URJHS Volume 7

URC

Death and Social Life: How Death of a Loved One Impacts Social Style

Whitney Abbott, Claire Bates & Naomi Woods
Huntington University


Abstract

Social relationships greatly impact an individual's life experiences. Upon the death of a loved one, individuals often make profound life adjustments, including changes in the way they relate to others. In this study, the researchers hypothesized that those who had experienced such a death would have a friendlier social style than those who had never experienced this type of loss. The participants were 118 traditionally-aged college students attending a Christian-affiliated university who were selected through convenience sampling and snowball sampling and who completed a self-administered survey on loss and social style. The SACRAL friendliness-unfriendliness scale was used to determine social style. The data were analyzed using a two- tailed t test at a 0.05 significance level. The null hypothesis was retained.

Introduction

For traditional students, the college years involve a social challenge. In addition to evaluating and adapting their past close relationships, they must also develop a way of relating to people that allows them to build meaningful friendships in an entirely new social atmosphere.

Multiple studies concluded that relationships with others heavily influence an individual’s sense of self and meaning in life (Aron, Aron, Tudor, & Nelson, 1991; Handsley, 2001; Krause, 2007). Aron et al. (1991) also suggested that in close relationships, one identifies the other person as part of one’s self-concept. The close friendships developed in college influence many important outcomes, such as achievement of general college adjustment, affective experience of anxiety and depression, and choices regarding lifestyle areas such as alcohol consumption (Hussong, 2003; Schnaffner, 2005; Winterowd, 1998).

Many college students may embrace the social challenge of developing these friendships with a stereotypically “youthful enthusiasm,” but for others, this time period is complicated by past personal events. Approximately 40 percent of college students will have suffered the death of a loved one in the past 2 years, as indicated by self-reports (Holland, Currier, & Neimeyer, 2006). Such losses were shown to influence the lives of the surviving for many years afterward (Martinson & Campos, 1991; Schultz, 2007); and time elapsed since death was rarely a good predictor of an individual’s response (Balk, 1983; Holland et al., 2006). Some individuals may even experience a “sleeper-effect,” in which the influence of death is minimized for a time before an understanding is reached and emotional repercussions are addressed (Martinson & Campos, 1991).

The death of a parent, peer, or other loved one was associated with a variety of psychological struggles: feelings of fear, guilt, anxiety, helplessness, and anger; high scores on tests of clinical distress; depression; and other psychological symptoms (Holland et al., 2006; Jiang, Chou, & Tsai, 2006; Thompson, Kaslow, Kingree, King, Bryant, & Rey, 1998). Research showed that the death of a key figure at an early age may impact the complexity of one’s cognitive and perceptual abilities (Lifshitz, 1976), and death of loved ones may be correlated to higher levels of problem behavior, such as restlessness and risky life choices (Bowser, Word, Stanton, & Coleman, 2003; Lifshitz, 1976; Thompson et al., 1998).

These personal struggles are often symptomatic of changes in self-concept. Studies by Aron et al. (1991), Handsley (2001), and Meshot & Leitner (1993) supported the conclusion that those who lose close relationships must “restructure and realign” (Handsley, 2001, p. 3) their concepts of self-identity and meaning in life. Krause (2007) and Handsley (2001) stressed that this is particularly the case in the loss of family relationships. This forced reevaluation significantly impacts an individual’s social constructs—the way in which he or she relates to others. Handsley (2001) suggested that although the immediate grieving period isolates “the bereft from previous social networks” (p. 4), they are eventually forced to reestablish relational patterns with those in their social networks. Studies indicated that the death of a loved one will indeed frequently affect an individual’s emotional expression toward others, as well as his or her style and frequency of social interaction (Martinson & Campos, 1991; Meshot & Leitner, 1993).

