Today, somewhere in Scotland, leaders in the field of death, dying and bereavement will end a five-day meeting, and bid each other farewell until 2018, when the 30th gathering of the International Work Group on Death, Dying and Bereavement will convene.
Membership of the IWG is an honour bestowed by invitation only; founded in 1974 by, among others, Cicely Saunders and Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the IWG is a non-profit organisation whose members must demonstrate leadership within thanatology within their country, and typically on an international level as well. While the majority of members are either in academia or the medical care professions, the organisation includes others who share a common bond of passionate intellectual and personal interest in the field of thanatology.
For the last week, around 140 people from around the world have been engaged in in-depth discussions on various death related topics – it is a kind of think tank on thanatology, with no agenda other than to explore the agreed upon topics. And last Saturday, the group hosted an open meeting in Glasgow where the public were able to glimpse the calibre and quality of some of the thought leaders and practitioners involved. The GFG was privileged to be invited to co-host a workshop at this conference on social aspects of death, dying and bereavement, and to attend the plenary presentations from some of the finest thinkers on the subject of our time. We also got to have dinner with the presenters the evening beforehand, which was quite an experience!
The one-day conference was hosted by Dame Barbara Monroe DBE, former Chief Executive of St. Christopher’s Hospice, a trustee of Marie Curie and Special Commissioner of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Barbara’s opening address was challenging and bracing; “…some of our efforts to engage the public in talking about death, dying and bereavement have looked like us talking to ourselves” she said, “we need to find a wider variety of words.”
Professor Robert Neimeyer Ph.D from the University of Memphis, author of 30 books and almost 500 articles and book chapters and editor of the journal Death Studies was the first speaker, presenting psychological insights on ‘The Importance of Meaning’ alongside Dr. Neil Thompson, a highly experienced social work professional who offered sociological insights to the same subject.
Bob’s presentation was illustrated with a brief case study of an impoverished African-American mother contending with the murder of her young adult son. He explored the concept of adaptive grieving and the move towards integrated grief (the point where the finality of death is viscerally acknowledged). Neil reflected on a holistic approach to meaning, the personal, cultural and structural influences and the fluidity of an individual’s experience. He explored the sociological context within which grief is experienced, the cultural norms and expectations, the structural power relations of class, race, gender, age, disability and language group frameworks which inform the unique experience of each individual.
The second presentation was given by Darcy Harris Ph.D, an Associate Professor and Thanatology Co-ordinator at King’s University, London, Ontario with a background in oncology, palliative care nursing and bereavement counselling. Darcy’s presentation examined grief from the perspective of social justice (the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights).
Most clinicians in end of life care and bereavement care are trained with an emphasis on the experience of the individual, often in isolation of the various contexts in which their lives are socially situated. Darcy explored the social and political underpinnings that inform individual perceptions, experiences and expectations, and discussed the social rules for grief, which cover who can be grieved, whether the relationship is valid, how long grief can last, how it is expressed / manifest and whether the type of death is acceptable.
Frustratingly, all four workshops were held simultaneously, leading to ‘workshop envy’ from both participants and workshop hosts – the three other sessions being held while we co-hosted a workshop on ‘Whose funeral is it?’ with Scottish bereavement consultant John Birrell were entitled ‘Ordinary People, Extraordinary Things, a community response to bereavement’, ‘Maximising child and family support after a bereavement – the role of networking’ and ‘Building community resilience and bringing remembrance into the open – Scotland’s answer to Dia de los Muertos’.
The afternoon continued with two further plenary sessions, the first from Professor David Clark, a sociologist at the University of Glasgow who leads the University of Glasgow End of Life Studies Group and who has a particular knowledge of the life and work of Dame Cicely Saunders, having edited her letters and selected publications. He is working on a biography to be published in 2018 on the centenary of her birth.
David’s presentation explored end of life issues around the world in the light of the anticipated significant increase in the global annual death toll from the current 56,000,000 people who currently die each year. He noted that the number of deaths in the entire 20th century is less than the number of people currently alive, and how the underlying assumption in palliative care is that the developing world should at some point catch up with the developed world – ‘the waiting room of history’ as conceptualised by historian Dipesh Chakrabarty.
David outlined his current work in a Wellcome Trust funded project investigating and conceptualising a comprehensive taxonomy of interventions at the end of life. His contribution was described by Dame Monroe as ‘a breath of academic fresh air’.
The final speaker of the day was Dr. Kenneth J. Doka, Professor of Gerontology and Senior Consultant to the Hospice Foundation in America. A prolific author (see here), Ken’s presentation highlighted the way that a sociological perspective has informed his work in thanatology, through a selective review of the work of pioneers in the field, including Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Robert Fulton. He covered the dimensions of disenfranchised grief and the differences between intuitive and instrumental grief, issues arising from dissonant grief, grieving styles and post-mortem identity, and public and private grief in a gallop through the many aspects of his expertise.
It was an extraordinary experience to listen to such learned theorists and academics expound on their work in the area of death, dying and bereavement. The considered and thoughtful presentations were thought provoking and inspiring, and, like many of the other attendees, we came away feeling grateful to have been there to listen and absorb.
The International Work Group may not be well known outside academic circles, but the innovation and leadership that flows from the meeting of these minds influences both research and practice in the field of dying, death and bereavement, and ultimately affects us all.
We were privileged to meet some of the most influential thought leaders of our time in this field, and would like to thank John Birrell, Chair of the Planning Group for his kind invitation to take part in the conference.