Bereavement Research Forum
Bereavement Research Forum
Thursday 18 November,
Ann Dent, Chair of the BRF welcomed delegates, gave the background to
the Bereavement Research Forum and hoped that the conference would
‘stimulate, excite and encourage in the field of bereavement research’.
Jonathan Hartley chaired the conference and took some time for the group
to reflect on:
What is my main interest?
What is my interest in being here?
How might my interest help others?
Liz Rolls set the context for the conference themes:
‘Developing’ models of bereavement as in reflecting on those that have
appeared in the literature
‘Developing’ models as in an understanding of how models are built and
thinking is shaped.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Prof Hockey began with a quote from Tom Stoppard
‘ No, no, it isn’t like that. Death isn’t romantic…….death is not
anything…..death is ….not. It’s the absence of presence, nothing more.’
Death has no intrinsic meaning so how do people respond to it and theorize
about it? As a sociologist, Prof Hockey proposed to examine different levels
of theory and to use data collected in an individual study about disposal of
cremation remains to identify the theories developed by bereaved people
and the professionals supporting them.
Sociology produces knowledge about other people’s knowledge – both lay
knowledge and expert knowledge. These theories make up all parts of a
society’s knowledge and the different theories interact so for example,
commonsense or lay theories and beliefs develop in a number of ways:
Popularised versions of expert theories
We need to think critically about the theories we turn to when faced with
loss. Often when faced with the intensity of pain (our own or others’) we
want accessible, strong beliefs. Critical reflection brings its own challenges
of standing back and learning. We all believe we know what death is, as it is
a familiar event. Prof Hockey used a quotation from Robert Hertz (1907)
who on pondering death describes as ‘sacrilegious’ the attempt to ‘apply
reason to a subject where only the heart is competent’. So part of the
theorizing around death looks to how heart and mind go together.
Is the grief experience universal?
Sociology uncovers theories, lay theories and expert theories. These can
be used to compare societies. Prof Hockey described the anthropological
studies of Unni Wikan who compared the societies of Egypt and Bali, in
particular their response to and meaning making around death and loss.
Ostensibly the societies are similar. Both are Muslim societies where death
is accepted as pre-ordained. However the cultures of the two societies
In Egypt child death is accompanied by intense expression and feeling over
many years for mothers, yet this is not seen as problematic, the grief is
allowed and facilitated by society. In contrast, in Bali there are initial
expressions of emotion but effort is made to remain calm. The underlying
interpretation is that excessive grieving is challenging God’s will.
Prof Hockey examined the Bali/Egypt differences under the headings:
Relationships - the mother-child bond is central and close in Egypt, while
Bali society adopts a ‘fostering’ model so bonds may not be as close;
Loss - the general pattern of expression in Egypt and subdued reaction in
Bali holds for all losses;
Emotion - expression is healthy in Egypt and people will make time and
listen to an comfort the bereaved while in Bali the belief is more that the
expression of sadness feeds sadness, that sadness is dangerous and
Amongst other things these examples illustrate that society uses ‘feeling
rules’ to govern emotion and it’s display. From a Western contemporary
perspective it is important to note that there may be simultaneous feeling
rules suggested to the individual – different advice from family, friends,
experts as to what is appropriate behaviour.
So, grief occurs in a societal context. Prof Hockey referred to Neil Small’s
analysis of how grand theories or models and individual experience
interplay. Modernity for example was the dominant model or system of
belief from the 1850s to the 1970s. Modernity was characterised by
rationality, progress and single truth models. However this way of thinking
did not necessarily fit individual experience – powerful individual
experiences like bereavement put rationality under strain.
Prof Jenny Hockey,
University of Sheffield