CONSTRUCTIONS OF DEATH AND LOSS:
EVOLUTION OF A RESEARCH PROGRAM
|Robert A. Neimeyer
|Department of Psychology, University of
|As historians of science have noted,
scientific careers are characterized by "networks of enterprise",
sustained, and mutually reinforcing programs of research that yield not
answers but also further questions across a period of many years. This article traces one such long and
multifaceted network of projects, one concerned with death attitudes,
intervention, and grief and loss, which has benefited from periodic
of constructivist concepts and methods since its inception.
|Key words: Death
attitudes, suicide, grief and
|Writing about the psychology of scientific
creativity, Howard Gruber (1989) introduced the concept "networks of
enterprise" to explain how scientists organize a program of purposeful
work across a period of many years, and frequently a lifetime. As he
the term "enterprise" to
cover groups of activities extended in time and embracing other
as projects, problems, and tasks. Commitment to an enterprise is
the recurrent reappearance of activities belonging to it. The key point
the creative completion of a project leads not only to satisfaction and
relaxation but also to the replenishment of the stock of projects and
the enterprise in question, and to reinvigoration for further work"
(Gruber, 1989, p. 246).
While making no pretense that the
creativity of my own work over the last few decades bears comparison to
Darwin or Piaget, the subjects of Gruber’s analysis, I nonetheless can
to his depiction of "the protracted
hard and unremitting work" (p.
247) that yields conceptual and methodological innovations. Likewise,
depiction of the branching and grafting of such networks over time
responsive chord for me, as "the
periods of dormancy which each enterprise
in such a network must necessarily undergo allows… room and time for
forgetting, mutual assimilation of distinct schemata, and serendipitous
encounters with the real world" (p. 262), all of which carry the
forward in partly predictable, partly unpredictable directions.
sheer "duration, difficulty, and
complexity of the work combine to promote
development of all sorts of relationships of collaboration and
workers in the same vineyards" (p.262), reflecting the
importance of the
social psychology, as well as the cognitive psychology of science
al., 1989). My goal in the present
article is to reflect on one
of my own central networks of enterprise across the years, specifically
concerning the place of death in human life. Although this selective
of my long-term interests neglects some of the other major branches of
investments over time (especially those concerned with constructivist
and pychotherapy , it is sufficient to convey several of the
such networks as described by Gruber, including their longevity, cross
social organization, and the way in which their evolution reflects the
evolution of the scientist. The reflexivity inherent in this sort of
retrospection on a career in the course of pursuing it seems
appropriate to an
orientation like personal construct theory, which blurs the dividing
between the personal and professional, while recognizing that the
self-narrative so constructed cannot claim to be a wholly veridical
life events (Neimeyer, 1995).
At a substantive level, I also hope that
this review will help summarize a widely dispersed literature for those
sharing my interest in thanatology, the study of death and dying, and
other personal construct theorists around the globe with a thriving
program that takes some of its inspiration from the theory we share. As
network of enterprise has unfolded over the last 30 years, it has
developed three distinguishable emphases, on (a) death threat and
suicide intervention, and (c) grief and loss. I will therefore review
these areas in turn.
The historical core of my interest in
personal constructs and thanatology originated in research being
the University of Florida in the early 1970’s by Franz Epting, Seth Krieger, and
Leitner. Prompted in part by the upsurge of popular and professional
in issues of death and dying (Kübler-Ross,
the Florida group brought to bear the conceptual and methodological
of personal construct theory on the problem of assessing people’s
toward their own eventual mortality, a nascent area of research
psychometrically shabby instrumentation and poorly designed studies.
of this effort to upgrade the death attitude literature was the Threat
(or TI) (Krieger, Epting, &
a repertory grid-based measure that operationalized
concept of threat as the "awareness of imminent,
comprehensive change in one’s core role structure." Specifically, the
required eliciting a significant sample of death-relevant constructs
painful vs. painless, familiar vs. unfamiliar, meaningful vs.
