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Keywords:

  • grief;
  • bereavement;
  • older people;
  • loss;
  • mourner;
  • nursing;
  • hospital;
  • community

Grief and older people: the making or breaking of emotional bonds following partner loss in later life

The aim of this ethnographic study was to explore retrospectively the grief experiences of 12 older people whose partners had recently died in hospital, following a period of terminal illness. The rationale was based upon developing an understanding of the grief experiences of newly bereaved older people. In doing so, it is important to consider that grief is not only shaped by culture and social context but also by the nature of the relationship between the mourner and the deceased. For most of this century, the dominant conceptualization relating to grief and the social experience of bereavement has been based on the psychoanalytical school of thought. This process is said to involve the mourner passing through a number of stages or phases and forms the basis of the ‘grief work hypothesis’. Using in-depth ethnographic interviews, the mourner’s reactions to and perceptions of the loss were explored. Tape-recorded interview data were analysed using the inductive process of both content analysis and discourse evaluation. The findings from this study shed light on an area of conjugal bereavement that has received little attention in the past and challenges traditional models of grief. The indications are that in the first year of bereavement, the bereaved retain and modify the emotional relationship with their deceased partners, through a range of symbolic behaviours. The discussion raises issues concerning the need to consider the extent to which contemporary conceptualizations of grief explain the reactions of older people whose grief experiences are shaped by their social situation. The study also highlights important issues concerning the need to understand the complexity of grief experiences and bereavement support for older people which has a number of implications for nurses in both hospital and community settings.