In many cases the social outcome was negative. Those who experience extreme loss may, intentionally or unintentionally, distance themselves from others. Some general findings suggested that exposure to life trauma or negative interpersonal events were linked with habits of greater social isolation (Hammen, 1978; Hawthorne, 2008). In more specific studies, youth who had lost a parent were found to approach interpersonal relationships with an increased sense of inadequacy and inferiority (Cait, 2005). Grieving nursing students displayed a lack of emotional openness (Jiang et al., 2006), and bereaved women adjusted their friendships to a care-giving relational style that was often unidirectional and lacked intimacy (Cait, 2005). Furthermore, those experiencing depression following a major loss may experience worse social effects than the non-depressed. Multiple studies indicated that depressed individuals often elicited higher levels of rejection and lower ratings of enjoyment or interest from peers with whom they interacted (Connolly, Geller, Marton, & Kutcher, 1992; Hammen & Peters, 1978; Rockhill, Fan, Katon, McCauley, Crick, & Pleck, 2007).

In contrast, a review of relevant literature by Schultz (2007) concluded that for adolescents, “bereavement can serve as a catalyst for the development of richer meanings, more satisfying relationships, and greater individual maturity and personal growth” (p. 20). Studies with several populations supported the conclusion that positive relational growth can be a long-term outcome. In one interview study conducted with 31 adolescents who had lost a sibling to cancer 7 to 9 years prior, only one sixth of participants viewed the death experiences as exerting a lasting negative impact on their lives. The majority found ways to re-establish or maintain positive relationships, particularly with their surviving family members (Martinson & Campos, 1991). Several studies among the elderly and the widowed showed no decline in social participation and interaction following the death of a close friend or relative (Bennet, 1997; d’Epinay, Cavalli, & Spini, 2003). Finally, a study of young women who lost their mothers during adolescence revealed that many responded to this loss by “seek[ing] out stronger bonds with peers, family members, and older women who [could] act as maternal substitutes” (Schultz, 2007, p. 36).

One possible explanation is supported by numerous studies, suggesting that an individual’s need for relational and social support is heightened subsequent to the death of a loved one. As a result of the loss, young adults exhibited higher levels of need for social inclusion and connection (Meshot & Leitner, 1993; Schultz, 2007). This finding may reflect a desire to fill the void left by the deceased (Schultz, 2007). It may also express the desire for a strong social structure for recovery to occur. Studies underscored the pivotal role of social support in helping a grieved individual to overcome depression; process feelings of anger, guilt, and grief; maintain self-esteem; behave well in school settings; reestablish a positive outlook; and reach a sense of personal resolution (Chapman, 2004; Gray, 1987; Martinson & Campos, 1991; Singh & Raphael, 1981). Because social connections become imperative, those who acknowledge this need and seek to fill it, such as the young women who had lost their mothers and were studied by Schultz (2007), may end up developing more genuine and fulfilling social behavior than they displayed before their loss.

A second explanation is that those who have experienced and recovered from a deep loss may be more equipped to relate to and meet the relational needs of those around them. They will be more attuned to the necessity for and functions of social connection and will be more able to capitalize on these functions in social interaction. After reviewing relevant literature, Rask, Kaunonen, and Paunonen-Ilmonen (2002) concluded: “The adaptive recovery from the death of a loved one improves social and cognitive resources” (p. 138).

The experience of the loss of a loved one can be tied to the developments of both negative and positive social styles. Such a loss seems to place an individual at a crossroad. The present study sought to answer the question of how the phenomenon of death of a loved one particularly affects the population of traditional (17- to 25-year-old) college students. This population was of special interest because research identified the transitional years between high school and adulthood as high-risk years for the occurrence of painful interpersonal events that may have continuing relational repercussions (Hammen, 2006).

It must be acknowledged that the unfolding of loss and grief varies between individuals due to a broad variety of mediating factors. For those experiencing the death of a loved one, psychological symptomology and adjustment tend to vary in relation to gender, minority/non-minority status, religious orientation, age at the time of loss, level of openness with surviving parents, and ability to make sense of the loss experience, among other factors (Holland et al., 2006; Lifshitz, 1976; Park & Cohen, 1993; Raveis, Siegel, & Karus, 1999; Thompson et. al, 1998). The development of social isolation was also variously affected by age group, birthplace, gender, labor force, and income status (Hawthorne, 2008). Although the college students surveyed likely differed greatly in their exposure to many of these factors, the current study sought to uncover any underlying trends in the way in which college students respond to the death of a loved one.