the respondent through a triadic comparison of situations involving
(e.g., a tornado kills three children in an elementary school, your
dies in her sleep). The respondent was then asked to rate the elements
preferred self, and (personal) death on these constructs, and the
"splits" in which both self-elements were aligned with one construct
pole, and death with its contrast, served as the index of the
that would be required to construe the death of self as a personal
an undergraduate research assistant, I joined the research effort at
that TI was being developed into a standardized measure to circumvent
rather cumbersome administration of full repertory grids to
limited the measure’s use in research. Thus, my first task was to
assist in the
administration of grid-based interviews, in order to elicit thousands
death-relevant constructs and then winnow these to the 30 or 40 most
occurring dimensions to comprise the items for the standardized
paper-and-pencil form of the instrument. The work was initially
offering me a glimpse of people’s views of life and death within the
reassuring format of a structured interview. I fell in love with the
the theory behind it, and soon devised several studies of my own that
establish the psychometric soundness of the resulting measure (Neimeyer, 1986; Neimeyer, Dingemans,
& Epting, 1977; Rigdon, Epting, Neimeyer, & Krieger, 1979).
As this research proceeded over the decade of the
80’s, the TI consolidated its place as the most valid and reliable
in the broad but checkered death anxiety literature (Neimeyer,
1994a; Neimeyer, 1994b).
But despite the initial thrill of the
research, the fairly compulsive methodological focus of the early work
a certain amount of restiveness on the part of the younger members of
the Florida research
team. I recall strolling along a lake on the University of Florida campus
in 1975 with Peter Dingemans, my principal co-investigator and graduate
exchange student from the Netherlands, lamenting and laughing about the possible irony of
careers on picayune issues like the internal consistency of the TI,
imaginations led us to far broader horizons. This intermittent
with a psychometric preoccupation yielded a handful of substantively
interesting articles on such topics as the death threat experienced by
intervention workers (Neimeyer
& Dingemans, 1980; Neimeyer & Neimeyer, 1984)
and on the link between death anxiety and the
completion of one’s existential projects (Neimeyer,
1985a; Neimeyer & Chapman, 1980),
but for the most part, research with the TI and its
derivatives remained rigorously methodological until about 1990. It was
this psychometric research that was summarized in my earlier review of
literature (Neimeyer, 1994b).
This focus continued briefly into the 90’s,
producing a massive study of the TI with my student, Marlin Moore, that
a confirmatory factor analysis of the measure (Moore
& Neimeyer, 1991),
still to the best of my knowledge the only one of
its kind done on a death attitudes instrument.
Eventually, however, the psychometric
properties of the TI were established even to our scientific
allowing my students and me, now at the University of Memphis, to
begin applying it—and a few other soundly developed death anxiety
scales (Neimeyer & Gillies, 2001; Neimeyer
& Moore, 1994)—to
a host of substantive areas. Our first target was
the frequently noted finding that women report greater fear of personal
than men, across dozens and perhaps hundreds of studies in the vast
anxiety literature (Neimeyer &
Fortner, 1997; Neimeyer & Van Brunt, 1995).
Although this finding was typically explained in
terms of the greater emotional expressiveness of women, our findings
led us to
call this interpretation into question, as this result held in a large
of men and women even when we controlled for their level of
self-disclosure (Dattel & Neimeyer, 1990).
We also began to examine the personal anxieties
about death experienced by vulnerable groups, such as a large group of
bisexual men living in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic (Bivens,
Neimeyer, Kirchberg, & Moore, 1994).
Here again, our findings were surprising and
informative: HIV positive men (half of whom had developed AIDS
and the caregivers who worked with them were actually far less
anxious about the prospect of death than were G/B men who were HIV
uninvolved in caregiving. Further scrutiny of our data suggested a
explanation for this pattern of results, as the former two groups
significantly more intrinsic religious faith than their less directly
peers. This study, and my ongoing treatment of gay men in therapy, led
broader review of the role of death awareness and anxiety in the
adjustment of persons with AIDS, and how it might be worked with in the
of counseling (Neimeyer &
Stewart, 1998; Neimeyer, Stewart & Anderson, 2004).
