A NEW MODEL OF GRIEF:
Bereavement and Biography i
Published in Mortality, 1(1), 1996: 7-25.
The dominant model found in contemporary bereavement literature sees grief as a
working through of emotion, the eventual goal being to move on and live without the
deceased. This article challenges this model by analysing the own author’s own
experience of loss and by drawing together recent research papers which suggest an
alternative, more sociological, model.
Survivors typically want to talk about the deceased, and to talk with others who
knew him or her. Together they construct a story that places the dead within their lives,
a story capable of enduring through time. The purpose of grief is therefore the
construction of a durable biography that enables the living to integrate the memory of the
dead into their ongoing lives; the process by which this is achieved is principally
conversation with others who knew the deceased. The process hinges on talk more than
feeling; and the purpose entails moving on with, as well as without, the deceased.
This kind of grief process is particularly necessary in a late modern society whose
members must continually re-create their own identity - but the detachment from
tradition, place and kin that make it necessary also make it singularly difficult. The article
concludes by outlining practical and research implications of the new model.
The foundations for the scientific, psychological understanding of grief are generally
cited as Freud’s (1913) article ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ and Lindemann’s work three
decades later (1944). Drawing on their seminal ideas Bowlby (1979, 1980), Parkes
(1986), Raphael (1984) and others have developed sophisticated analyses. This body of
work has been widely read to say that the purpose of grief is the reconstitution of an
autonomous individual who can in large measure leave the deceased behind and form
new attachments. The process by which this is believed to be achieved is the working
through and resolution of feelings - the psychological literature on grief is full of
discussion of anger, guilt, depression, sadness and a whole range of feelings with which
bereaved people may have to come to terms. These concepts of the purpose and process
of grief form much of the conventional wisdom, or what Wortman and Silver (1989) call
‘the clinical lore’, of bereavement counselling.
A close reading of the classic texts, however, reveals a more complex picture.
Concerning process a number of textbooks, for example Raphael (1984: 64-73) and
Stroebe & Stroebe (1987: chs 4,5), summarise a variety of theories in addition to the
‘working through emotions’ thesis. Concerning purpose, Freud (1913) described the task
of mourning as ‘to detach the survivor’s hopes and memories from the dead’, but he also
wrote of the need for the survivor to identify with the lost person. Parkes (1986: 79)
describes the sense of the presence of the dead as an ‘illusion’ and a ‘hallucination’, yet
only a few pages later (p.88) quotes in very positive terms a moving passage from C.S.
Lewis (1961) in which as he begins to let go of his dead wife he begins to gain a clearer
picture of her. Bowlby (1979: 49) in his work The Making and Breaking of Affectional
Bonds argues that all forms of mourning lead toward detachment, yet he also argues
(1980: 96) that ‘half or more of widows and widowers reach a state of mind in which
they retain a strong sense of the continuing presence of their partner’ and that this may
be a healthy way in which the survivor preserves a sense of identity. Bowlby (1980: 100)
notes that ‘Failure to recognise that a continuing sense of the dead person’s presence ....
is a common feature of healthy mourning has led to much confused theorising.’ ii
If such classic texts are more complex than clinical lore allows, why should this
be? Why should there have been a selective reading of these texts? First, a secular and
individualistic late twentieth century culture is likely to discount the possibility of a
meaningful relationship between the living and the dead, having abandoned those
religious beliefs and rituals which articulate such relationships in other societies
(Yamamoto et al, 1969; 1970; Bloch, 1971; Danforth, 1982; Walter, 1991; Vitebsky,
1993) and in our own society in past times (Morley, 1971; Rosenblatt, 1983; Geary
1994). In little more than a century, the Victorian celebration of the intense emotionality
of grief and the romantic cult of the dead has given way to a modernist and medical
concern to return the individual as rapidly as possible to efficient and autonomous
functioning (Stroebe et al, 1992). The few studies documenting how bereavement
counsellors and groups actually operate suggest that they are as concerned as anyone
else to move their clients through grief to become once again effectively functioning
individuals (Wambach, 1985; Broadbent, 1990). Second, it must be said that the authors
of the classic texts have on the whole not discouraged this selective reading of their
We may say, therefore, that in the classic texts there is a major theme
emphasising detachment achieved through the working through of feelings, and a minor
theme emphasising the continued presence of the dead and a continuous conversation
with and about them. Because of a largely secular and individualist culture, both the
authors of these texts and their readers have typically underplayed or ignored this minor
theme - creating the clinical lore of bereavement counselling.
In this article I challenge this conventional wisdom concerning the purpose and
process of grief, paying particular attention to process. I am prompted by the two most
significant bereavements I have gone through, neither of which seems to fit the
conventional wisdom. I therefore use these two losses as case studies. Using a sample of
just one person and two bereavements may seem unsound to quantitatively minded
readers. I would agree if the cases affirmed conventional wisdom, but one deviant case
that does not fit conventional wisdom may tell us more than nine hundred and ninety nine
that do.iii An autobiographical approach is appropriate because my proposed model sees
bereavement as part of how individuals construct their biography: autobiographical data
is therefore highly relevant. I then relate this autobiographical data to dissident literature
that over the past decade or so has been challenging conventional models of grief.
