Healing After Loss

Bereavement Help For The Correctional Community


By Phyllis Taylor, R.N.
The reality of prison and jail life makes it very difficult for individuals to do the kind of grief work that leads to healing. Showing vulnerability is not part of prison culture.

“Fred”1 is an inmate serving a life sentence. He learns that his mother died. He has not seen her in years because his family was unable to raise the funds necessary to travel to the prison where he has spent the last 10 years of his life.

“Mary”, incarcerated for involuntary manslaughter, hears that her only child was murdered.

“Tom” in a prison far from home knows that his brother is sick with HIV/AIDS and his mother is having trouble coping. He is feeling guilty because he can’t be home to help and he is grieving the approaching death of his younger brother.

“Correctional Officer Smith” is facing the first anniversary of his dad’s death that is just before his parent’s wedding anniversary. He is worried about how his mother is coping while also grieving his own loss.

“CO Jones” is grieving the death of her grandchild who was killed by a drunk driver. Her grief is complicated by her knowledge that many of the inmates she is responsible for have underlying addictions that contributed to their incarceration.

Grief is a universal experience that can be overwhelming for everyone it touches. This profound human emotion can be compounded when the grievers are inmates, their families, victim families, and correctional staff.

For inmates grief is often cumulative. In grief counseling within the correctional setting, it is not uncommon to work with persons who have had multiple losses. One young woman in her early 20s described how one brother died when hit by a car, another was shot, and her daughter died from SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). While she was incarcerated, another child in her family was murdered.

In another case, a man was informed that his cousin had been shot and died. This followed the death of his grandmother who had raised him, and the death of his two children: an 11 year old who was killed by a drunk driver and a four year old who died in a car accident. He was left questioning why he should try to remain in recovery when everyone he loves is dead.

The grief inmates experience is exacerbated by their special, circumstances. They are removed from their families and loved ones. If a loved one is ill, they are not able to participate in his or her care and guilt feelings compound their grief. This is also true when there is unexpected dying and death.

Many people hold the belief that the death would not have occurred if they were out and could have protected the person they love. For example, one young man whose mother unexpectedly died when she went out to get his dad some cough medicine said that he was always the one to run errands for his parents. Therefore he felt his mother’s death was his fault. Another young woman with addictive disease whose baby died as result of her addiction is overwhelmed with guilt. She stated that she always dealt with hard feelings by ‘using’ and now didn’t have the same access to drugs arid alcohol she had on the street. A man who is in for second-degree murder learned his child had been shot. He has to deal with his grief and with the knowledge that he himself caused grief to his victim’s family.

Dr. J. William Worden, a noted grief resource person, identified four tasks of grief. The first is to accept the reality of the loss. This is facilitated by encouraging the griever to talk about the death. This helps the person understand both emotionally and intellectually that the loss has occurred. The second task is to experience in the body the pain of grief. The third task is to adjust to an environment in which the deceased is absent. The fourth is to withdraw the emotional energy invested in the person who died and re-invest it in new relationships.

Others in the field of grief and bereavement talk about predictable reactions to loss. These reactions include: physical (sleep disturbances, weakness, loss of appetite, empty feeling in the stomach, heaviness in the chest), behavioral (restlessness, difficulty organizing activity, the need to tell and re-tell the experience), mental (sense of unreality, lack of initiative, indecisiveness, sensing the presence of the loved one), emotional (feelings of denial, remorse, anger, guilt or relief, mood swings, unexpected or uncontrollable crying), social (disruption in relationships to others) and spiritual (feelings of hopelessness and despair, questioning God or belief system, and uncertainty of one’s level of faith).

The reality of prison and jail life, makes it very difficult for individuals to do the kind of grief work that leads to healing. Showing vulnerability is not part of prison culture. One man who was weeping when talking about the deaths he experienced wanted to make sure that his eyes were not red so no one would know that he cried. Another person mourning the death of her child said that the reaction of some of her fellow inmates was to tell her to stop talking about her child and ‘get over it’.

Because many inmates have self-medicated not to experience the depth of their grief, they now have complicated grief patterns. These manifest in ways such as altered relationships with others, agitated depressions, self-destructive behavior and mental illness. Another researcher in the field, Dr. Alan Woolfell, breaks down these complex patterns into absent grief, distorted grief, converted grief, and chronic grief.

The inmate family has to go through the grief experience without the extra support the inmate might bring. They are also the ones who have to find the money to enable the inmate, if possible, to go to a viewing. The victim family has to deal not only with the death of their loved one, but also the volatile emotions around the circumstances and the murderer, plus the protracted and stressful trial period.

Correctional Officers also have special needs. The stresses of the job combined with the need not to show their vulnerability often delay the grief work that is necessary for emotional and spiritual healing. When the loss is due to trauma, caring for those charged with crimes that result in the same type of death can make grieving even more complicated.

Providing basic grief counseling, offering appropriate written materials, and making referrals for further support and assistance can make a difference. The human experience of grief crosses all lines: inmate, inmate families, victim families and correctional staff. Through offering informed support, we can cushion their sorrow.


1. All names have been changed to protect identities.

  • Phyllis Taylor is a Hospice Consultant to the Philadelphia Prison System, grief counselor, and on the Board of Directors of NPHA.

1 thought on “Healing After Loss

  1. Can you reccommend any resources for a client of mine currently incarcerated for first degree murder who has heard that in a period of one year, six family members have passed on, not including the cousin he shot while under the influence.

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