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Grief Perspectives
Research that Matters
Professional Bookshelf

Mentor and More:
J. William Worden

By William G. Hoy
When working on my senior thesis on the social ramifications of death in American society, my eyes “just happened” to land on the brand-new volume on the “New Books” shelf in the Louisiana State University Library. Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner was certainly nothing special to look at with its cover of monotone gray. Because of my own growing interest in all-things-grief, I picked it up and started leafing through it. Although the book has now been revised three times since that first 1981 edition (1991, 2002 and 2009) that volume was my introduction to the clinical scholarship of J. William Worden.
My column in this newsletter two months ago promised that a half-dozen or so times this year, I would be reflecting on the life and career of some of the leading voices in bereavement who have most influenced my career over the last three decades. This month’s column continues the fulfillment of that promise with the introduction of the man who authored that first influential book and became my most important mentor.
In every way, Bill Worden has been a pioneer in the quest to provide excellent care for grieving people. An early colleague of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and many of the other “household” names in the bereavement field, Dr. Worden’s work has focused on giving voice to bereaved people. His methods of psychotherapy with bereaved people are legendary, in large measure I believe because of the Photo Courtesy of iStock Photo/RusN sense he makes of the grief process. He is probably best known for his four tasks of mourning, a system for understanding grief that challenged the stage models of bereavement in vogue at the time and popularized by some of his early colleagues like Kübler-Ross. Through his task-based approach, Worden suggested that bereaved people had to do four things: accept the reality of the loss; work through the pain of the grief; adjust to a changed world that no longer included the deceased person; and adaptively move into a life without the deceased’s physical presence.
In the more than forty years he has been practicing, studying and teaching, Worden has challenged the status quo many times. Growing out of the Harvard Child Bereavement Study he co-investigated with Phyllis Silverman, his Children and Grief: When a Parent Dies (Guilford, 1996) showed conclusive evidence that the death of a parent does not mean that difficult adjustment for children is a foregone conclusion. In fact, the evidence demonstrated that a significant protective factor for bereaved children following a parent’s death was the positive adjustment of the surviving parent and other caregivers. Worden’s conclusions pointed clinicians early on in the direction of helping parents and families as well as bereaved children, a cornerstone of much of the clinical research being done today in places like Arizona State University (Hagan, Tein, Sandler, Wolchk, Ayers & Luecken, 2012).
Worden’s classic Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (Springer, 2009) has now been translated into nearly a dozen languages and is a principal text in the training of grief counselors around the world. If anything, the book has become more practical with each revision. It contains practical grief counseling principles and techniques of use to anyone working with the bereaved. The “mediators of mourning,” those nine factors Worden considers to most raise a bereaved person’s risk of complicated mourning, is a chapter whose content is worth the price of the book itself.
Perhaps one of his greatest gifts, Worden has a knack for de-mystifying what has often become a complex process. He does not believe that most people need the intervention of a mental health professional to work through their experiences of loss. He acknowledges the role of psychotherapists and others trained in clinical mental health, to be sure. But he celebrates the work of well supervised hospice volunteers, funeral directors, nurses, leaders of lay bereavement programs and clergy. This line of first responders, Worden believes, do much of the “heavy lifting” of support to the bereaved.
There are many reasons this man is my personal hero of “grief-lings.” First, he granted me a position in his highly-coveted supervision group early in my clinical career; the insights I gained in those years “at the feet of the master” have had an incalculable benefit on my work with grieving people. While younger than my own father, Bill Worden is enough older than me to have provided an important “fatherly presence” in the more than two decades since my own father’s death.
When I introduced Bill as the 2011 recipient of the Association for Death Education and Counseling’s Lifetime Achievement Award, I told my gathered colleagues that we all have heroes to whom we look up. Most of us are able to connect professionally with a few of those in the course of a forty- or fifty-year career. Once in a great while, one of those heroes becomes a trusted colleague. But perhaps only once in a lifetime does one of those heroic, mentoring, collegial people become a dear friend. J. William Worden is all of that to me; my clinical practice, my teaching, my research and my life have all been deeply, indelibly marked because of it.

