When working on my senior thesis on the social ramifications of death in American society, my eyes â€œjust happenedâ€ to land on
the brand-new volume on the â€œNew Booksâ€ 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 monthâ€™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 KÃ¼bler-Ross and many of the other â€œhouseholdâ€ names in the bereavement field, Dr. Wordenâ€™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
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 KÃ¼bler-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 deceasedâ€™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 parentâ€™s death was the positive adjustment of the surviving parent and other caregivers. Wordenâ€™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).
Wordenâ€™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 â€œmediators of mourning,â€ those nine factors Worden considers to most raise a bereaved personâ€™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 â€œheavy liftingâ€ of support to the bereaved.
There are many reasons this man is my personal hero of â€œgrief-lings.â€ First, he granted me a position in his highly-coveted supervision group early in my clinical career; the insights I gained in those years â€œat the feet of the masterâ€ 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 â€œfatherly presenceâ€ in the more than two decades since my own fatherâ€™s death.
When I introduced Bill as the 2011 recipient of the Association for Death Education and Counselingâ€™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. Hoyâ€™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