THE PURPOSE OF GRIEF: LIVING WITH THE DEAD
My father died in 1985 at the age of 90. The address at his memorial service (discussed
in more detail in Walter, 1991) was given by a black Zimbabwean friend of the family,
Kingston. He drew upon his own Shona tradition of living in the presence of the
ancestors to suggest that we should keep the spirit of Len Walter alive, that we
acknowledge him as a continuing member of family and village. We are who we are in
part because of who he was, iv and we are denying reality if we try to leave him entirely
behind. In the West the sense that the deceased is still alive is deemed by many experts a
temporary but perhaps necessary illusion (Rees, 1971; Parkes, 1986: 79) before attaining
the ultimate goal of living without the deceased. It is the other way around with the
Shona. Straightforward and simple burial, not hiding the reality of death, means that they
quickly accept that the person has died physically and is a necessary preliminary to the
long-term welcoming of the deceased back as one of the ancestors. The dead person is
lost and then re-found, rather than clung onto before being ultimately relinquished.
Here then was a very different end for the process of grief. But how in our case
was this to be achieved? Not through working through feelings, but through talking
about my father. Kingston quoted the famous lines of Canon Henry Scott Holland: ‘Play,
smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word it always was.’
It proved, for me at least, good advice.
Recent literature on death and dying is replete with references to how ‘noble
savages’ do it better than we do (Albery et al, 1993; Walter, 1995), but what impressed
me about Kingston’s address was how readily it made sense both to me and to the all-
white, middle class English congregation. This was not some esoteric tribal custom, but
a way of grieving that immediately rang bells for us. It was as though Kingston had given
us permission to retain my dead father and to talk about him. Much of bereavement
counselling, by contrast, with its goal of moving on without the deceased (e.g. Worden,
1983) and with its preoccupations with the feelings of the bereaved rather than with the
character of the deceased (e.g. Lendrum & Syme, 1992), seemed to me to collude with
the rest of Western culture in withholding such permission to hold on to the dead.
Through this experience I became interested in the Western way of death, in
particular the western way of conceptualising grief. As I read the literature I found the
conventional western psychological wisdom unchallenged by non-western practices;
though these were cited in order to criticise the western way of dying, they were never
used to criticise western psychological models of grief (cp. Hockey, 1995). But as I dug
deeper in the literature and as the mid 1980s moved into the late 1980s and early 1990s I
began to sense a revolution in the making.
Thomas Kuhn (1962) has argued that science develops through ‘normal’ and
‘revolutionary’ phases. Normal science accepts a basic paradigm, for example Newton’s
laws of motion, and on the basis of this thousands of experiments and empirical studies
are performed. Findings that challenge the basic paradigm are dismissed as due to faulty
equipment or poor methodology. But with time the rogue findings mount up and become
more difficult to ignore, though ignored they continue to be because so many
professional reputations have been built on the old paradigm. Then comes the revolution.
A few key articles gather together all the rogue findings and show that they, as well as all
the ‘normal’ findings, are better explained by a new paradigm. The discipline is in turmoil
for a while, before settling down to the next stage of ‘normal science’. In the late 1980s,
precisely such as revolution was about to explode in the psychology of grief.
There were two brands of revolutionary. The first were not scholars, but certain
people who had themselves been bereaved. The clinical lore of bereavement counselling
is relies heavily on studies of prematurely bereaved widows (e.g. Marris, 1958;
Maddison & Walker, 1967; Parkes & Weiss, 1983; Parkes, 1986), but some younger
widows and many of those bereaved in other circumstances found the conventional
wisdom did not apply to them. Many parents who had lost a child could not leave their
dead child out of their lives or see future children replacing the dead one. After ten or
twenty years of effective functioning in society, they would still say things such as
‘We’ve got three children, one of whom has died’ or ‘Once a bereaved parent, always a
bereaved parent’.v Some prematurely bereaved widows resented the implication that
finding a new husband was the only sure evidence of their grief being resolved. And
rather than memories of their husband fading, some effectively functioning widows
reported the opposite process - at first they were too shocked to remember much, but
then began to recall and enjoy more and more memories, a process Jane Littlewood has
described as ‘falling in love backwards’. Though this process is described in texts such as
Parkes (1986: 88), such women did not always find bereavement counsellors validating
such experiences. Many bereaved parents and widows belong to self-help groups such as
The Compassionate Friends and The National Association of Widows that keep an arm’s
length from professional counsellors, distrust theories and let their members speak for
themselves. It was also noted that the longing of some very elderly widows to be
reunited with their spouse in heaven, pathologised in clinical lore because it gives up
hope of new attachments (e.g. Raphael, 1984: 62), is in fact - given age, length of
marriage, and lack of availability of replacement partners - entirely rational.
The other revolutionaries were certain academics who carefully summarised the
research evidence and found that much of it did not seem to fit the conventional wisdom.
