Graduation Year

2011

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

Communication

Major Professor

Jane Jorgenson

Keywords

bereavement, death, dying, family systems, narrative theory

Abstract

In this dissertation, I seek to better understand the sensemaking process among surviving family members after a tragic loss of a teenage or young adult child. Using social constructionism (Gergen, 1991) as a theoretical framework, I focused on how meanings of loss are constructed through the use of language and other symbols. I specifically looked at the role of family stories and rituals in making sense of the sudden loss as well as how a survivor's role as a sibling or parent may impact the grieving process. The participants in my research were all members of families in which a child had died unexpectedly in adolescence or young adulthood. I combined multiple in-depth interviews with parents and siblings in each family with episodes of participant-observation. Then I used inductive thematic analysis to examine the patterns of ritualizing in each family, and a process of narrative analysis focusing on the accounts of three siblings and two parents in order to explore how survivors structure their experience in stories.

I found that rituals and artifacts play a significant role in assisting family members in coping with bereavement. Even though previous family rituals and traditions are disrupted by the death, families find ways of creating and enacting new rituals. The invention and adoption of new rituals seems to serve an important role in "successful" grieving as a way of sustaining bonds with lost loved ones. I also found that survivors, in sharing with me the stories of sudden loss, worked to construct storylines that tie events together by showing how they are meaningfully, and sometimes causally, connected. In addition, the stories showed how survivors "find benefit" by reframing painful events as positive and growthful.

Throughout my analysis of rituals and stories, I looked for similarities or differences between the siblings' and parents' experiences. One insight to emerge from the study was that bereavement is a very individual event, and the resulting differences in expressions and degrees of grief among different family members can put a strain on the family system. Another key theme that emerged was the protective stance taken by surviving siblings towards their parents after the death of a brother or sister, which sometimes involved minimizing the display of their own emotions. In this sense, the siblings seem to have experienced what the literature has called "prohibited mourning," By contrast. parental grief seems to be more socially acknowledged.

This study holds potential benefits for those scholars interested in bereavement as a meaning-making process as well as the effects on the family system. Therapists who treat families might find the insights these participants contribute to be helpful in creating ways to communicate with their clients.

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