Academic journal article Family Relations

Mothers' Bereavement: Experiences of Marginalization, Stories of Change

Academic journal article Family Relations

Mothers' Bereavement: Experiences of Marginalization, Stories of Change

Article excerpt


EXPERIENCES OF MARGINALIZATION, STORIES OF CHANGE* Elizabeth B. Farnsworth and Katherine R. Allen**

Feminist and contextual theory guided this qualitative investigation of the experiences of mothers bereaved of young children. Mothers' altered status provided the basis for reflection and for the development of new behaviors to cope with their loss. Subjective accounts of marginalization and stories of change were revealed as ongoing processes of bereavement Implications for practitioners include: listening to mothers; providing linkages among families, professionals, and communities; and conducting in-depth interviews with multiple family members.

Late 20th-century American parents who experience the death of a young child do so in a sociohistorical context in which a child's death is statistically less prevalent than in earlier historical periods. During Puritan and Colonial periods, for example, death was omnipresent in everyday family life with almost half of all children dying before reaching adulthood. In 1900, one half of all parents would have experienced the death of a child; by 1976 only 6% would (Skolnick, 1991). With these shifts in occurrence, the death of a child has come to be viewed as a devastating loss from which a parent may never fully recover, instead of a normal hazard of parenthood (Knapp, 1987). Americans tend, for the most part, to deny death and to use euphemisms for death rather than the words dying, dead, and death (Leming & Dickinson, 1994). Contemporary parents are situated in a social context in which open discussion of death is taboo (Stinson, Lasker, Lohmann, & Toedter, 1992).

Numerous theoretical approaches have guided the study of parental bereavement. Individual perspectives on bereavement, such as a psychodynamic approach, assume that unconscious processes and individual factors determine bereavement outcomes (Lindemann, 1944). A sociobiological approach emphasizes the role of genetic survival or propagation of genes into the next generation in the bereavement reactions of individuals (Littlefield & Rushton, 1986). Cognitive theories focus on the information processing of bereaved individuals (Lazarus, 1966). Phase and stage models chronologically describe reactions following a loss (Bowlby, 1969; 1980; KublerRoss, 1969). Although numerous theoretical approaches have guided the study of bereavement, one "most suitable" theory has not emerged (Cleiren, 1993).

We concentrate specifically on the bereavement of mothers in this investigation. Little scholarly attention has been devoted to their long-term bereavement or to women's own accounts of their experiences. Previous studies of mothers bereaved of a child frequently have focused on the measurement of symptoms and problems through the use of psychological instruments, such as the Beck Depression Inventory and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Many studies compare the severity of symptomatology of mothers with others, such as fathers, adult children, and siblings, finding mothers to be more seriously affected by the death of a child than fathers or other comparison groups (Cleiren, 1993; Dyregrov & Matthieson, 1987; Leahy, 1992; Littlefield & Rushton, 1986; Miles & Demi, 1984; Sanders, 1979-1980; Zisook & Lyons, 1988). An emphasis on the symptomatology of bereavement may lead to a reified or static picture of these mothers, the invisibility of the social contexts within which a child's death occurs, and the absence of mothers' voices and perspectives in the construction of knowledge about them.

In contrast, feminist and contextual perspectives shift the research focus to mothers' perspectives of the death of a child and to interest in the ways mothers change over time during their bereavement. Feminist and contextual perspectives provide a conceptual undergirding for this investigation and raise consciousness of the social systems of mothers. …

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