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magazine home > archives > summer 2002 > features

Grieving and other end-of-life issues affect millions of people each day. Research into this dark and often misunderstood subject garnered Dr. Robert Neimeyer the University's top faculty honor - the Eminent Faculty Award.

Good Grief
by Greg Russell

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, doesn’t come knocking at his door. But the professor of psychology would have it no other way.

 
Neimeyer and Raines
 

U 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 challenges.

“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 a tragedy.”

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 suddenly lost.”

Case in point, he says, are events from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“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 of life.”

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,” he says.

View from Empire State Building
High 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. Neimeyer’s 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 doesn’t 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.”

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