Wortman and Silver (1989) found that those bereaved people who failed to feel distress
were not less likely to cope in the long run, thus questioning the idea that one had to
‘work through’ one’s grief. The pattern of grief identified by clinical lore as normal is,
Wortman and Silver concluded, only one of three common patterns. Margaret Stroebe
(1992: 28) likewise questioned the notion of ‘normal’ grief, suggesting instead that there
may be many and varied responses to grief, and one should be very wary before
categorising certain responses as pathological. She concluded that the conventional
wisdom that ‘the objective of grief work...is to achieve detachment from the deceased’
(p.32) and that to achieve this ‘one must speak of one’s feelings and reactions’ (p.19) is
not supported by clear and unambiguous research evidence. More recently Stroebe and
Schut (1995) have argued that bereaved people have both to mourn their loss and (as
Parkes, 1986: ch.7 and 1993 had already highlighted) to adapt to new situations and
learn new roles (e.g. the widow may have to learn to drive and deal with tax affairs).
While such practical tasks are being attended to, grief has to be sidelined. In other words
bereavement consists of an oscillation between confronting and avoiding grief; nothing
but confrontation, or nothing but avoidance, may each in their own way be unhealthy.
Stroebe et al (1992) and Walter (1994) have identified this as a shift from a
modernism in which counsellors expertly manage a predictable process to a more
postmodern individualising of loss and a rejection of grand theory. Different individuals
grieve in different ways, and counsellors should be aware of the diversity of such ways if
they are to assist clients follow their path of grief; this should supersede the earlier
approach in which the counsellor was taught about ‘normal’ grief and how to diagnose
and/or treat pathological grief. This more postmodern view can also use cross-cultural
data not to justify a universally normal grief but to demonstrate diversity.
Marwit and Klass (1995) recently looked specifically at the objective of
withdrawing emotional ties to the deceased. They asked a sample of students aged
eighteen to fifty four to identify and write about an important person in their lives who
had died, looking in particular at the role (if any) the deceased currently played in their
life. The deaths were of grandparents, peers and older friends, with only one participant
each describing the death of a father, aunt, uncle or spouse.
‘It was originally expected that inquiring about the current role of the
deceased would be viewed as highly esoteric and very difficult to address.
As it turned out, no participant had trouble with the concept and many
wrote two to three pages. The idea of an active inner representation of a
valued deceased individual seems to be a concept readily and naturally
available to many people.’ (p.292)
The researchers found four kinds of role for the deceased: as a role model, as giving
guidance in specific situations, as clarifying the values of the survivor, and as a valued
part of the survivor’s biography. It would seem then that these dead live on, Shona style,
without impairing the functioning of the living. This is consistent with Rubin’s (1984)
argument that the resolution of loss is characterised by recollection of the deceased
becoming a source of warmth and pleasure, something which can happen only after the
death is accepted.
The effect of the revolution may be seen in a small but significant shift from the
first (1983) to the second (1991) edition of William Worden’s textbook Grief
Counselling and Grief Therapy. Worden describes four ‘tasks’ of mourning, originally
defining the fourth task as ‘withdrawing emotional energy from the deceased and
reinvesting it in another relationship’. In the second edition (1991: 16), Worden says that
he still believes this to be true but that it is easily misunderstood, so he now prefers to
say that the task for the counsellor is ‘not to help the bereaved give up their relationship
with the deceased, but to...find an appropriate place for the dead in their emotional
lives’. But he still maintains that this ‘is hindered by holding on to the past attachment
rather than going on and forming new ones’.
For myself and other revolutionaries, however, it is entirely up to the individual
whether he or she chooses to go on and form new attachments, there being no clear
evidence that forming new attachments is correlated with effective functioning. What
does mark resolution is (to use Worden’s phrase) ‘to find an appropriate place for the
dead in one’s life’. This is what happens with older widows, with younger widows who
do and with those who do not remarry, with bereaved parents who do and with those
who do not go on to have another child, with English and Shona.
I do not want to argue this point further here, because in my judgement the
evidence is beginning to point decisively toward this concept of resolution. What I want
to explore in the main section of this article is the process by which an appropriate place
for the dead is found; the dissident literature is a lot less clear about this. Kingston
suggested that the clue was not feelings but talking about the dead. This is the subject of
the next section.
THE PROCESS OF GRIEF: TALKING ABOUT THE DEAD
Corina died of breast cancer on Christmas Eve 1994. Nine years earlier she had been my
girlfriend in a short, passionate and difficult relationship, but we had subsequently
remained the very closest of friends. When she died, leaving her partner, her two-year
old daughter and her elderly mother, it fell to me to arrange her funeral and memorial
Corina was not just well known - she had a computerised list of over two
hundred people whom she regularly mailed with her news - but she also made a
considerable impact on those she met. In order to organise the funeral, and even more so
the memorial service in which a number of people were to recount their memories of her,
I had to ring a couple of dozen of her friends, many of whom I knew of but had never
before spoken to. Each phone conversation took up to an hour and had the same pattern.
We would talk about the Corina we knew, and we discovered that we knew - in very
different contexts - very much the same Corina. All who had worked with her, or been
her friends, had found the same lovably impossible person. I discovered that the break-up
of my original relationship with her had not been entirely my fault as I had hitherto
thought. Gradually, as plans for the memorial service began to take shape, I began to
understand her and my relationship with her as never before. I had lost my best friend,
and yet in a way I had found her for the first time.