A second vulnerable population to
our attention in the early 90’s was older adults, whose age and health
placed them at elevated risk of death. Together with my student, Barry
I first undertook a qualitative review of research on death anxiety in
elderly, trying to make sense of the often contradictory studies
various markers of elevated fear of death (e.g., gender, health status)
aging population (Neimeyer &
This effort convinced us of the need for a more
systematic approach to integrating the literature, leading us to
major quantitative review of all published and unpublished studies of
attitudes in older adults. The results were clarifying: across nearly
studies including over 4,500 participants, older adults’ fears of
death were found to be unrelated to gender and religiosity, departing
modal finding in the death anxiety literature on younger populations.
the most powerful predictors turned out to be their level of "ego
integrity" or life satisfaction—the feeling that they had lived long
well—in combination with their level of institutionalization and
health problems (Fortner &
Reflecting on these findings, we placed them into
the context of life-span developmental theory, and considered those
dehumanizing aspects of institutional care and medical difficulties
exacerbate fears of death at the end of life (Fortner,
Neimeyer, & Rybarczeck, 2000; Neimeyer & Fortner, 2000).
A recent elaboration of this same
program stemmed from its fusion with the studies of attitudes toward
spearheaded by my ex-student, student Steve DePaola, reviewed below.
Specifically, we investigated the relationship between death anxiety,
toward older adults, and personal fears of aging in a group of nearly
men and women (DePaola, Neimeyer, Griffin & Young, 2003). As
found that respondents with greater personal anxieties about their own
and death—and especially the unknown implied by the latter—displayed
social derogation of elders, a group to which the respondents
belonged. Other intriguing findings pointed to ethnic differences in
character of death attitudes, with American whites reporting greater
fears of a
protracted and painful dying process, whereas American blacks were more
about what transpired after death itself, including fears of being
alive, of bodily deterioration, and the fate of their souls in an
A complementary prong of this research
effort in connection with older adults entailed examining not the
themselves, but the health care professionals who work with them most
frequently, at least in the United States. Thus, Depaola and I began to study the psychosocial
nursing homes, where dismissive, avoidant, or infantilizing attitudes
part of staff toward residents is an all-too-common occurrence.
large group of nursing home staff to demographically similar controls
from the Memphis community,
we discovered that staff as a group had comparable levels of death
controls, and the comparison group actually was more fearful of contact
dead bodies, perhaps as a function of their lesser exposure. However,
additionally discovered that increasing levels of death concern were
with greater personal anxiety about aging, especially among nursing
workers, who also displayed significantly more negative attitudes
elderly (DePaola, Neimeyer, Lupfer,
& Fiedler, 1992).
Subsequent research extended these findings by
providing evidence that nursing assistants, the least trained
elder care facilities, had higher levels of personal death anxiety than
registered nurses and licensed practical nurses in these same
facilities (DePaola, Neimeyer, & Ross, 1994).
This enhanced my concern over the possible linkage
between personal death attitudes and suboptimal caregiving practices,
especially among less trained and less experienced helpers—a concern
expression in the studies of counselors and suicide interventionists
A final line of work on death attitudes
concerned the reactions of counselors to situations involving death and
testing the assumption—widely held in thanatology circles—that such
trigger more discomfort and avoidance on the part of caregivers than
potentially serious problems. Providing masters level counselors a set
written descriptions of both death-related counseling scenarios (e.g.,
life-threatening illness, suicide risk) and non-death-related
rape, spouse abuse), Tom Kirchberg and I found that five of the eight
they rated as most uncomfortable were in the former category. In
of the 7 least distressing situations concerned death or loss. However,
attempts to link these reactions to levels of personal death threat or
experience proved unsuccessful (Kirchberg
& Neimeyer, 1991).
Having discovered evidence of discomfort with death
among these neophyte counselors, Marie Terry, Alex Bivens and I then
test the generality of this effect by recruiting a large group of
grief therapists (averaging 14 years experience). Both in their ratings
brief presenting problems and in their written responses to detailed
"transcriptions" of opening statements by clients, these expert
counselors reversed the earlier finding, finding death and grief issues
comfortable to respond to than other serious non-death-related problems
(Terry, Bivens, & Neimeyer, 1995).
