Loss and Bereavement
Attachment Theory and Recent
Controversies Concerning “Grief Work”
and the Nature of Detachment
R. CHRIS FRALEY
PHILLIP R. SHAVER
For the majority of his adult life, Charles Darwin suffered from a perplexing set of symptoms, including persistent gastric pains and heart palpitations. Modern scholars have suggested that Darwin’s ill health resulted from what is known today as “hyperventilation syndrome,” a condition that can be triggered by stressful psychological events. Although it is difficult to ascertain the true etiology of Darwin’s illness, scholars have identified a range of possibilities—including Darwin’s controversial professional life and his tumultuous interpersonal life, which included the loss of his mother when he was 8 years old.
Given the possible connection between Darwin’s ill health and the early death of his mother, it is not surprising that John Bowlby took an ardent interest in Darwin’s life. In his final book, Charles Darwin: A New Life, Bowlby (1990) attributed Darwin’s illness to suppressed grief following the death of his mother. Bowlby believed that the suppression of grief inhibits a natural sequence of painful emotional reactions that, unless allowed to run their full course, can lead to psychological and physical ill health.
Although Bowlby’s final book was primarily concerned with understanding Darwin’s loss in particular, he was deeply concerned with the psychological consequences of loss throughout his career. In his first empirical study (Bowlby, 1946), he argued that the loss of a primary attachment figure was a predisposing factor in juvenile delinquency. Furthermore, in his landmark trilogy about attachment theory, Attachment and Loss, loss received prominent billing and was the focus of the entire third volume (Bowlby, 1980).
Although Bowlby’s ideas about loss changed and developed over the course of his career, he continued to portray the loss of an attachment figure as a major factor in personality development. He viewed unresolved and suppressed grief as important pathogenic forces, and viewed grief itself as a natural part of the functioning of what he called the “attachment behavioral system,” a system “designed” by natural selection to discourage prolonged separation between an individual and his or her primary attachment figure.
Our aims in this chapter are to summarize Bowlby’s theoretical contributions to the study of bereavement, and to review recent research and controversies concerning attachment theory and loss.1 We begin with a broad review of Bowlby’s key ideas as expressed in the Attachment and Loss trilogy. We discuss Bowlby’s ideas on the function and course of mourning, and review theory and research on patterns of “disordered” mourning. Next we discuss recent controversies that question two of Bowlby’s im-