Through these conversations I began to find a stable place for her in my life. I
cried a lot, but I did not feel that tears were healing my wound. What had healing power
was being able to talk honestly about Corina with others who knew her. Corina valued
direct and honest communication; fortunately, her friends reflected this virtue, so we
could talk with equal love about her strengths and her failings, the joys and the
frustrations of knowing her.
This process could happen only with people who knew her, and knew her well.
For two months I had no desire to speak about Corina to anybody who did not know
her, or even to be with them. Stroebe et al (1992: 1210), following Rosenblatt & Meyer
(1986), refer to ‘internal dialogues with a deceased person (which) serve the positive
function of helping the bereaved clarify thoughts, deal with unfinished business and
emergent relationships, and prepare for the future.’ But what helped me were not
‘internal dialogues with a deceased person’ but external dialogues with others who knew
her. These were what, as Stroebe et al put it, helped me ‘clarify thoughts, deal with
unfinished business and prepare for the future’. Nor was it a matter, as the bereavement
literature so often portrays, of friends ‘supporting’ the bereaved, but of a number of
bereaved persons working out together who Corina was and what she meant to them.
This was not social support for an intrinsically personal grief process, but an intrinsically
social process in which we negotiated and re-negotiated who Corina was, how she had
died and what she had meant to us. Because this was an external process, it was possible
for others to add to, even to challenge and correct, my own understanding of her. Left
only with my own memories and with support from those who had not known her, I
could not have worked out exactly who Corina was and how she had become part of me.
I would have been left with a jigsaw with too many pieces not fitting. If her place in my
life is to remain stable, it has to be reasonably accurate and this requires testing it against
the views of others who knew her.
Some of Corina’s friends were not as able as I to talk to so many who had known
her, but fortunately Corina had written a largely autobiographical novel. One friend
commented how re-reading the book after her death had helped him capture the person
he knew. This was a dialogue just not with his own memories but also with Corina’s own
recorded view of herself. I should add here that one or two people who had fallen out
with her were alienated from her other friends and even from her own view of herself as
portrayed in the book. How they struggled to make sense of things, I know not.
The need to gain an accurate picture of the deceased was illustrated a few years
back by a colleague of mine who was so angry at the partial obituaries published about
his father’s complex and varied life that he decided to write his own, which was
published in a leading national newspaper.
The traditional Jewish seven day shiva, in which friends and neighbours visit the
house to offer their condolences and to exchange memories of the deceased, seems well
suited for this task of jointly constructing an accurate picture of the dead person.
Sometimes this entails formalities and pleasantries, but on other occasions differing
perceptions of the dead person may be discussed animatedly with one person’s view of
reality being tested against another’s (for an example, see Greenberg 1983: 296). Shiva
and subsequent rituals, such as the annual Jahrzeit ceremony of remembrance, enable the
family to construct an enduring and shared memory of the dead, which according to at
least one rabbi,vi is the final goal of mourning.
The last last chapter
Why is it so important to talk and talk and find a secure place for the deceased? Victor
Marshall (1986) argues that in old age many people reminisce, going over their life in
order to make sense of it. It is as though they are writing their autobiography, and
Marshall’s research indicates that many conclude that their life was okay. At that point,
they can face death and are free to enjoy what remains of life. Marshall talks about this
as ‘writing the last chapter’, but from the perspective of this article he is actually
referring to the penultimate chapter. The last chapter is written after death by the
survivors as they too go over the life lived and, separately or together, make sense of it.
This last chapter may be made public, as in an obituary or funeral eulogy, but more often
it is informally constructed between friends and family members. If the penultimate
chapter - re-written for example by the person on their deathbed (commonly called
‘finishing the business’) - is known only to a few, others may want to talk about the
death and how the deceased came to terms with it. Likewise if the death was difficult or
sudden, survivors may want to talk about the death as well as the life. It is important for
the living to know that a credible story of their life and death can eventually be told
(Walter, 1990: 220) and important for survivors that they can piece how this person
affected their own lives.
Has it always been so? Perhaps not, or not so much. When roles and statuses
were ascribed by tradition, we all knew who the deceased was and where he fitted in our
lives. But according to Giddens (1991), the modern experience is increasingly one of
being detached from tradition, place and kinship. Through the television, the
WorldWideWeb or historical theme parks I can visit any time or place at will; even if I
live in one locality, my horizons are not bounded by that place; friendships and sexual
partnerships are not held fast by the economic and political interests of a wider kin
network but take the form of what Giddens terms the pure relationship, constantly open
to my monitoring and checking that it is providing me with personal fulfilment. Perhaps
the only relationship that is more fixed and ‘given’ is the parent-child relationship. The
result of all this, Giddens says, is that modern individuals become self-referential,
continually having to construct and reconstruct their identity. Without tradition or
religion to allot me fixed roles and mores, I have continually to check how I am doing.
Nothing is given, everything has to be created, mainly through talk with those closest to
me (Berger & Kellner, 1964; Riches & Dawson, forthcoming). Ritual is replaced by
discourse. This is of course only a trend but, in so far as more and more people fit it,
then it would seem likely that after death this reflexive monitoring will continue, indeed
become key to the grief process just as it is key to the rest of life. Working out who the
deceased really was, what she was like, how I related to her, how she died, and checking
this against others’ accounts is surely how the late-modern individual emerges from the
other side of loss.
