phenomenon is only now making its way to Finland. Earlier, funerals were thought to follow a basic formula. Now, many widows we interviewed reported giving a lot of thought to the clothes they wanted to have the deceased wear in the coffin. For example, a spouse who felt most at home in a sweatsuit was placed in the coffin in their favourite clothes.”

Locations with shared importance are also linked with mourning rituals.

“On the basis of a joint request, the surviving spouse of a person who passionately loved sailing may want to spread their ashes in a marine environment important to the couple without any kind of commemorative plaque,” Vähäkangas illustrates.

Summer cottages are mentioned in stories of grief remarkably frequently.

“On the other hand, summer cottages are associated with the melancholy of letting go, especially if you don’t have enough energy to take care of it by yourself. In a way, it’s another loss on top of losing your spouse.”

What comes after death?

There was less direct talk about religion, God or some other kind of higher power in the interviews conducted by Vähäkangas's group than the researchers expected.

Most of the home care patients and relatives interviewed were members of Lutheran parishes, but there were also a handful of participants from outside the church.

“This largely matches the findings of recent research on Finnish religiousness. A certain undertone of religiousness or the meaningfulness of life is manifest in people’s comments, but most people don’t talk about religion directly. Even grief and feelings are more common topics.”

However, religiousness or spirituality at the time of impending death are tacitly expressed through various euphemisms. According to Vähäkangas, the idea of the continuation of life is voiced through, for example, the significance of nature or by invoking the procession of generations and the values of past generations.

“In addition, religious rituals appear to represent important experiences to many grieving irreligious people as well. When patients are frankly asked what they think will happen after death, the idea of the continuity of life is strong even among atheists. It’s not so much about believing in everlasting life according to your worldview; rather, it comes down to the idea of reincarnation. That seems to give new strength in the face of death and grief,” Vähäkangas says.

More about the topic in the Finnish-language blog Elämää kuoleman äärellä: Kirjoituksia elämän loppuvaiheen kysymyksistä (‘Living close to death: writing about questions related to the final stages of life’)

Read moreSuomalainen suru on salattua ja sanatonta (‘Finnish grief is hidden and silent’, in Finnish only)

Read moreReligion has a positive impact on end-of-life experiences

Read moreKokemukset kuolleen läsnäolosta ilmentävät tunnesiteiden jatkumista surussa (‘Experiences of the presence of the deceased evidence the continuation of emotional bonds’, in Finnish only)

Sometimes researchers are also affected by grief

The Meaningful Relations - Patient and family carer encountering death at home research project is aimed at investigating grief through the prism of relations and the quest for meaning in life. The underlying notion is that the importance of human relationships becomes more pronounced as death approaches and that relationships make life worth living for both the patients interviewed and their relatives.

The multidisciplinary research group combines theology, law as well as social and nursing sciences in the project.

“There is not much research-based knowledge on how important relationships affect encounters with grief and what kind of significance human relationships and communities have in dealing with grief. It’s important to look for answers to these questions,” Vähäkangas notes.

The researchers who met with home-based end-of-life care patients and their relatives conducted the interviews primarily in pairs. To support coping, regularly held debriefings have been a necessary part of the project.

“Even though the group members are experienced specialists in aging, death and grief, some interviews get under your skin. It’s not easy for the researcher either to have an interviewee in palliative care pass away while attempts have been made to call them within the last week to ask how they are doing and whether they have anything to add to their interview.”

“Personally, I find it the hardest to witness unfairness or unfair treatment. That’s when you have to process your own emotions before contacting the interviewee again.”


Aging, death and stories of grief in focus at the University of Helsinki: Conference on Meaningful Relations in Aging and Dying on 28–30 August