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An Anthropology of Bereavement: A sociocultural analysis of parental grief and mourning

CRCF Members in this Project: Mary Ellen Macdonald

Principal Investigator: Mary Ellen Macdonald
Co-Investigators: L. Mitchell, P. Stephenson, & S. Cadell
Funding Source: Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada
Period: 2007–2010

Summary: This program of research seeks to understand, culturally and socially, what is the “bereaved parent” in Canadian society today, and what are the corresponding implications for the health and well-being of this population.

Health professionals are encouraged to practice medicine according to the best scientific evidence. Increasingly, bereavement care is being recognized as an essential component in interdisciplinary palliative care models, the goal being to help the bereaved arrive at a healthy adjustment to their loss. Studies show that while bereavement programs and practices may be clinically and intuitively based, they are rarely theoretically or empirically evidence-based. The clinical models and theories upon which bereavement interventions are designed have not been proven effective. Some evidence suggests that bereaved parents may derive little or no benefit from bereavement counselling, and that further harm may occur from the interventions.

Research Questions: How is “parental bereavement” socially and culturally constructed in our society? What are the corresponding implications for the health and well-being of these parents? How do these constructions affect or impact the health and social services available to this population?

[Note: “Parent” is used to refer to individuals self-defined as “parents,” not limited to a biological connection to a child. Further, it is used to refer to “parents” of children of all ages. We thus refer to a range of experiences (including adoption or fostering), from miscarriage to the death of an adult child.]

This is a three year study. It will involve the following three phases:

Phase I (Year 1) is a theoretical study that will seek to understand culturally and socially the place of “the bereaved parent” in Canadian society. A theoretical analysis of representations of parental bereavement will be conducted through an anthropological frame. We will examine contemporary representations of parental bereavement, focusing on academic literature (e.g., medical, allied health, social science, humanities and fine arts) as well as public policies, popular culture and lay discourses. From this analysis, a socio-culturally grounded understanding of parental bereavement will be advanced.

Phase II (Year 2) will consist of an empirical study designed with a phenomenological anthropological methodology to better understand bereaved parents vis-à-vis their lived experience of being a "bereaved parent." Bereaved parents as well as health care professionals working in the bereavement field will be interviewed, and findings will be understood apropos Phase 1 findings.

Phase III (Year 3) is centered on a participatory symposium. It will involve convening a group of bereavement “experts,” that is, clinicians, researchers and parents themselves to scrutinize findings from Phase I and Phase II in order to: a) further advance the theoretical and empirical analysis vis-à-vis current health care practices; b) formulate recommendations for clinical practice. Data from the Symposium will be incorporated into a final analysis that brings together all three phases. Dissemination will follow, targeted at academic, clinical and policy audiences.

Currently, bereavement interventions lack an evidence base to support their effectiveness. By systematically examining both dominant and diverse understandings of parental bereavement, this study is well positioned to contribute to building both a theoretical and clinical evidence base for the field of bereavement studies and intervention. In so doing, this study will provide an important contribution to the interdisciplinary world of palliative care research and practice.

For more information on this project, please contact mary [dot] macdonald [at] mcgill [dot] ca (Mary Ellen Macdonald).