I am not suggesting that pre-modern individuals did not talk about those they had
lost. They almost certainly did (Gittings, 1996). What I am suggesting is that our need to
talk about the dead, our need reflexively to monitor our relationships with them (to use
Giddens’ terminology), may be increasing, and yet - as the next section suggests - the
availability of others with whom to do this may be decreasing. Paradoxically, this is for
much the same reasons: the disembedding from place, from tradition and from kin.
Who to talk to?
After Corina died, I felt that the ongoing dialogue with others that I experienced was
exceptional. I felt almost as though I were part of a traditional shiva or of a grieving
Victorian bourgeois family shut up for weeks with its own members and isolated from
everyday interaction. But are opportunities for talking about the dead available in more
‘ordinary’ losses where the mourner is not orchestrating, as I was, a memorial service
with what felt like a cast of thousands? The funeral has the potential to recount the life of
the dead person and reflect their character, but British funerals often do this partially or
inaccurately or omit to do it altogether (Walter, 1990). Another widespread ritual is the
letter of condolence. When my father died my mother received about fifty letters, and I
found reading them very helpful. They talked, simply and accurately, about my father, his
character and the things he had done. They put into words what I knew, but somehow
was too close to put into words; I knew my father better, and felt closer to him, after
reading them. The funeral tea enables mourners to gather together to talk about the
dead, but they may avoid the subject. A friend recalls a funeral for a young woman who
had died suddenly. Everyone assiduously avoided mentioning her - everyone apart from
the husband of six months who, to everyone’s embarrassment, talked about her and
brought out photographs of her at every possible opportunity.
Outside of these rituals, there are several reasons why in modern Western
societies mourners may not be able to talk on more than just the odd occasion with those
who knew the deceased. First, after a sudden or unexplained death those who could, in
theory, explain to family and friends how the person died are often in practice unable to.
Coroners are mandated only to ascertain how the person died, not why (Howarth, 1996).
Hospital doctors in accident and emergency departments may be too busy with the next
emergency to explain to the family how the previous emergency died.
Second, different members of the same family may grieve in different ways or at
different rates, making communication very difficult and the creation of a shared
understanding of the role of the deceased in the family almost impossible (Littlewood et
al, 1991; Littlewood, 1992: ch.6; Riches & Dawson, forthcoming; Stroebe & Schut
Third, religious and other cultural changes create uncertainty as to how to
behave. Religious rituals such as shiva, which enable mourners to talk with each other
about the deceased, were designed for purely religious purposes (Klein, 1979: 286-90).
With religion in decline, participants may find these rituals difficult to handle, as with the
secular Jew who makes embarrassed small talk at a shiva (Parkes, 1986) or the non-
Jewish widow who may feel alienated from her own knowledge of her husband as the
ritual is taken over by the Jewish community (Sternberg, 1984). Norms for talking about
death are changing, so different generations may no longer know how to communicate
with each other on the matter - a traditionally religious grandparent, a stiff upper lip
parent, and an adult child who has learnt to be more expressive may have great
difficulties communicating at precisely the moment they most need to (Walter, 1994: chs
1 & 2).
Fourth, the separation of home and work means that workmates are unlikely to
know my family and friends, while family members are unlikely to know my workmates.
Talking about a dead family member or a workmate thus becomes impossible in the
Fifth, and perhaps most important, is longevity combined with geographical
mobility. Those who knew the dead person are often physically separated from one
another. Families are spread around the country if not the world. Neighbours often do
not know the person-next-door’s parent or adult child who lives a hundred miles away
and then dies. Many die in retirement, with either themselves or ex-colleagues moved
away. Many of the bereaved are themselves elderly, have already lost most of those who
knew the deceased well and no longer live near the few remaining who do. Some elderly
bereaved are housebound, deaf or blind; their social world has contracted. As a result,
testing the reality of their memories with geographically distant others who knew their
spouse or child can scarcely be attempted. For those who can read and hear, letters or
phone calls can keep them in touch with the memories of others, but the over-riding
reality for many is that those encountered daily either did not know the deceased or did
not know them at all well.
It is not surprising, therefore, if neighbours don’t know what to say and cross to
the other side of the street. If what the bereaved want is to talk with others who knew
the deceased, and if I am a neighbour who didn’t know the deceased, then indeed I do
not know what to say. I can offer my condolences, but else can I say? Sociologists need
not invoke the notion of death as a generally taboo or embarrassing subject in order to
explain this particular difficulty faced by neighbours or work colleagues.
Even if there are others to talk to, longevity plus mobility can mean that the
various mourners did not know the same person. Ours is the first century in which when
a parent, sibling or offspring dies they are unlikely all still to be co-resident - they will
have grown apart. When a woman dies prematurely, husband and mother may each have
lost someone very different - over twenty years the husband has seen his woman grow in
ways the mother knows little of, while for the twenty years before that the mother knew
a child the husband has never known. Each, however, may believe they know her best
and refuse to acknowledge the other’s presumed intimacy. This may not matter if the
two survivors need have little to do with one another, but it can be crucial if widower
and mother are both committed to bringing up the dead woman’s own children ‘the way
she would have wanted’. Likewise, brothers need a similar understanding of their
father’s wishes if they are to take over the family business.
