Dr. Robert Neimeyer has every reason to be the saddest man
on The University of Memphis campus. Hardly a day goes by
that death, so to speak, doesnt come knocking at his
door. But the professor of psychology would have it no other
of M President Shirley Raines congratulates Dr. Robert
Neimeyer during Convocation and Inauguration ceremonies.
The professor received the 2002 Eminent Faculty Award
for his research concerning death and dying issues.
For much of his career, Neimeyer has immersed himself in
grief, bereavement and death all in the name of formulating
a way people can rebuild their lives when faced with these
This is a subject that touches every single person
at some point in their life, Neimeyer says. We
all face it. Loss is not optional; it is part of the human
condition. How we respond to it shapes who we are.
Neimeyer has published 18 books and some 200 articles and
chapters on the subject. His research recently garnered him
the $20,000 Eminent Faculty Award established by the Board
of Visitors to recognize faculty members who have brought
honor and distinction to the University. Neimeyer, who holds
a Dunavant professorship, is the 10th winner.
So what exactly do I do? Neimeyer muses. I
find ways to help people put their lives back together after
Neimeyer uses constructivist psychotherapy a fancy
term for reviewing how people find significance in their lives
and losses following bereavement and other complicated life
transitions. His research looks closely at the individual
dynamics of grieving and how they vary among people who are
experiencing different kinds of losses, including death and
the decline of relationships.
This research has led us to the idea that grieving
is a process of rebuilding a world of meaning that has been
challenged by the loss, Neimeyer says. I see grieving
as a way of relearning the world in the wake of a loss.
Neimeyer likens the death of a loved one to that of losing
the central character of a novel. We are forced to reorganize
our life story, almost like re-writing a novel that has made
sense up until a central chapter when a major character is
Case in point, he says, are events from the Sept. 11 terrorist
I am working with a woman who was on the phone with
a family member as he struggled down the hallway just before
the building collapsed, the professor says. He
was on the 100th floor of the World Trade Center when the
second plane hit. He was tragically lost, but so was a whole
world of meaning for her. Any sense of innocence, any sense
of hope that the world was a benign place in which people
could be trusted, was gone. Her sense of the world was assaulted
just as strongly as those buildings in New York. Just like
those buildings, her belief system lay in rubble.
Her loss was on a grand scale, but when you stop to
think about it, every person and every possession we love
will one day be lost this is not optional, it is part
Neimeyer relies on the knowledge he has gained from his research
to guide people through the grieving process. The goal
of grieving is not to let go, but to find a way to hold on
with less pain, and to have recourse to comforting memory,
atop the Empire State Building, tourists find an eerie
site shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; no
World Trade Center buildings. Neimeyer says the attack
reawakened grief in people all across the country.
The researcher says that his models of grief therapy differ
from traditional ones in that he believes grieving is more
personal, and approached properly, can even be beneficial.
Old models say that time heals all wounds, Neimeyer
says. Our research tells us that it is not what time
does for the bereaved person that counts, it is what the bereaved
person does with the time. Our studies are starting to point
us specifically toward what can be done usefully with that
time in order to gain a perspective on the loss. It is not
a simple, stage-like process.
Neimeyer has molded his therapeutic models from several large-scale
studies, including one that examined 500 U of M students who
had suffered losses.
Bereavement is a silent epidemic among college students,
Neimeyer says. Twenty-five percent of them are within
one year of the death of a close relative or close friend,
and 40 percent are within two years of such a loss.
We often disregard the frequency and impact of loss
in the college years, because it does not fit into our own
sort of romantic image of what early adulthood should be.
But students probably struggle far more with the impact
of a loss than they do with those sort of things that get
more attention, like substance abuse and sexual assault.
For the study, Neimeyer teamed with U of M sleep-disorder
authority Dr. Kenneth Lichstein. We found the insomnia
experienced by these 500 students was dramatic and very debilitating
during a period they are attempting to go through the developmental
passages that college represents, Neimeyer says.
In another study, done with U of M graduate Dr. Nancy Keesee,
Neimeyer worked with 150 bereaved parents who had lost children,
to see how the parents made sense of the loss. He also studies
suicide intervention. Neimeyers book, Lessons of
Loss, A Guide to Coping, offers concrete strategies for
people who have experienced the death of loved ones and who
are looking for ways to place the loss in a new perspective.
Neimeyer says he first became interested in grief research
as an undergraduate assistant at the University of Florida
in the early 1970s. The loss of a parent while he was still
an adolescent left him searching for answers to Why
did this happen?
Besides his U of M work and a private practice, Neimeyer
is also involved with grief research at a national level.
He is a member of a special task force of the American Psychological
Association to overcome the perceived invisibility
of psychology as a discipline concerned with end-of-life issues.
Also, for the Center for the Advancement of Health in Washington,
D.C., he is currently sifting through more than 5,000 abstracts
of published articles in an attempt to integrate the entire
field of what is known scientifically about grief and loss.
Neimeyer says hardly a day goes by that he doesnt think
about death and grieving. But he is quick to point out that
he is more inspired than depressed by the stories of trauma
and transcendence that he encounters in his work.
The irony is that although death itself is universal,
the ways in which we respond to it are very individual,
he says. Our task is to understand how people are often
able to move from loss to gain, ultimately integrating this
hard passage and growing as a result.