Social Work Bereavement Practice
by
Mary Sormanti
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0117

Introduction

Of life’s many losses, the death of a loved one (i.e., bereavement) is considered one of the most difficult to endure. With estimated global death rates of more than 56 million individuals each year, this generally unwanted experience affects a large segment of the population and begets considerable physical and psychological distress referred to as grief. Grief manifests as emotional, cognitive, spiritual, social, and physical changes whose impact can range from short-lived and relatively mild to long-lasting and profoundly disruptive. While grief precipitated by the death of a loved one can be particularly challenging, it is also experienced with many other losses, including divorce, geographic relocation, and unemployment. Understanding the common features of grief as well as the myriad contextual factors that shape how it is experienced and expressed is essential to effective social work practice. Empirical knowledge regarding grief 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 body 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. Though by no means definitive, the following works will meet this aim. Neimeyer 2014 and Sormanti 2015 offer brief summaries of contemporary theories and empirical findings about bereavement with implications for clinical practice. Stroebe and Schut 2015 provides a detailed overview of the authors recently revised and influential “dual process” model of coping with bereavement. Zisook, et al. 2014 provides a concise summary 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. Finally, Neimeyer, et al. 2014 underscores the critical relationship between culture and grief, which often receives insufficient attention.

  • Neimeyer, Robert A. 2014. The changing face of grief: Contemporary directions in theory, research, and practice. Progress in Palliative Care 22.3: 125–130.

    DOI: 10.1179/1743291X13Y.0000000075E-mail Citation »

    Written by a prominent grief therapist, this article encapsulates shifts in conceptualizations of grief and related therapeutic approaches that have been prompted by a recent upsurge in grief-related research. Despite the specificity of the journal’s focus, this article will be useful to those working outside palliative care settings and contexts. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Neimeyer, Robert A., Dennis Klass, and M. R. Dennis. 2014. Mourning, meaning, and memory: Individual, communal, and cultural narration of grief. In Meaning in positive and existential psychology. Edited by Alexander Batthyany and Pninit Russo-Netzer, 325–346. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4939-0308-5_19E-mail Citation »

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

  • Sormanti, Mary. 2015. Understanding bereavement: How theory, research and practice inform what we do. In Handbook of oncology social work. Edited by Grace Christ, Carolyn Messner, and Lynn Behar, 543–551. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    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. 2015. Family matters in bereavement: Toward an integrative intra-interpersonal coping model. Perspectives on Psychological Science 10.6: 873–879.

    DOI: 10.1177/1745691615598517E-mail Citation »

    This article, written by the originators of the seminal Dual Process Model of coping with bereavement, reflects their extension of the original model from a focus on bereaved individuals to families. The new model delineates loss-oriented and restoration-oriented family-level stressors and related adaptive tasks. Anyone with a serious interest in the field of grief studies and related practice should be familiar with the model, which was first published in 1999. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • 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 highly-regarded 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, S., A. Iglewicz, J. Avanzino, et al. 2014. Bereavement: Course, consequences, and care. Current Psychiatry Reports 16.10: 482–492.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11920-014-0482-8E-mail Citation »

    This article provides important information for any mental health professional working with bereaved individuals. It describes the characteristics of “ordinary” grief that most people experience, some variation thereof, as well as complicated grief, which occurs when certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors impede natural adaptive processes. Information about other pathological outcomes of bereavement, including onset or exacerbation of mood and anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and medical conditions, is also provided.

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