Moreover, counselors responded with greater empathy
to clients presenting with grief and loss issues, a tendency that was
with more years of training and practice in death education and
However, neither comfort nor empathy was related to personal death
fears in the
counselors, who were characteristically quite death accepting and
Practical as well as theoretical
drew my attention once again to beginning counselors, as this was the
that was visibly death and grief-avoidant, not only in our first study,
also in my supervision of doctoral trainees in psychotherapy in our
departmental clinic. I therefore welcomed further collaboration with
Kirchberg, my co-investigator in the original study, in conducting a
tightly controlled and more realistic study of counselor responses to
grief situations with clients. For this study, we enlisted the help of
carefully counterbalanced for gender and race, to enact the part of
presenting with death-related (e.g., grief, AIDS) or non-death-related
(e.g., marital discord, physical handicap), videotaping their
Counselors then watched one set of videos, rating their discomfort and
recording their responses to the clients’ self-presentations. As we
hypothesized, we found greater discomfort in responding to the death
non-death enactments, a response that proved to be mediated by the
death fears of the counselor. Contrary to our predictions, counselors
actually slightly more empathic in relation to death and grief
although the level of empathy was surprisingly small in absolute terms (Kirchberg, Neimeyer, & James, 1998).
The least empathic responses were provided by
counselors who construed death in fatalistic terms on the Threat Index,
suggesting that working with death and loss can prove especially
for those neophyte counselors whose personal death anxieties leave them
vulnerable to such work.
My present work in death attitudes has
taken the form of joining with my American and German colleagues Rick
Joachim Wittkowski to synthesize and interpret the substantive findings
vast and uneven literature on death anxiety and death acceptance
Wittkowski & Moser, 2004) and to evaluate its best-developed and
frequently used measures and methods (Neimeyer, Moser & Wittkowski,
In addition, I have joined with fellow theorist and methodologist
to undertake a large grant-supported study of death attitudes and
life at the end-of-life, developing a comprehensive model of factors
the adjustment of a substantial cohort of hospice patients, a project
just getting underway. Thus, a recurrent pattern of methodological
followed by practical application seems to characterize my network of
enterprise in the study of death attitudes across time, with each
branch of the
program periodically intersecting with and enriching the others.
Viewed in hindsight, my substantive
research on death threat and anxiety over the decades has reached
toward a kind
of symmetry, stemming from a focus on the death concerns of vulnerable
populations (e.g., persons with AIDS, the elderly), and then broadening
include the potentially problematic role played by the personal death
concerns of those who work with them (e.g., caregivers, nurses,
Although this complementary research strategy was at best only
at the time, a roughly parallel pattern was evident in my research in a
death-related area, namely, suicide intervention.
My early work with Dingemans had left
questions than answers about the death concerns of suicide intervention
workers, as some findings had pointed to elevated death threat in this
group (Neimeyer & Dingemans, 1980),
while later work contradicted this conclusion (Neimeyer
& Neimeyer, 1984).
As an undergraduate, my research focus on crisis
intervention services had been partly a matter of convenience, and
matter of personal curiosity, as I found myself working with
callers weekly in my role as a paraprofessional in one of the
suicide and crisis intervention centers on the east coast of the United States. What role, I wondered, might staff anxieties about
death and dying
play in affecting their responses to clients who often were quite
presenting with life-threatening situations? However, as I contemplated
question in light of our initial studies, I soon confronted a more
problem: the dearth of credible assessments of suicide prevention
could make an empirical answer to this question feasible. Thus, I began
had with the Threat Index research, constructing the first self-report
instrument for the assessment of suicide prevention competencies—the
Intervention Response Inventory or SIRI (Neimeyer
& MacInnes, 1981)—and
then marching it through a series of validational
studies through the 1980s that collectively supported its psychometric
soundness (see Neimeyer &
Pfeiffer, 1994a for a review)
. The logic of the SIRI was straightforward, consisting of 25
part of a potentially self-destructive client (e.g., veiled suicide
perturbation, depressive helplessness), to which the respondent could
one of two possible replies, one constructive and the other neutral to
from the perspective of crisis intervention theory. The score on the
simply the number of preferred responses.
