Social Work Bereavement Practice
Mary Sormanti
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0117


Bereavement may be defined as the condition of living in the face of a loved one’s death. With estimated global death rates of more than 56 million individuals each year, this generally unwanted, yet unavoidable, experience affects a large segment of the population. With the possible exception of those who die at a young age, everyone encounters the death of a significant other at some point. Despite the unique circumstances surrounding any individual death, bereavement is often associated with significant physical and psychological morbidity. Bereaved individuals and families generally undergo emotional, cognitive, spiritual, social, and physical changes whose impact can range from short-lived and relatively mild to long-lasting and profound. These consequences are generally identified as grief. Furthermore, although grief is recognized to be especially challenging when connected with the death of a loved one, it is also experienced with many other common losses including divorce, geographic relocation, and unemployment. Understanding the fundamental features and psychosocial consequences of grief as well as the myriad contextual factors that shape how grief is experienced and expressed is essential to effective social work practice. The considerable body of theoretical and empirical knowledge regarding grief in general and bereavement specifically is growing rapidly and includes analysis and debate about features that differentiate normative adaptive responses from those that may indicate a diagnosable disorder, providing a solid foundation for both novices and seasoned professionals.

General Overviews

Coupled with the ubiquitous nature of loss and an apparent surfeit of potentially traumatic events occurring with regularity across the globe, a steady increase in related academic inquiry has resulted in a sizable amount of literature about these topics. Busy practitioners and others with limited means to undertake a comprehensive review of the extant literature can gain a solid overview of the specialty area by reading sound critical synopses published in well-regarded sources. By no means definitive, the following works will meet this aim. Stroebe and Schut 2010 provides a detailed overview of prominent grief theories including their own influential “dual process” model. Howarth 2011 and Zisook and Shear 2009 provide concise summaries of key theoretical concepts as well as diagnostic and mental health treatment issues at the center of current bereavement scholarship. Stroebe, et al. 2007 presents an important critical analysis and synthesis of research data on the psychological and physical effects of bereavement. Mancini and Bonanno 2006 is a straightforward introduction to evidence-based assessment and intervention with bereaved individuals. Sormanti 2008 gives a brief summary of contemporary theories and empirical findings about bereavement with implications for practice. Finally, Klass and Chow 2011 underscore the critical relationship between culture and grief, which often receives insufficient attention.

  • Howarth, Robyn A. 2011. Concepts and controversies in grief and loss. Journal of Mental Health Counseling 33.1 (January): 4–10.

    E-mail Citation »

    Howarth provides overviews of grief and bereavement subtypes and their related descriptive constructs as well as the diagnostic and treatment issues currently being examined by researchers and practitioner-scholars. Available online for purchase.

  • Klass, Dennis, and Amy Y. M. Chow. 2011. Culture and ethnicity in experiencing, policing, and handling grief. In Grief and bereavement in contemporary society: Bridging research and practice. Edited by Robert A. Neimeyer, Darcy L. Harris, Howard R. Winokuer, and Gordon F. Thornton, 341–354. New York: Routledge.

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    This chapter reminds us that grief and bereavement always occur within a cultural framework. The influence of culture on shaping individuals’ understanding, experience, and expression of grief and the interplay between dominant cultural narratives and individual grief narratives are examined.

  • Mancini, Anthony D., and George A. Bonanno. 2006. Bereavement. In Practitioner’s guide to evidence-based psychotherapy. Edited by Jane E. Fisher and William T. O’Donohue, 122–130. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-28370-8E-mail Citation »

    This is a solid stand-alone chapter within a reference book that provides clinicians and students with easy access to basic information about the most effective practices in assessment and intervention for a variety of mental health issues.

  • Sormanti, Mary. 2008. Bereavement practice. In The encyclopedia of social work. 20th ed. Edited by Terry Mizrahi and Larry E. Davis, 192–195. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A concise distillation of contemporary theories and empirical findings about bereavement including implications of this knowledge base for social work.

  • Stroebe, Margaret, and Henk Schut. 2010. The dual process model of coping with bereavement: A decade on. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying 61.4: 273–289.

    DOI: 10.2190/OM.61.4.bE-mail Citation »

    This is one of the most recent publications from these eminent bereavement scholars. Their seminal theoretical model and its professional development within the historical context of the field are described, as are the scientific updates that have occurred in the field since they first published the model in 1999. Anyone with a serious interest in the field should be familiar with this work.

  • Stroebe, Margaret, Henk Schut, and Wolfgang Stroebe. 2007. Health outcomes of bereavement. Lancet 370.9603 (December): 1960–1973.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61816-9E-mail Citation »

    This article, written by three of the most respected experts in the field, provides a synthesis of research data about the psychological and physical effects of bereavement derived from a comprehensive review of published studies since 1997. Especially useful are the authors’ critical analyses of the study findings including their determination of which subgroups may be especially vulnerable to poorer outcomes. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Zisook, Sidney, and Katherine Shear. 2009. Grief and bereavement: What psychiatrists need to know. World Psychiatry 8.2 (June):67–74.

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    Despite the title, this concise article provides important information for any mental health professional working with bereaved individuals. It covers the clinical characteristics and typical course of uncomplicated and complicated grief and the information necessary for distinguishing between the two. Treatment information is also provided as is a helpful section about recognizing and treating bereavement-related depression.

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