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A new model of grief: bereavement and biography · PDF fileA new model of grief: bereavement and biography TONY WALTER Department of Sociology, University of Reading, United Kingdom

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  • Mortality, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1996

    A new model of grief: bereavement and biography

    TONY WALTERDepartment of Sociology, University of Reading, United Kingdom

    ABSTRACT The dominant model found in contemporary bereavement literature sees grief as a workingthrough of emotion, the eventual goal being to move on and live without the deceased. This articlechallenges this model by analysing the own authors own experience of loss and by drawing together recentresearch papers which suggest an alternative, more sociological, model. Survivors typically want to talkabout the deceased and to talk with others who knew him or her. Together they construct a story that placesthe dead within their lives, a story capable of enduring through time. The purpose of grief is therefore theconstruction of a durable biography that enables the living to integrate the memory of the dead into theirongoing lives; the process by which this is achieved is principally conversation with others who knew thedeceased. The process hinges on talk more than feeling; and the purpose entails moving on with, as wellas without, the deceased. This kind of grief process is particularly necessary in a late modern society whosemembers must continually re-create their own identitybut the detachment from tradition, place and kinthat makes it necessary also makes it singularly difficult. The article concludes by outlining practical andresearch implications of the new model.


    The foundations for the scientific, psychological understanding of grief aregenerally cited as Freuds (1913) article Mourning and melancholia and Linde-manns work three decades later (1944). Drawing on their seminal ideas Bowlby(1979, 1980), Parkes (1986), Raphael (1984) and others have developedsophisticated analyses. This body of work has been widely read to say that thepurpose of grief is the reconstitution of an autonomous individual who can inlarge measure leave the deceased behind and form new attachments. The processby which this is believed to be achieved is the working through and resolutionof feelingsthe psychological literature on grief is full of discussion of anger,guilt, depression, sadness and a whole range of feelings with which bereavedpeople may have to come to terms. These concepts of the purpose and processof 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 complexpicture. Concerning process a number of textbooks, for example Raphael (1984,pp. 6473) and Stroebe & Stroebe (1987, chs 45), summarize a variety oftheories in addition to the working through emotions thesis. Concerningpurpose, Freud (1913) described the task of mourning as to detach the sur-


    Correspondence to: Tony Walter, Department of Sociology, University of Reading, POBox 218, Reading, RG6 6AA, United Kingdom. Fax (01734) 318922.

    1357-6275/96/010007-19 Journals Oxford Ltd

  • 8 Tony Walter

    vivors hopes and memories from the dead, but he also wrote of the need forthe survivor to identify with the lost person. Parkes (1986, p. 79) describes thesense of the presence of the dead as an illusion and a hallucination, yet onlya few pages later (p. 88) quotes in very positive terms a moving passage fromC. S. Lewis (1961) in which as he begins to let go of his dead wife he beginsto gain a clearer picture of her. Bowlby (1979, p. 49) in his work The making andbreaking of affectional bonds argues that all forms of mourning lead towarddetachment, yet he also argues (1980, p. 96) that half or more of widows andwidowers reach a state of mind in which they retain a strong sense of thecontinuing presence of their partner and that this may be a healthy way inwhich the survivor preserves a sense of identity. Bowlby (1980, p. 100) notesthat Failure to recognise that a continuing sense of the dead persons pres-ence . . . is a common feature of healthy mourning has led to much confusedtheorising [1].

    If such classic texts are more complex than clinical lore allows, why shouldthis be? Why should there have been a selective reading of these texts? First, asecular and individualistic late 20th century culture is likely to discount thepossibility of a meaningful relationship between the living and the dead, havingabandoned those religious beliefs and rituals which articulate such relationshipsin 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, theVictorian celebration of the intense emotionality of grief and the romantic cultof the dead has given way to a modernist and medical concern to return theindividual as rapidly as possible to efficient and autonomous functioning(Stroebe et al., 1992). The few studies documenting how bereavement counsel-lors and groups actually operate suggest that they are as concerned as anyoneelse to move their clients through grief to become once again effectivelyfunctioning individuals (Wambach, 1985; Broadbent et al., 1990). Second, itmust be said that the authors of the classic texts have on the whole notdiscouraged this selective reading of their work.

    We may say, therefore, that in the classic texts there is a major themeemphasizing detachment achieved through the working through of feelings, anda minor theme emphasizing the continued presence of the dead and a continu-ous conversation with and about them. Because of a largely secular andindividualist culture, both the authors of these texts and their readers havetypically underplayed or ignored this minor themecreating the clinical lore ofbereavement counselling.

    In this article I challenge this clinical lore concerning the purpose andprocess of grief, paying particular attention to process. I am prompted by thetwo most significant bereavements I have gone through, neither of which seemsto 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 toquantitatively minded readers. I would agree if the cases affirmed conventionalwisdom, but one deviant case that does not fit conventional wisdom may tell us

  • A new model of grief 9

    more than 999 that do [2]. An autobiographical approach is appropriate becausemy proposed model sees bereavement as part of how individuals construct theirbiography: autobiographical data is therefore highly relevant. I then relate thisautobiographical data to dissident literature that over the past decade or so hasbeen 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 Zimbabweanfriend of the family, Kingston. He drew upon his own Shona tradition of livingin the presence of the ancestors to suggest that we should keep the spirit of LenWalter alive, that we acknowledge him as a continuing member of family andvillage. We are who we are in part because of who he was [3], and we aredenying reality if we try to leave him entirely behind. In the West the sense thatthe deceased is still alive is deemed by many experts a temporary but perhapsnecessary illusion (Rees, 1971; Parkes, 1986, p. 79) before attaining theultimate goal of living without the deceased. It is the other way around with theShona. Straightforward and simple burial, not hiding the reality of death, meansthat they quickly accept that the person has died physically and is a necessarypreliminary to the long-term welcoming of the deceased back as one of theancestors. The dead person is lost and then re-found, rather than clung ontobefore being ultimately relinquished.

    Here then was a very different end for the process of grief. But how in ourcase was this to be achieved? Not through working through feelings, but throughtalking about my father. Kingston quoted the famous lines of Canon HenryScott Holland: Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever thehousehold word it always was. It proved, for me at least, good advice.

    Recent literature on death and dying is replete with references to hownoble savages do it better than we do (Albery et al., 1993; Walter, 1995), butwhat impressed me about Kingstons address was how readily it made senseboth to me and to the all-white, middle-class English congregation. This was notsome esoteric tribal custom, but a way of grieving that immediately rang bellsfor us. It was as though Kingston had given us permission to retain my deadfather 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 withits preoccupations with the feelings of the bereaved rather than with thecharacter of the deceased (e.g. Lendrum & Syme, 1992), seemed to me tocollude with the rest of Western culture in withholding such permission to holdon to the dead.

    Through this experience I became interested in the Western way of death,in particular the Western way of conceptualizing grief. As I read the literatureI found the conventional Western psychological wisdom unchallenged by non-Western practices; though these were cited in order to criticize the Western way

  • 10 Tony Walter

    of dying, they were never used to criticize Western psychological models of grief(cp. Hockey, 1996). But as I dug deeper in the literature and as the mid-1980smoved into the late 1980s and early 1990s I began to sense a revolution in themaking.

    Thomas Kuhn (1962) has argued that science develops through normaland revolutionary phases. Normal science accepts a basic paradigm, forexample Newtons laws of motion, and on the basis of this thousan

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