To summarise this section, if the lack of rootedness of the modern individual in
tradition, kinship and place is the reason why reflexive monitoring of the self is so
important, it may also explain why after a death it is so difficult to find the chief resource
that is needed to do this - others who knew the deceased and with whom one can
construct a joint biography.
Counselling, self-help groups and feelings
What can I do if there is no-one around who knew the deceased? Friends and neighbours
who did not know her, or not in the way I knew her, will soon tire of my incessant need
to talk about her. This leaves two options. One is to close in upon myself. The other is to
find others who are prepared to listen - either a bereavement counsellor or a self-help
bereavement group. But even though these are willing to listen, what can I talk about? I
may talk about the person who has died, but the problem here is that reality testing is
difficult because the counsellor or group do not know her. Indeed if they consider it their
role to affirm my feelings and experiences, they may confirm my misreading of the
character of the deceased. A diet of non-directive and affirming ‘Mms’ is likely to
achieve precisely this. A skilled counsellor should be better than a self-help group at
sensitively challenging idealisations but is nevertheless a poor substitute for those who
actually knew the dead person. Those who choose not to go to counselling or to a group
may be thinking of precisely this:
I didn’t feel I wanted to meet a group of strangers and go through
saying... you just want to talk about your own child and what they went
through - all the treatment they had and what happened to them...I didn’t
feel that I wanted to talk to strangers (Riches and Dawson, forthcoming)
Others, though, may find it therapeutic to talk with others who, although they did not
know the particular person who has died, have suffered the same category of loss. As
one bereaved parent put it,
I would come back from the meeting on a high....Talking to people who
didn’t know Sarah - they instinctively knew....we had this bond, and I
found that they were the easiest people to talk to. And I liked to hear
about their children....I found this a great comfort. Not just talking for
talking’s sake but hearing about theirs....such special things and I got a lot
of comfort from that. (Riches and Dawson, forthcoming)
The pleasure of sharing in the self-help group is based largely on discovering that the
others have had similar experiences and share one’s feelings. There is a sharing of
experience. They do not share objective knowledge of the deceased, but - having
suffered the same category of loss - they do have similar feelings.
Focusing on feelings is also the intention in much bereavement counselling.
Counsellors do this in two ways - either by asking the client to talk directly about their
feelings, which actually entails a certain distance from feeling the feelings and may assist
self-understanding. Or by asking about particularly traumatic events, such as the funeral,
the retelling of which is likely to bring feelings directly to the surface and may assist
catharsis. Whichever technique is used, the counsellor’s aim is to enable the client to
clarify their feelings (Hockey, 1986; Walter, 1994: 135-6). A textbook by Lendrum and
Syme (1992) titled Gift of Tears: a practical approach to loss and bereavement
counselling has a chapter on ‘Basic Loss Counselling Skills’ which includes exercises for
the would-be counsellor. For example (p.89):-
Restate in different words, and in clear and simple language, the literal
meaning of the client’s statements. Example:
Susan: My husband was a fine man. His sudden death was a
great shock. I still miss him terribly.
One of the many possible responses from the counsellor might be:
Counsellor: Your husband’s unexpected death really shook you to the
core. You still miss him terribly.
This exercise requires the counsellor to translate any ostensibly objective statements
about the deceased into statements about what the bereaved subjectively feels. (The
exercise privileges this subjective re-statement as the ‘literal’ meaning of what the client
is saying.) The first statement ‘My husband was a fine man’ is actually ignored, because
it is not so easily translated. The final statement, ‘I still miss him terribly’ is translated
verbatim, as it already is in subjective format. Feelings, not statements about the
deceased, thus constitute the discourse of counselling. Note, this process of translation is
the opposite of what typically goes on in conversations between those who knew the
deceased. There the aim is to reconstruct what the deceased was actually like, what they
actually did and how they actually died.
According to Lendrum and Syme and to most bereavement counsellors, enabling
the client to talk about or express feeling is what really matters. I contend, however, that
talking about feelings to a stranger is a rather poor, if much appreciated, second best
when there is no-one available with whom to talk about the deceased.
Both counsellors and their clients may disagree with me. Clients may say they
find the exploration of feelings in the counselling session very helpful. Quite so. In the
absence of those who knew the deceased, it is indeed very helpful to talk to a
sympathetic listener and relief is often found in having a good cry. Many counsellors
claim that working through feelings is the way in which the grief process operates. I have
already cited review articles which find the evidence for this contentious - but because
clients find the clarification of feelings cathartic and go away feeling better, counsellors
may be impervious to research findings that challenge their model of grief.
What I have proposed here is a theory about how grief may operate, at least in
some people. How could it be tested? One possibility would be to compare those
bereaved persons who do, and those who do not, go to counsellors and self-help groups.
Is it the case that those who go do not have people at hand who knew the deceased and
with whom they can talk? Or if there are people at hand, does the client find it difficult to
talk with them? (Here there would be a tricky chicken and egg issue to untangle. Does a
bereaved mother go to a self-help group because she can’t talk to her husband, or can
she not talk to her husband because in the self-help group she has learnt a discourse
which she has come to value but with which he is unfamiliar?)
