APA Book Notes
In the "Handbook of Bereavement Research," editors Margaret S. Stroebe, PhD, Robert O. Hansson, PhD, Wolfgang Stroebe, PhD, and Henk Schut, PhD, challenge our fundamental assumptions about grief in a comprehensive, broad-based book encompassing disciplines ranging from gerontology and sociology, to social and clinical psychology.
In "Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss," editor Robert A. Neimeyer, PhD, and his contributors expound upon grief not as a symptom to be overcome, but a process of "meaning reconstruction" in which the death of a loved one inspires a more profound perception of one's own existence.
The "Handbook of Bereavement Research" centers around three major themes--consequences, coping and care--and organizes its chapters accordingly. After offering a historical overview of the scientific study of bereavement as culturally and gender-biased, the "Handbook" takes a fresh look at the meaning of loss.
"Grief is a natural reaction to the death of a loved one, but it is also a complex emotional reaction, often the source of suffering and significant consequences for health and well-being," says co-editor Hansson. "We intend this volume as a one-stop source, reviewing and integrating theory and research. Particular attention focuses on risk factors, assessment strategies and ethics and efficacy of interventions," he says.
In one chapter, bereavement is considered a vehicle for personal growth. The authors study how personality, environment and other factors impinge on self-awareness, maturity and coping skills in the face of a profound loss.
In addition to writing about the spiritual experience of loss, some authors consider grieving a developmental yardstick and have researched how different age groups display distinct grieving mechanisms over time. Individuals who suffer childhood bereavement, for instance, experience "regrief," or an emotional reconsideration of their loss from a mature viewpoint. Similar chapters consider the specific complications adolescents, the elderly and parents incur. Other researchers turn to biology, deliberating whether grief is adaptive, a product of evolution or a cultural construction.
The chapters about coping present research on how people grieve and how clinical interventions help a patient adapt to life without the deceased. Refuting myths that bereavement is a hurdle one must "get over," communication with the deceased is no longer viewed as pathological, but rather as a ritual celebrating a loved one.
Such new ideas "reflect the efforts of many disciplines applying their own theoretical and research traditions to a common problem," explains Hansson. "Our goal in the volume is to encourage continued integration of these efforts." The "Handbook" addresses a wide variety of topics because "we do believe," states Hansson, "that what we have learned about bereavement will eventually help psychologists to better understand the psychology of loss more generally."
The words of Robert A. Neimeyer, PhD, editor of "Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss," typify perhaps the greatest benefit to studying loss.
"I have come to believe that loss, and our personal, relational and cultural responses to it, are definitional of human life, not because of its intrinsic significance--if there is any--but precisely because it initiates a quest for meaning in deeply personal and intricately social terms."
This quest, "meaning reconstruction," is the recent and increasingly popular perception that a death forever alters reality for the living.
Across a broad spectrum of disciplines and the various applications therein, the authors opine that retelling the story of loss--thereby uncovering its significance--is central to grieving.
"Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss" starts with a challenge to the traditional concepts that breaking ties to the deceased is key to healing. Instead it suggests that maintaining emotional bonds enriches the survivor's life. This new model of grieving "has its roots in several trends," says Neimeyer, including "an appreciation of the relevance of continuing bonds with those we have lost, and a reappraisal of grieving as a potentially adaptive or even transforming process, rather than simply symptomatic suffering."
The different methods and applications of "meaning reconstruction" are specified in subsequent chapters. Many experts in death and dying believe that a loss is instilled with value most frequently in a social context; members of a support group, for example, validate each others' self-constructed representations of the deceased. On the same note, the authors explore shared meaning-making after familial loss. The authors conclude that retelling one's story helps patients deal with various emotional and physical losses.
Another chapter of particular interest to therapists recounts the efforts of trauma counselors to restore their own shattered faith in humanity by redefining their roles in the world. Neimeyer's experience as a therapist inspired him to compile new scholarship proposing why ties may never be severed though lives are forever altered by death.
"I have come to believe that loss, and our personal, relational and cultural responses to it, are definitional of human life, not because of its intrinsic significance--if there is any--but precisely because it initiates a quest for meaning in deeply personal and intricately social terms," he writes.
Such innovative ideas suggest new directions for therapy and research, as both books consider not the end of life, but how to begin anew after losses of various kinds. "Handbook of Bereavement Research" and "Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss" further an understanding of a phenomenon still largely shrouded in mystery, helping to restore life's meaning in death's wake.