A Grounded Theory Analysis of Bereavement

Almost all people tell stories. The stories that people tell are not chance occurrences. Rather they often recount important events in the teller’s life – births, marriages and deaths (Bruner, 1990, 1991; Gersie, 1991). For example, Bruner (1991) suggests that stories are told about events which are departures from the ordinary, so it is possible to argue that major life-events are worthy of storytelling because they are not everyday occurrences (Labov & Waletsky, 1967). Other people have examined the functions of narrative (Bauman, 1977, 1986; Nicolaisen, 1984, 1991). Nicolaisen (1984, 1991) has also discussed the functions of narrative and encapsulates them well: “They show events to have structure and meaning and not simply sequence. They selectively duplicate, belatedly rehearse and retrospectively mediate the past for us …” (1984, p. 176). In the fields of socio-linguistics, ethnography of communication and narrative folklore there are rich discussions of definitions and approaches to informal oral narrative (see for example: Bauman, 1986; Bennett, 1986; Hymes 1981; Polyani, 1979). Whilst there is less to be found within the psychological literature it does not mean that narrative does not have psychological importance. For example, McLeod (1997) working from a counselling perspective suggests that narratives convey meaning, a sense of self, and the emotional context. In a similar vein there has been research which has examined life review and reminiscence (Butler, 1963, 1980-1; Merriam, 1980; Molinari & Reichlin, 1984-5). In their review Molinari and Reichlin (1984-5) argue that life review reminiscence is personal and intense and represents an active attempt to come to terms with the past.

One life-event where there appears to be value in relating events in the form of a narrative is around bereavement (Gersie, 1991; Pennebaker, Mayne & Frances, 1997; Riches & Dawson, 1996a & b; Walter, 1996)). For example, in the work of Riches and Dawson (1996a, 1996b) they show the importance of narratives following the deaths of children, often in most distressing circumstances. They argue that the opportunity to ‘tell it like it is’ (1996, 357) enables parents to explore painful events whilst keeping control over their own narratives. Studies introduced by Folkman (1997) in a special issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology around the use of narratives of bereaved gay men whose partners died of AIDS also provides interesting insight. For example, Stein, Folkman, Trabasso and Richards (1997) found a positive relationship between the appraisals made in the narratives of bereaved caregivers and their levels of wellbeing. The work of Pennebaker and his colleagues, in the above issue and elsewhere, suggests that those people who have discussed or written about traumatic events have more positive physical and emotional outcomes than those who did not (Pennebaker & Beall, 1986; Pennebaker & Francis, 1996; Pennebaker, Mayne & Francis, 1997). In a different literature, Gersie (1991) uses traditional stories to illustrate aspects of bereavement and argues that traditional stories may help people come to terms with their loss. So, there is a body of evidence to suggest that narratives may play an important role in bereavement.

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Spousal bereavement in later life is a particularly common event, and this is especially so for women (Morris, 1997). However, there have been relatively few studies of widowhood in later life and yet there is evidence to suggest that the experience of widowhood is as important to older people as it is to people widowed off-time, and also that the challenges of widowhood in later life may be different from those widowed earlier (Bennett, 1996, 1997; Thuen, Reime & Skrautvoll, 1997; Zisook, Shucter, Sledge, Paulus & Judd, 1994). There is also evidence to suggest that men and women in later life experience widowhood differently (Stroebe & Stroebe, 1983). There have been even fewer which have explored the stories and narratives that widowed people tell with respect to the deaths of their partners (Ducharme & Corin, 1997; Pickard, 1994; van den Hoonaard, 1999). For example, van den Hoonaard (1999) found that women, unasked, recounted their experiences of their husbands’ deaths. She suggested that these narratives provided a transition from wife to widow.

The present paper discusses the narratives of four people (2 male and 2 female) widowed in later life. The focus is specifically on the events surrounding the deaths of their partners – a central aspect of the experience of widowhood (Bennett & Bennett, 1999; van den Hoonaard, 1999).



The interview were conducted with four individuals the first being a female aged 66 whom was married for 40 years before her husband died and had been widowed six years.

The second interviewee was a male aged 63 who had been married for 35 years until the death of his wife and had been widowed for two years.

The third interviewee was aged was a female aged 80 who had been married for 49 years and had been widowed for thirteen years.

The fourth interviewee was a male aged 70 who had been married for 26 years and been widowed for just under three years.


These interviews were semi structured which entailed the use of open and closed questions, the advantage in the use of this method is that the standardization of most questions makes them replicable, reasonably reliable and allow the participants to express themselves better. This is in comparison to structured interviews which may produce demand characteristics and not allow participants to express themselves, or unstructured interviews which are difficult to replicate and are more open to interviewer bias.

After asking an initial half dozen factual questions the interview then moved on to more open questions

Overview of grounded theory

Grounded theory begins with a research situation. Within that situation the task of the researcher is to understand what concepts, categories and propositions arise from the data collected this being led by the respondent. According to Corbin and Strauss (1990) concepts are the basic units of analysis since it is from conceptualisation of the data rather than from the data par se that theory is developed.

Beginning with line by line coding one then moves on to focused coding and then sorting and while this process is happening one is memo writing formulating in a hypothesis from the data gathered and literature review to assess whether research confers of go against ones hypothesis.

Line by line coding involves coding usually one word from each line which will be compared with other lines for similarity, then one moves to focus coding and these may be formed into categories.

These categories are the assessed for super categories which are categories found across 2 or more interviews. These are then sorted into which appear most important and with what force of emotional expression they are expressed. The memo writing which occurs throughout the sorting and coding is a subjective account of what theory appears to be forming and the relationship of one account to another. This is then assessed against other research literature.


