Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I have worked for bereavement support centers for the past four years as a member of the clinical staff; however, I have realized that I may not want to focus on clinical practice. I am still passionate about grief and want to contribute to our field in a different, but still meaningful, way. I am very interested in research, and thus am thinking about pursuing a PhD in Social Work.
My question is: what is our field’s greatest research need at this time?
Relevant research, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As a comparatively young area of scientific study, bereavement research has many gaps, promising directions, and growing edges, from examining the grief of neglected groups (ethnic minorities, men, LGBT+ populations, and surprisingly, even children) to considering more closely risk factors for complication (especially as they interact with one another) and the unique features of specific losses, as through suicide vs. progressive illness. Moreover, except for the rather generic concept of “social support,” very few social processes in bereavement have been investigated in a systematic and rigorous way, such as how family members interact in grieving a common loss (though more is written about this clinically). Thus, there is no shortage of contributions you might make to our growing, but still very incomplete understanding of how people grieve adaptively, under a range of difficult circumstances.
However, in my opinion, one tremendous gap in research is the nearly complete inattention to the effectiveness of mutual support in bereavement for those who access it. In the past dozen years a small but growing list of professional grief therapies have been subjected to close scrutiny in open and controlled trials, adding to our collective confidence that specialized care has something of genuine value to offer to those mourners struggling with especially complicated, prolonged, or traumatic forms of grief. But very little is known about how helpful mutual support groups, self-help readings, bereavement memoirs, Internet chat or support rooms, and even face-to-face contact with bereavement support volunteers actually are. Where evaluations are done, they tend to focus on user satisfaction rather than controlled studies, which are of course difficult to do for a host of practical and ethical reasons. But research that documented the actual impact of non-professional support in bereavement would make a watershed contribution, one that would be welcomed by social work, psychology, counseling and other disciplines, as well as the bereaved and the volunteers who support them.
It sounds like your considerable practical experience in the field might position you to make just such a contribution.