By the late 80’s the SIRI was ready to
used in substantive research, which initially took the form of
catalogue the ten most frequent errors of medical and non-medical
interventionists (Neimeyer &
Surveying over 200 professional and paraprofessional
staff, we found a tendency toward superficial reassurance, avoidance of
feelings, professional distancing, inadequate assessment of suicidal
failure to identify precipitating problems, and passivity to be
common responses. Medically trained interventionists in the sample
err in ways that were distinctive from the psychologically trained
whereas the former tended toward defensive, distancing, advice-giving,
dismissive interactions, the latter displayed excessive passivity and
to structure interactions with a potentially suicidal client. This
old concerns about the personal factors that could contribute to such
suboptimal responses among interventionists. As a result, Barry
Melby and I studied a large and heterogeneous group of respondents
have contact with people in the midst of a suicidal crisis, who varied
untrained peers, through crisis paraprofessionals, to masters level
psychologists and counselors (Neimeyer,
Fortner, & Melby, 2001).
The results were illuminating: level of training,
experience with suicidal clients, and death acceptance were positively
associated with suicide intervention skills, whereas a personal history
suicidality and a casual, permissive stance toward suicide as a
right" were negatively associated with appropriate responding.
among the most highly trained professional interventionists, a personal
of suicidality was even more strongly associated with poorer suicide
skills. One "spin-off" of this research was our decision to use the
SIRI as a screening device to ensure a minimum level of suicide
competency in our ongoing randomized controlled trial of mutual support
and cognitive therapy for depression (Bright,
Baker, & Neimeyer, 1999).
These findings also informed my attempt to develop a
more coherent training agenda for counseling psychologists in suicide
hastened death, one that gave attention to the experiential exploration
personal attitudes toward death and suicide, as well as systematic
professional ethics and crisis management (Neimeyer,
A final feature of our research program
suicide intervention also deserves brief mention, namely, my work with
Hughes to elaborate a model of suicidal behavior (Hughes
& Neimeyer, 1990)
that integrated a number of constructivist features
(e.g., constriction and disorganization of the personal construct
other compatible cognitive processes (e.g., foreshortened future time
perspective, impaired problem solving). This provided not only a
framework for clinical assessment, but also spawned one of the few
prospective studies of suicide risk, in which risk factors assessed at
point in time were used to predict escalating suicidality in the weeks
followed. Tracking nearly 80 patients admitted to psychiatric
discovered that their relatively common reports of suicide ideation
course of hospitalization were best predicted by their level of
hopelessness at intake. However, the prediction of those patients
likely to be
placed on 15-minute checks by staff because of elevated suicide risk
by the additional consideration of other, more fundamental factors:
toward self-negativity within their own systems of meaning, and the
deterioration of their ability to define and resolve critical life
Finally, the emergence of extremely high risk behaviors, such as actual
self-injury sufficient to mandate one-on-one observation, was predicted
only by hopelessness, not only by self-negativity and impaired
but also by the unique impending disorganization of patients’ construct
regarding the social world as assessed by repertory grid technique (Hughes & Neimeyer, 1993).
These findings seemed to carry practical as well as
theoretical import, suggesting the necessity of attending to
different indices of risk at the level of people’s construct systems as
suicidal crisis deepened. By implication, the projection of a more
future that might be a minimum sufficient intervention to mitigate risk
self-injury among suicide ideators might be woefully inadequate for a
client facing abject self-hatred, helplessness, and the disintegration
perceived order in the social world. In such a case, more than simple
intervention is called for, as the therapist and client must grapple
more basic assault on the latter’s world of meaning that can make the
or precipitous abdication of life seem like the most logical choice.
have collaborated with my British colleague, David Winter, in reviewing
multifaceted contributions of personal construct theory to
suicidal choice, which provides an empirically informed and novel
the multiple paths that can eventuate in self-harm (Neimeyer &
GRIEF AND LOSS
Several years ago, our research program
thanatology took a new and integrative turn, shifting toward the study
and loss from our previous concentration on death attitudes and suicide
intervention. In part, this represented a natural extension of the
foci, in combination with the impact of my clinical practice, which had
included significant numbers of clients dealing with losses of all
through bereavement, assault, illness, job loss, relationship
geographic displacement. But this move also embodied a more personal
to span my two largely separate identities as a thanatological
the one hand, and constructivist psychotherapy theorist, on the other,
as to respond to personal experiences of loss of my mother,
best friend in short succession. The result was a new hybrid program of
scholarship on meaning reconstruction in the wake of loss, a program
quickly moving to center stage as an orienting frame for my own
that of my current students.