Hagan, M.J., Tein, J-Y., Sandler, I.N., Wolchk, S.A., Ayers, T.S., & Luecken, L.J. (2012). Strenthening effective parenting practices over the long-term: Effects of a preventive intervention for parentally bereaved families. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 41 (2), 177-188. DOI: 10.1080/15374416.2012.651996
Worden, J.W. (1996). Children and grief: When parents die. New York: Guilford.
Worden, J.W. (2009). Grief counseling and grief therapy: A handbook for the mental health practitioner. New York: Springer.

William G. (Bill) Hoy is an educator, counselor and author who has specialized in end-of-life and bereavement care for nearly 30 years. Dr. Hoy’s passion is equipping the next generation of physicians and other healthcare professionals through his research, writing and teaching responsibilities on the clinical faculty in Medical Humanities at Baylor University. His newest book is Do Funerals Matter? The Purposes and Practices of Death Rituals in Global Perspective (Routledge, 2013).
Green, J.P. & Mohler, E.W. (2013/14). The death effect in literary evaluation: Reverence for the dead? Omega, 68 (3), 229-239.
As a boy growing up in the southern United States, I often observed drivers pull to the side of the road and stop as a funeral procession passed by. Funeral directors report that today, it is just as likely that a driver will carelessly dart through a funeral procession as respect it. Such observations lead counselors and educators working at the intersection of life and death to wonder how much “respect for the dead” still exists in western society. 
In an attempt to understand part of this construct of “respect for the dead,” Green and Mohler, psychology researchers at the Ohio State University created a study to discover if research participants (383 college students) would pay more in a role as a hypothetical “art dealer” after learning the author was dead. To control variables, they also tested to see how much their research subjects would “pay” for the story if they learned the author had simply moved to a new locale. In order to control whether pure economics drove the decision (a dead author’s work is worth more just because he/she can produce no more), they also analyzed how much the participants indicated they liked the story.
A “respect for the dead” factor is likely at work in this study, though the authors concede there are many other factors that entered into their participants’ decision-making process. Research participants not only offered to pay more for stories when they thought the author was dead but also reported simply liking the stories better when the author was believed to be dead, leading the authors to conclude the “respect for the dead” factor was at work, perhaps in subtle and even sub-conscious ways.
Researchers and clinicians have long held that death loss is qualitatively different from other kinds of loss, a philosophy followed in the editorial process of GriefPerspectives. While not intended to either prove or disprove such a hypothesis, studies such as the present one might lend credibility to such theoretical constructs. In any case, one application from a study such as this one by Green and Mohler’s study of participants presumably in late adolescence and young adulthood is that death and the dead still command significant respect, a social finding that seems positive to those of us advocating a more honest and open discussion about death in our society.
Like all articles from Omega, this report may be downloaded and printed free for members of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. Join ADEC or access the Members Only section at for more information.

Shafarman, J. (2014). My Book of Grief and Loss. New Vision. US $ 9.99.

Most people who counsel the bereaved recommend journal keeping as an important tool for moving adaptively through the grief process. Many grieving people, however, feel they lack the creative energy to get started with such a task. My Book of Grief and Loss might just be the remedy they seek.

First, Shafarman introduces her own brief story of loss, noting that the grief process is not confined to death-related losses. She poignantly tells of a recent move which she concedes, should have been a happy time for her inasmuch as it was part of marrying a man she loved deeply. Yet, she sensed real loss in “starting over” in a new place away from friends and environments she had come to love. This simple workbook contains more than 100 “journal prompts,” each on its own page with plenty of space to record ideas, thoughts and feelings. The facing pages each contain a quotation about grief from such literary luminaries as William Shakespeare and Earl Grollman.

Bereaved people are helped greatly by keeping a journal. This tool is one of the first, inexpensive guides that will help them effectively do it.

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