Two months after she died, Corina’s partner wrote:-
Mummy is often in our conversation and we are helping each other to
slowly understand the reality of Corina being gone but Corina being here.
Trying to grasp the reality of the deceased being gone but yet being here, and doing this
through continually monitoring that reality by talking to those who knew her, captures
the model of grief presented in this article. Before concluding by looking at the model’s
practical and research implications, let me summarise its main elements:-
1) Many bereaved people want to talk to others who knew the dead person.
2) Talking about or expressing feelings to a counsellor or in a self-help group
may be helpful but it may be a poor second best to 1). Bereavement counselling fails to
acknowledge this possibility. vii
3) a) The purpose of grief is not to move on without those one who have died,
but to find a secure place for them. b) For this place to be secure, the image of the dead
normally has to be reasonable accurate, that is, shared by others and tested out against
4) Unfortunately, these others may not be readily available in a mobile, secular
and bureaucratic society which separates work from home, and disrupts tradition, ritual
and rootedness in place. Longevity compounds this.
5) This new theory of grief may be grounded in Giddens’ theory of identity in
late-modern capitalism. Bereavement is part of the never-ending and reflexive
conversation with self and others through which the late-modern person makes sense of
their existence. In other words, bereavement is part of the process of (auto)biography,
and the biographical imperative - the need to make sense of self and others in a
continuing narrative - is the motor that drives bereavement behaviour. Without claiming
all this to be unique to late-modern society, my theory is sociological in that it roots
contemporary grief in the problematics of identity construction that characterise this
society. Thus, though many traditional societies ritualise what Vitebsky (1993) calls
‘dialogues with the dead’ (cp. Bloch, 1971; Danforth, 1982), the meaning of such
dialogues in contemporary society are likely to be very different.
6) Though elements 1) and 3a) have been noted in the psychological literature for
some years, 1) remains but a minor theme in the literature and only recently is 3a)
becoming a major rather than a minor theme - amounting to a Kuhnian revolution in the
study of grief. The other, more obviously sociological, elements in my model have not
been brought together before.
Both the purpose, and more particularly the process, of grief as outlined in this paper
require empirical evidence if they are to hold up. One basic question is whether mine is a
new, or a supplementary, model. Critics such as Wortman and Silver (1989) and Stroebe
(1992) suggests that there may not be one kind of grief process, but several, with the
modernist grand narrative giving way to a diversity of post-modern narratives (Stroebe
et al 1992). In which case, the model I am proposing may supplement, rather than
replace, the conventional wisdom. It may be that some bereaved people work through
feelings in order to detach themselves from the deceased, while some talk with others in
order to find an enduring place for the deceased in their lives, and it may be that both
processes work effectively. In our reflexive society, it is also undoubtedly true that what
bereaved people do and how they talk about what they feel are influenced by theories of
grief (Hawkins, 1990; Walter, 1994) - I was certainly influenced by Kingston’s advice in
his address at my father’s memorial service.
We have, then, competing discourses about how grief operates. To some extent,
both exist within popular culture. In my study of pilgrimages to war graves abroad
(Walter, 1993b) I found both. Pilgrims and tour operators alike talked about the
emotional release felt by pilgrims after forty plus years when at last they saw their
relative’s grave. This reflects the conventional idea of grief as working through
emotions. But they also spoke of the importance of ‘walking the ground’, going over the
battlefield on which the soldier died, talking with his comrades. This served to create an
enduring story of how he lived and fought and died - a story which the wife, fiancee,
sister or mother had not been able to construct at home by herself. This reflects the
model of grief outlined in this article.
If one model applies to some people, and another to others, is it possible to
specify to whom each applies? Whereas the conventional model was developed to
explain premature spousal bereavement, several of its critics have looked at other kinds
of loss. Marwit and Klass (1994), for example, focused on loss of friends and
grandparents, Wortman and Silver (1989) have researched the loss of a child, while I
have drawn on the death of my father and of a close friend. Are some models more
appropriate to some types of bereavement?
Religion can control what kinds of conversations about the dead are permissible.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy, both of which allow communication with and rituals for the
dead, may be contrasted with Protestantism and materialism which deny this possibility:
are they associated with different styles of grief? Closeness of relationship, and the
degree to which the dead and the living had constructed a shared worldview and a shared
understanding of their respective biographies, may also be important.
Gender is a further variable. There is some evidence that in the modern West men
and women tend to grieve in different ways (Littlewood et al, 1991; Stroebe & Schut,
1995), though most theories of grief are based on grieving women (Hockey,
forthcoming). The current paper is written by a man; is my model more applicable to
The most obvious research needed to test the model is to compare a sample of
bereaved people who are surrounded by others who knew the deceased with a sample
that lacks such a network. Do the latter have greater recourse to counsellors, self-help
groups and a discourse of ‘feelings’, as my model predicts? Do they have more difficulty
finding a stable place for the dead in their lives?
If empirical research finds that all, or more likely some, bereaved people grieve in the
way outlined in this paper, then there would be major pastoral implications.