The overarching proposition animating
work to date is that grieving is a process of reconstructing a world of
that has been challenged by loss (Neimeyer, 1997). Issues of
the wake of loss had of course received some attention in earlier work
bereavement (Marris, 1974; Parkes,
but for the most part this had been a side note to a
much more central concern with emotional stages of adjustment in
loss or a psychiatric preoccupation with acute symptomatology of
construed in largely pathological terms. In contrast, a new breed of
researchers was beginning to attend to the ruptured assumptive world of
bereaved person (Janoff-Bulman,
the cognitive processes by which the bereaved cope
with loss (Bonanno & Kaltman,
and the post-traumatic growth displayed by many of
those who suffer adversity (Tedeschi,
Park, & Calhoun, 1998).
Likewise, it was apparent that the field of grief
theory was in ferment, as scholars took a second look at timeworn
about the need to "withdraw emotional energy" from the one who had
died, in order to "reinvest" it elsewhere (Hagman, 1995).
Instead, thinkers were beginning to focus on the
potentially sustaining continuing bonds the bereaved construct to the
deceased (Klass, Silverman, & Nickman, 1996),
and the active processes by which they strive to
"relearn the world" in the wake of loss (Attig, 1996).
My own entry into these discussions in various
professional settings  was enthusiastic, as I saw the immediate
concepts and methods in advancing an alternative, and more constructive
understanding of the human response to loss.
Our initial constructivist contribution
this conceptual reorientation took place at the juncture of thanatology
traumatology, as my post-doctoral colleague, Alan Stewart, and I
conceptualize loss in terms of the traumatic assault on the survivor’s
meaning (Neimeyer & Stewart,
Our guiding metaphor in this work was the
self-narrative, defined as the life story one both enacts and expresses
gives a sense of coherence to one’s identity over time. In our view,
loss disrupts the continuity of the narrative construction of self,
the individual from a sense of who he or she is (Neimeyer,
Complicated grief can result, especially in
vulnerable individuals whose senses of self and relationships are
tenuous as a
function of an insecure attachment history (Neimeyer, Prigerson &
2002). For example, the struggle to "emplot" traumatic events within
one’s self-narrative can leave one with a fragmented sense of
continuity through time, much as a previously naïve conscript into
war might survive horrific experiences of combat that his fellow
not, only to find it impossible to build a conceptual bridge between
he once was and the person he had become. Traumatic losses of many
theorized, would introduce sharp experiential discrepancies into the
self-narrative, while at the same time challenging the individual’s
subsume the traumatic events into the pre-existing construct system.
I elaborated this model to include other forms of disruption of the
self-narrative occasioned by loss, contributing not only to
narratives as described above, but also to dominant narratives in which
single constructed view of the traumatic self comes to "colonize" a
person’s identity, and dissociated narratives in which secret stories
(e.g., through disguised suicide or unspoken histories of marital
precluded the fuller integration of the experience into one’s personal
relational reality (Neimeyer, 2004; Neimeyer & Arvay, 2004).
To assess construct systems that had
compromised in these ways, we experimented with the use of biographical
construct repertory grids, a variation of repertory grid technique that
previously explored in the early 1980’s (Neimeyer,
The method consisted of a structured interview in
which interviewees were presented with triads of life events anchored
iconically rich scenes depicting important "chapters" in the person’s
life narrative (e.g., when I rode my tricycle to the community swimming
age 5, playing baseball at age 12, serving in Vietnam, when my first
born). Comparing and contrasting these "plot elements" in their own
life stories, respondents formulated thematic constructs that compared
contrasted the different events (e.g., powerful vs. helpless; filled
vs. filled with love). Case studies using this technique accompanied by
visual printout of self identity plots proved illuminating both to us
investigators and therapists, and to the bereaved or traumatized
whom we shared the results (Neimeyer,
Keesee, & Fortner, 2000; Neimeyer & Stewart, 1996).