The design was Grounded Design


Throughout the study several different materials were utilised the recording of the required data to establish any significant results. A participant information form was issued to all participants along with a consent form to ensure fully informed consent.

Audio recording devices were used to record information given for further considered analysis, along with writing materials and note pads. Analysis

After reviewing the four scripts various themes started emerging that crossed from one respondent to another amongst these were categories that emerged were communication, role change, work/life balance, gender roles and sudden loss. To give some examples of this given by respondent 1, (p2, line23) when she said “Well I wasn’t sure but you know what men are like-they don’t want to go to the doctor.” This was in reference to her husband saying he was feeling ok after he had reported feeling odd the previous day. Again later in the transcript she recall the doctor saying something’s not right so I’m going to make an appointment for you at the hospital, she report this appointment as taking forever and states ” you’d think something seemed so serious you’d get an appointment straight away” r1,p3,line 11. r 2 continues this theme where he states “they didn’t really say what it was exactly” r2 p10, line 9. When discussing his wife and daughter after they had returned from hospital trips. Another example of this is found (p11 line 11) where he states “well we didn’t talk about it- you know I’m not one for bothering doctors”. Role change appears with respondent 3 where she states “oh we did everything together” (p15, line 16) also she states “we never spent a night apart (p15, line21) she states “I’d never even looked at a bank statement in my life” on (p17 line 15). Respondent 4 States “I had to give up my job to look after her, it got to the point where I couldn’t leave her” (p19, line 39).This example crosses over into work life balance and also occurs with R2 where he states “I was working full time then and I couldn’t take time off” (p9, line 17). Gender coping after bereavement would come under the previous quotes and examples of the shock effect of sudden bereavement is highlighted by the quotes firstly in R3 p16,line 17 where she states “I screamed and I must have screamed loud because my neighbours heard and in R4,p24,line 5 where he states oh it was a terrible shock.






Role Change



Taking these factors into consideration one could hypothesise there would be differences in respondents abilities to cope with bereavement due to their gender this is a two tailed hypothesis

According to (Antonucci 1990/Umberson et al. 1992) women have a more robust social network both before and after widowhood and one could suggest this would greatly assist them in dealing with the loss of a partner of possibly many years. Mourning or the observable expression of grief (Parks & Weiss, 1983) is often referred to the rituals surrounding death such as funerals and the perceived respectful wearing of dark clothes. The considerable stress a bereavement causes may not be just the effect of losing one’s partner, for example the change of one’s lifestyle can have a considerable detrimental effect the quality and indeed length of one’s life and research by (Stroebe & Stroebe 1993) suggests this is mainly true for widowers. According to Bowlby (1980) adult grief is an extension of a general distress response that can be frequently observed in young children. Depressive feeling and coping amongst widowed men and women could be reflected by the effectiveness of each genders coping skills, research into this area (Bennet, Smith and Hughes 2004) investigated the relationship between coping and depressive feelings amongst older widowed men and women, their results found that men were reporting depressive feelings more often than women and were also considered to be non coping in comparison to women. The study involved 46 men and 46 women aged between 55 and 95 years old and used two depression questionnaires, one being the symptoms of anxiety and depression scale and the other being the hospital Anxiety and depression scale, these findings also linked up to other studies done (Zisook et al 1997).

In general when looking at coping strategies one could suggest women have behaviour which is more emotionally oriented than their male counterparts whom are more likely to be problem oriented, this cit can be suggested is a disadvantage in an event which one has no control like a partners death. (de Ridder 2000). Men would also one could suggest lose more than women when being widowed due to the loss of the social support of their partner whereas women research shows receive less social support than they give to their partner and the research that suggests men are generally more content with their lives than married women may also support this argument (Chipperfield and Havens 2001.) Another aspect to consider in the role gender plays in coping with bereavement is the difference in their prevalence in taking care of themselves in the area of health, more so than women men tend to increase their alcohol consumption and tobacco intake whilst also being more prone to miss vital nutriment due to limited cooking skills (Lee et al 1998). Women it’s suggested are also more likely to be open to involvement in grief work which involves expressing emotions concerned around their grief and their stronger social networks and socialisation would appear to assist in facilitating this Linsey (1983). Men may also be at a disadvantage to women when it comes to dealing with bereavement according to the studies that suggest women tend to be a health promoter with their partners and once that prompting ceases the male can return to bad eating habits Steinberg et al (1998) as well as excessive alcohol and tobacco consumption as previously mentioned.

In conclusion

Research suggests there is a difference in the coping skills of male and female widowers with female some research suggests coping better due to their social networks and their ability to express emotions, amongst other things. The transcripts suggested many themes including the lack of communication between respondents and doctors even over such life changing matters such as suspected cancer. The work life balance does appear to be an issue with one respondent seemingly unwilling or unable to get time off work to accompany his wife to hospital even when he suspects there could be a major problem with her health. Role change appears another issue with one respondent having to learn how to use a check book after her husband had dealt with this throughout their married life. These events one could suggest are a major test of coping skills.

In reflection reading these transcripts did bring feelings of sadness, empathy, anger and I suppose the realisation of my own mortality to the fore. Sadness at my interpretation of what the widowers must be feeling, especially when the transcripts have to be stopped due to the respondent getting upset whilst recalling the events around their spouses death. Anger was my feeling when reading the respondent recalled being at work instead of with his wife when I felt she needed him most. Most of all I believe reading these transcripts brought into my consciousness the enormity off loss felt when one loses one’s partner and the reality of what most married couples will have to face at some time in the future. Who will best cope with the loss of their partner was a question I had some vested interest in and I suppose being male myself I hoped research would suggest the males would cope the best, but this was not the case although there was no strong evidence either way.


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