This research project was conducted on a Christian-affiliated, liberal arts university campus. In the face of research that supported the plausibility of both negative and positive social outcomes for those experiencing the death of loved ones, the authors noted that a religiously-affiliated campus might impact the social outcome for college students in several ways. First of all, research identified ways in which religion impacted the coping process after the death of someone close. For example, intrinsic (personal) religiousness was associated with both personal growth and positive adaptation in the face of loss. Belief in a purposeful God seemed to decrease loss-related distress, and doctrinal orthodoxy seemed to enable better adjustment to the loss (Park & Cohen, 1993). If a campus environment incorporated any of these elements of belief and religiosity, it is likely that its students will experience positive outcomes to their grief.

Secondly, Christianity and other religions have historically celebrated the concept of “spiritual friendship.” This concept of closeness and spiritual encouragement plays a role in religious tradition, literature, and experience today (Benner, 2002; Delbecq, 2004; Prebish, 2007). It seemed likely that a Christian-affiliated campus would place a greater emphasis on close relationships and thus would encourage individuals who had experienced the loss of a loved one to pursue friendship rather than isolation after their loss.

Based upon an understanding of how the loss of a loved one can have a significant positive or negative impact on social style, the study at hand explored how these effects played out within a particular population—traditional college students at a Christian-affiliated university. Results were expected to confirm the hypothesis that, among 17-25 year old students at a Christian-affiliated college, those who had experienced the death of a loved one would exhibit a more friendly social style than that of those who had never experienced such a loss.

Method

Participants

The respondents to this survey were 118 full-time undergraduate students at a private, Christian-affiliated liberal-arts university in the Midwest. The students were of a traditional age range (17-25 years old) with a mean age of 20.22 years and a standard deviation of 1.30 years. The sample was composed of 88 female students and 30 male students, with 92.37 percent of respondents reporting a white, non-Hispanic ethnic background.

This sample of students was selected from the University’s 790 full-time students using convenience sampling and a form of snowball sampling. The population from which this sample was drawn had a mean age of 19.86 years and a 6:5 ratio of female students to male students. The University’s population is ethnically composed of 94.58 percent White, non-Hispanic students, 3.36 percent international students, 0.87 percent Hispanic students, 0.43 percent Black, non-Hispanic students, and 0.43 percent Asian-Pacific Islander students (Friesen, 2007).

Of the 790 full-time students contacted, 127 responded (a 16.08 percent response rate). Nine of the resulting surveys were removed from the sample because of incompleteness or incoherence. Each of the 118 remaining respondents was assigned to one of two groups (the Loss group or the Non-loss group) based on his or her answer to a question about having experienced the loss of a family member. The Loss group consisted of 7 respondents, the Non-loss group 111.

Measure

The first part of the survey assessed the first variable, death of a loved one, by asking respondents to indicate whether they had experienced the death of an immediate family member (defined as a parent or sibling). Respondents indicated in years (or months, if less than one year) how long ago this loss had occurred. If respondents experienced more than one such death, they were asked to indicate this and to report the time since the most recent loss had occurred. Additionally, respondents provided demographic information: gender, ethnic background, and current age in years. This enabled researchers to make sure those participants who had returned surveys actually belonged to the desired population.