Roughly contemporaneous research by Kenneth Sewell
and his colleagues (Sewell, 1996;
Sewell, 1997; Sewell et al., 1996)
extended this "life event grid" paradigm,
and lent valuable empirical support to the emerging constructivist
Although I remain fascinated with the
potential power of grid technique to aid in the articulation of meaning
disrupted by loss, I also find myself shifting in other methodological
directions. In particular, I have been drawn to broader narrative
methods, prompted in part by misgivings I share with Yorke (1989)
and others about the degradation of more
comprehensive meanings entailed by the segmentation of accounts of loss
the adjectival antonyms elicited by repertory grid technique. Not only
relatively unconstrained report of oral or written narratives of loss
valuable source of qualitative data that is subject to various forms of
disciplined analysis  (Neimeyer
& Hogan, 2001),
but it also began to suggest a vast array of
narrative means to therapeutic ends in the context of grief counseling.
example of the former, my students Adam Anderson, James Gillies and I
experimenting with the coding of brief responses to probing
put to over 1,000 bereaved persons to date—regarding (a) the sense they
made of their loss experience, (b) any form of unexpected benefit or
lesson the experience has brought them, and (c) and progressive or
shifts they have noticed in their sense of personal identity in the
wake of the
loss. Like Davis and his colleagues (Davis,
Nolen-Hoeksema, & Larson, 1998),
we are finding that the inability to make sense of
the loss, in particular, is emerging as the single best predictor of
intensified grieving, outweighing the contribution of "objective"
factors such as the relationship that was lost (e.g., of a parent,
friend), the cause of death (e.g., from natural or unnatural/violent
or the passage of time. More tentatively, we are also glimpsing a
between the inability to find existential benefit in the loss or
identity change on the one hand, and more traumatic or complicated
grieving on the other.
Aside from these indices of
my colleague Heidi Levitt and I have also been drawn to examine the
narrative processes by which people formulate accounts of loss, and the
implications these carry for their integration of death into their life
story (Neimeyer & Levitt, 2000; Neimeyer
& Levitt, 2001).
For example, some people narrate their losses in an
"external" voice, focusing on objective events in a way that might be
reported by an outside observer ("My mother died of emphysema in the
All of her children were there at her bedside, sitting in vigil. Nurses
and went, sometimes gesturing one or more family members into the hall
medical update."). Others engage in a more "internal" and
emotional narrative process ("When my mother lay dying, I felt a
of emotions, from hope, to despair and loneliness, to deep sadness. But
all, I had a sense of awe and privilege to be there."). Still others
present a more "reflexive," significance-seeking account ("My
mother’s death made me aware of the fragile order of life, and the
importance of sharing these life transitions as a family."). In
research spearheaded by my student Adam Anderson, we investigated the
these various narrative processes in promoting integration of loss, and
facilitating adaptation to bereavement. Although it is too early to say
will find in our longitudinal research, we suspect that an alternation
narrative processes in ongoing personal grief journals will prove most
in embroidering meaning of the loss, and facilitating a vital continued
engagement in life (Neimeyer &
Not surprisingly, the elasticity of the
narrative metaphor has prompted a good deal of creative theorizing on
of not only our own research group, but also that of like-minded
scholars (Attig, 2000; Nadeau,
1997; Romanoff & Terenzio, 1998).
In my own writing in this emerging genre, I have
tried to harvest the lessons of cutting-edge constructivist research to
formulate some working propositions that scaffold a new theory of
that better accounts for the individuality of grief, our active
processes of adaptation, and familial and cultural factors that shape
efforts after meaning (Neimeyer,
1997; Neimeyer & Jordan, 2001; Neimeyer & Keesee, 1998).
Equally, I have tried to use this nascent theory in
a generative way, to envision new constructivist
interview-based, reflective, metaphoric, poetic, and narrative—that
bereaved people take perspective on their losses and weave them into
of their lives (Neimeyer, 2001a;
Neimeyer, 2001b; Neimeyer et al., 2000).
