On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief

On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief

On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief

On Bereavement: The Culture of Grief


'Insightful and refreshing.' - Professor Dennis Klass, Webster University Religion Department, St. Louis, USA

'A tour de force.' - Dr Colin Murray Parkes, OBE, MD, FRCPsych, President of CRUSE

Some societies and some individuals find a place for their dead, others leave them behind. In recent years, researchers, professionals and bereaved people themselves have struggled with this. Should the bond with the dead be continued or broken? What is clear is that the grieving individual is not left in a social vacuum but has to struggle with expectations from self, family, friends, professionals and academic theorists.

This ground-breaking book looks at the social position of the bereaved. They find themselves caught between the living and the dead, sometimes searching for guidelines in a de-ritualized society that has few to offer, sometimes finding their grief inappropriately pathologised and policed. At its best, bereavement care offers reassurance, validation, and freedom to talk where the client has previously encountered judgmentalism.

In this unique book, Tony Walter applies sociological insights to one of the most personal of human situations. On Bereavement is aimed at students on medical, nursing, counselling and social work courses that include bereavement as a topic. It will also appeal to sociology students with an interest in death, dying and mortality.


The social world of bereavement is currently undergoing conflict and change. Strangely, very little of the rapidly growing literature on bereavement has examined this. Although the mourner as a social being may be found in studies of other cultures and in historical studies of our own past, most literature on bereavement in the modern West depicts only isolated individuals, at most individuals in families, dealing with their own private grief. Somehow, other people, culture and the dead themselves all get missed out, even though those who are bereaved often find other people, culture and the dead as much of an issue as their own inner psychological journey. This book attempts to redress this imbalance in two ways.

Letting go, keeping hold

First, the dominant idea of the twentieth century has been that grief is eventually 'resolved' by 'detaching', 'letting go' and 'moving on' to new relationships. The last decade of the century, however, has witnessed a sustained assault on this idea, both by academic researchers and by bereaved people themselves (by no means two mutually exclusive groups). Study after study has documented that while some do indeed leave the dead behind, many others maintain a bond with their dead indefinitely, even while forging new social ties. They do not let go and move on; they transform the relationship, keep hold and move on. Others, primarily elderly with little time themselves left on this earth, have no intention of letting go; they hold on to their memories, waiting to join their beloved in the hereafter. I have lost count of the number of times people have expressed relief when they have been told that it is all right to keep hold of the dead person, rather than to . . .

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