The second part of the survey assessed the second variable, friendliness, using the SACRAL Friendliness-Unfriendliness Scale. This measure, developed by Reisman and Billingham (1989, as cited in Fisher & Corcoran, 2007), can be used to identify beliefs and skills related to “loneliness, shyness, social skills deficits, and feelings of alienation” (p. 297). The SACRAL consists of four subscales assessing: Self-concept as related to peer interaction (S), Accessibility in terms of giving respect and attention (AC), Rewardingness in terms of contributing tangible gifts, words, or help in a relationship (R), and Alienation in terms of beliefs regarding acceptance and the friendliness of the world (AL) (Reisman, 1983). The survey includes 20 statements such as “It’s easy for you to start a conversation with a stranger and keep it going,” “Good friends are hard for you to find,” and “People often come to you with their personal problems.” Each respondent rated his or her level of agreement with each of 20 statements using a Likert scale; certain items were reverse-scored. A high cumulative score indicated a high level of friendliness. This 20-item version of the SACRAL was based upon the original 40-item version and was shown to correlate highly with the original: r (23) = .94 (Reisman & Billingham, 1989).

Reisman and Billingham (1989) reported a high level of construct validity within the SACRAL, evidenced by a .94 rate of agreement between SACRAL scores and the results of observational ratings of subjects’ behavior. Their study revealed a high level of concurrent validity, displayed by relationships between SACRAL subscale scores and satisfaction ratings regarding one’s friends and oneself and by responses to a measure regarding the value of friends in terms of help, support, and stimulation. Those with high and low SACRAL scores differed significantly in ratings of interpersonal judgment. In terms of reliability, Reisman (1983) described high test-retest correlations for the scale as a whole over 3-4 weeks (SACRAL = .81) and for each subscale (S = .78; AC = .73; R = .81; AL = .76). Because correlation was not especially high between subscales, Reisman (1983) advised considering subscales separately in addition to considering the overall SACRAL score.

Procedure

Convenience sampling was accomplished by placing a copy of the survey in every student campus mailbox on March 6, 2008. This mailing consisted of demographic questions, questions regarding death of a loved one, and the SACRAL measure (to be completed and returned by mail). Text informed respondents that the survey was optional and completely anonymous and asked them to complete the survey and return it to the researchers via campus mail by March 28, 22 days later. The researchers’ email addresses were provided in case of questions. The survey was designed in such a way that respondents could refold it; a researcher’s address on the outside made it easy to return through campus mail.

The same day the surveys were mailed, researchers emailed all students on campus, notifying them that they would soon be receiving a survey in campus mail regarding the relationship between loss and social life. The email asked for their participation, informed them that completing the survey required approximately 5 minutes, and assured them that survey responses would remain completely anonymous.

Noting a very small number of respondents who fit into the Loss group, the researchers added a form of snowball sampling on March 27. An email with the survey file attached was mailed to key figures involved with students on campus (resident directors, resident assistants, spiritual coordinators, counselors, and the director of student development). These individuals were asked to forward the survey to any individuals they knew who had experienced the death of a parent or sibling. Directions assured students that the survey was voluntary and anonymous and asked that they print the survey, complete it, and place it anonymously in campus mail by March 28. Caution was taken to ensure that researchers would not learn the names of Loss-group respondents. However, this snowball sampling added only one additional respondent to the Loss group.

As respondents returned surveys via the campus mail system, the researchers marked each survey with the date on which it was received and filed it for processing. Data collection ended on March 28. Beginning on March 29, the survey data were prepared for statistical analysis. The researchers removed from the sample any incomplete or incoherent surveys. Remaining respondents were divided into quasi-experimental groups based on their reported experience or lack of experience with the death of a loved one. The researchers scored surveys to determine the SACRAL scores obtained by each group. In very few cases where participants circled more than one answer, the researchers assigned a middle value.

Results

Using a two-tailed t-test of significance with an alpha level of .05 and 116 degrees of freedom to compare the mean SACRAL scores of the Loss group and the Non-loss group, the null hypothesis was retained. The t obtained was .38 and the critical t was 1.98 with p = 0.70; therefore there was no significant difference between the Loss group (M = 43.36, SD = 13.94) and the Non-loss group (M = 45.26, SD = 12.70) on the measure of friendliness-unfriendliness (see Table 1). Additionally, two-tailed t-tests comparing the mean scores of the two groups on the SACRAL subscales did not yield significant results (see Table 2).