One unanticipated offshoot of this work is the not
uncommon discovery by other clinicians and helping professionals that a
constructivist and narrative approach provides a more coherent and
framework for their best practices (e.g., the creation of meaningful
transformative procedures for restoring a sense of community in the
violation or loss) than did traditional theories (Neimeyer
& Tschudi, 2003).
I have consistently found such reports to be highly
affirming, as, in the words of an insightful participant in one of my
therapy workshops, "we as bereavement professionals finally have a
to put our practice into theory." Thus, I am hopeful that a
and narrative perspective on bereavement and its complications can help
a more effective approach to grief therapy, whose uncertain outcomes in
available research studies call for deep-going analysis and reflection
& Neimeyer, 2003).
In this brief chapter I have tried to
reflect on my long involvement in the field of death studies, an
that has drawn impetus and occasional new direction from my parallel
work as a
constructivist theorist and clinician, as well as simply a maturing
This has afforded me a rare opportunity to reflect on the many
networks of enterprise that constitute an evolving research program,
back in time to its undergraduate origins in an early fascination with
measurement of death threat, and sometimes glimpsing the outline of
that are still taking shape. No brief account can convey all the
of a lengthy and multifaceted program of study ,but I have tried to
suggest something of the braiding together of
strands of theory, research, and practice on death attitudes, suicide
intervention, and grief that has animated, and perhaps constrained, my
this area. I hope that the resulting account is a reasonably honest
least as written from my present position in mid-career—and that the
to focus reflexively on that work in which I have been most directly
does not obscure the critical contribution made to this program by many
and which is beginning to suggests clear roles that psychologists might
research and practice in the broad end-of-life arena (Haley et al.,
doubt each of my students and colleagues could provide his or her own
account of some of these same developments, and see rather different
significance in them!
Aside from any literal utility of this
review in acquainting interested readers with the broad purview of
programs that they might explore, extend or critique, I also hope that
frequent citation of the work and role of others suggests something of
social nature of science, and the importance of collegiality and
supporting our individual and joint initiatives. Just as the
strands of our personal networks of enterprise are complexly
too are they bound up with those of many others. Ultimately, I hope
summary of my own collaborative work continues this process, suggesting
of useful contact and contrast with the work of others who share my
fascination with the role of death in human life.
 Readers interested in some personal
reflections on the development
of these other core branches might consult Neimeyer (1996) and Neimeyer
Actually, despite the utility of the SIRI in our own
programs and those of other investigators, one significant constraint
original version become clear in these studies—the instrument’s ceiling
with more highly trained respondents (e.g., counselors with
training in psychology). This stimulated our work on a revision of the
instrument—the SIRI-2—that removed this ceiling effect, while at the
meeting or exceeding other indices of the original scale’s validity and
reliability. For a report on the revised measure, see Neimeyer and
 Chief among these
was the Association
for Death Education and Counseling, in which I had been active for
years, eventually serving as its President in 1996 and 1997, and the International Work Group for Death, Dying
& Bereavement, which I chaired 2002 to 2004. The latter in
provided a place for generative dialogues with several scholars on the
forefront of bereavement research and practice, pushing all of us
toward a more
central recognition of the role of meaning making in adaptation to loss.
 Actually, my
students and I had already started
the coding of free-response narratives some years before in our
death attitudes (Holcomb,
Neimeyer, & Moore, 1993).
But it took a conceptual as well as methodological
reorientation for me to shift to the elicitation and analysis of
of narrative in connection with loss.
 For other attempts
to synthesize aspects
of this research program
and situate it in the broader context of death and loss studies see
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Robert A. Neimeyer, Ph.D., is a
of Psychology at the University of Memphis, Memphis, TN, USA, where he directs the Psychotherapy Area.
Neimeyer has published 18 books and over 200
book chapters and journal articles on constructivism and its
psychotherapy, death, and grief, and edits the peer-reviewed journals
Studies and the Journal of Constructivist Psychology. He
can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Neimeyer. R. A.
(2004). Constructions of death and loss: Evolution of a research
Construct Theory & Practice,
(Retrieved from http://www.pcp-net.org/journal/pctp04/neimeyer04.html)
|Received: 31 Dec 2003 - Accepted: 12 Jan 2004 -
Published: 31 Jan 2004