Seeing the big picture

Neil Thompson, PhD, Dlitt, is an independent writer and online tutor. He is a member of the International Work Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement, a non-profit organisation, supporting leaders in the field of death, dying and bereavement in their efforts to stimulate and enhance innovative ideas, research, and practice.

Neil Thompson

Neil Thompson

Finding ourselves in a position where we are forced to face death is, of course, a major challenge. It is one that is intensely personal, striking at the very heart of our humanity, revealing our vulnerability and just how fragile we are. Personal, intimate even, and a unique experience for each of us – nobody can doubt this.

But, while this personal focus is rooted in truth, it is not the whole truth, it is not the whole story. That’s because, while the challenges of death, grief and bereavement are indeed personal and individual, they are also profoundly social. They are shaped in large part by social processes, structures and expectations. There are major cultural differences; we are increasingly becoming aware of gender differences; and there are even class differences that can play a part in how situations are perceived, experienced and managed. And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to appreciating how much of a role social factors play in shaping our loss experiences.

Given the emotional intensity involved, it is not surprising that the psychological aspects of the situation get the lion’s share of attention – and, of course, it is quite right that these issues should be considered carefully. But, if we want to get a fuller picture of what is happening when people are facing death and grief, those psychological insights need to be complemented by sociological ones. We need to be able to place people in their social context and consider how social expectations shape grief reactions. For example, much has now been written about ‘disenfranchised grief’ – grief that is not socially accepted or supported because it is in some way devalued (as in the ageist stereotype that older people ‘get used to grief’).

To reinforce just how important the social context issues are, a conference on Social Aspects of Death, Dying and Bereavement is being held in Glasgow, UK, on 5 November 2016. With well-known speakers from the USA and Canada, as well as the UK, it promises to be a very worthwhile event – more details are available here.

Links and resources

  • Connect with Dr Neil Thompson online at
  • Grief and its Challenges by Neil Thompson, Palgrave Macmillan 2012.
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