Table 1. SACRAL Score by Loss Experience

 

Non-loss Group

Loss Group

mean

45.26

43.36

sample SD

12.70

13.94

critical t

1.981

 

t -value

0.383

 

p-value

0.703

 

Table 2. SACRAL Subscale Scores by Loss Experience

 

S

AC

R

AL

 

N-Loss

Loss

N-Loss

Loss

N-Loss

Loss

N-Loss

Loss

mean

11.94

12.07

11.36

10

11.57

13.14

10.45

8.14

sample SD

3.85

3.14

4.05

5.69

4.15

3.48

4.76

6.04

critical t

1.981

 

1.981

 

1.981

 

1.981

 

t -value

0.087

 

0.839

 

0.980

 

1.222

 

p-value

0.930

 

0.404

 

0.329

 

0.224

 

After analyzing the original hypothesis, the data were reevaluated based on demographic information to determine whether friendliness-unfriendliness related significantly to age and/or gender. A Pearson-r test with 116 degrees of freedom was used to test for a correlation between age (M = 20.22, SD = 1.3) and SACRAL score (M = 45.15, SD = 12.72). No significant correlation was found (r = 0.0478) between these two variables (see Figure 1).

The mean SACRAL scores of males (M = 42.13, SD = 9.79) and females (M = 45.98, SD = 13.50) were also compared using a two-tailed t-test of significance with an alpha level of .05 and 116 degrees of freedom, and the null hypothesis was retained (see Table 3). Because the t obtained was 1.437 and the critical t was 1.981, no significant difference in score was shown between the gender groups.

Table 3. SACRAL Score by Gender

 

Males

Females

mean

42.13

45.98

sample SD

9.79

13.50

n

30

88

critical t

1.981

 

t -value

1.437

 

p-value

0.154

 
Discussion

The results of the study did not support the initial hypothesis that an individual’s friendliness would be affected by whether or not he or she had lost a loved one. The sample size for the Loss group of this study was limited to only seven individuals, an insufficient group size to draw any major conclusions. It seems that loss does not guarantee a shift in social style, but more research and a larger group size would be necessary to confirm this.

The conclusions of the studies reviewed in the literature suggested a significant shift in friendliness in either a positive or negative direction, but the results of this study revealed no significant change. This could be due to the fact that the populations sampled in the previous research were derived from therapy groups for individuals processing grief, implying that individuals in the sample may have been more strongly affected by their loss and thus experienced more extreme shifts in social style. The use of counseling groups from previous studies seems to be more practical, simply because it is difficult to secure high numbers of respondents in the Loss group in a normal population.

In response to the inconclusiveness of the data regarding the hypothesis, the researchers decided to evaluate the friendliness of the sample as a whole, eliminating the distinction between the Loss and Non-loss groups. There were 118 respondents to the survey, a sample size sufficient to merit the post-hoc investigations. Demographic information was used and there were no statistically significant results from the data found between the age or gender of the individuals and their friendliness. Perhaps more studies on this population that address the correlation between friendliness and age would reflect the social changes that students undergo as they enter and adjust to college and then prepare to graduate.

The main limitation of this study was the small sample size of the Loss group. The small sample size was likely a result of sampling a general college population rather than a therapy group. Also, the age of the population studied was young (17-25 years), eliminating the later stages in life when the loss of a loved one becomes more common and where finding individuals who have experienced loss is more likely.

Regarding the hypothesis of this study, future research would do well to seek a much larger sample for the Loss group. This could be accomplished by sampling a larger population or by using focus groups or case studies of individuals in the 17-25 age group because individuals in this age group who have experienced the loss of an immediate family member are difficult to obtain. Another possibility would be the collection of data from several college populations to increase the Loss group to an adequate number. The measure for the study had good validity and reliability, but future studies might use a different measure for social style than friendliness-unfriendliness, as there are many different ways grief manifests itself socially.

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