First the funeral. Though still accounting for only a tiny fraction of ceremonies,
humanist funerals have received considerable publicity in the UK in the last few years,
this publicity typically contrasting humanist viii funerals which recount the life of the
deceased which religious funerals which do not (Wynne-Willson, 1989). Some religious
funerals, however, also recount the life lived and many clergy as well as humanists now
see this as good, though far from universal, practice. (Walter, 1990: ch.20). The theory
developed in the present paper implies that recounting the life of the deceased is not a
secular alternative to religious ritual, but a social-psychological necessity in a late-
modern society in which identity is fluid and self-referential. With increasing
individuation, with serial monogamy and with mobility separating the bereaved from
friends and family, it is particularly important for the funeral to state who this person
was. To have a public, and accurate, biography told in the funeral may help mourners
find an enduring place for the deceased in their lives - not least because the recounting of
it there gives them permission to continue their own recounting in the weeks and months
ahead. This can be done within the format of either a religious or a secular funeral.
Officiants have told me that it is good practice to talk before the funeral to more
than one family member, and if possible also to at least one friend or colleague, in order
to construct a biography that all can identify with. Suffering the first shock of grief, the
next of kin may well idealise the deceased, causing the naive officiant to produce a public
eulogy that other mourners feel does not capture the person they knew. As one
Australian celebrant whom I accompanied on a pre-funeral visit said to the couple and
their two little children ‘We’ve only got one shot at it, and we’ve got to get it right’.
(Walter, 1990: 218).
Now I am aware of no empirical evidence that funerals which recount the
biography actually help mourners find a stable place for the deceased. But neither is there
any evidence (Walter, 1993a) that funerals in which emotion is expressed help the grief
process, which is the currently fashionable view of bereavement professionals. (They
often tell me it is important that people express their feelings at funerals and that the
purpose of funerals is to help the grief process.) There most certainly is evidence that, in
an English culture in which the public expression of emotion is largely disapproved of,
the funeral becomes a trial of strength - the successful mourner being the one who
succeeds in not breaking down (Walter, forthcoming). Hence the use of dark glasses.
Professional advice that mourners should ‘feel free to express their feelings’ at the
funeral conflicts with this basic cultural norm, and may actually heighten already high
anxiety levels. There seems to be considerable disagreement between lay people and such
experts as to the value or otherwise of breaking down in the funeral. What there is
almost total agreement about among the British, however, is that there must be some
capturing of who the deceased was (Pearce, 1995). Not many Britons want funerals to
be emotional and sentimental, but almost all Britons castigate plastic and impersonal
funerals (Walter, 1990). The biographical model of grief thus provides a better
theoretical base for the funeral than do emotive models, at least in the UK.
What are the implications for bereavement counselling? Those professionals
whom bereaved people contact should give them permission to seek out and talk to
others who knew the deceased. Professionals can help the bereaved identify who such
people are and how they can get in touch (whether by visit, letter or telephone). General
practitioners may be a key group here.
The bereaved should be reassured that they can retain the deceased. Many
cultures actively include the ancestors in the life of the living (Yamamoto et al, 1969;
1970; Bloch, 1971; Danforth, 1982; Walter, 1991; Vitebsky, 1993). Others, such as the
Navaho (Mandelbaum, 1959), the Balinese (Wikan, 1988), Gypsies (Okely, 1983) and
our own individualistic and secular culture do not. That said, even in our society the
dead do play an important part in the lives of many - though this is rarely talked of
(Bennett, 1987). The clinical lore of bereavement counselling is full of cases who get
‘stuck’ in their grief because they are petrified of letting go of the dead person; the
counsellor tries to help by giving them permission to let go. But my model suggests that
the opposite will help: permission to retain the dead person. In my limited experience,
bereaved friends have felt liberated when I’ve told them they don’t have to give up the
dead person - they then seem able, paradoxically, to move on. If (Marris, 1974) there has
to be both a retaining and a moving on, it is the retaining of the dead that in our culture
needs to be affirmed, not the moving on.
Members of modern western societies need to know that they can keep those
they have lost, and that one way to do this is to talk honestly about the dead with family,
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i I acknowledge the very constructive comments on an earlier draft from David Field, Malcolm Hamilton,
Glennys Howarth, Peter Jupp, Colin Murray Parkes, Gordon Riches and the anonymous Mortality reviewer.
ii See Peskin (1993) and Stroebe et al (1993) for competing interpretations of Bowlby’s work.
iii I used a similar methodology in my book Hope on the Dole (1985) in which I looked in detail at a very few
long-term unemployed people who were happy and healthy, in order to fine tune conventional theories about
the psychologically damaging consequences of unemployment.
iv This view is often articulated in humanist funerals. See Wynne Willson (1989).
v See, for example, the literature of The Compassionate Friends.
vi Rabbi Sliw. Paper given to the Second International Conference on Death, Dying and Disposal, Sussex
University, Sept. 1995.
vii I have shown how, within my theory, it is possible to explain the misperception, or at least partial view, of
counsellors. Within their theories, they could also explain mine! They might note that male sociologists tend to
live in their heads and deny feelings, which would account for my personal preference for a cognitive, rather
than an emotive, theory of grief.
viii In the USA and Australia, the term ‘life-centred’ funeral is used. Unlike the British humanist funeral, this is not
typically portrayed as anti- or non-religious.