Experiences in Bereavement and Family Meaning-Making

Research Submission

Edith Steffen and Adrian Coyle: ‘“I thought they should know ... that daddy is not completely gone”: A qualitative case-study investigation of “sense of presence” experiences in bereavement and family meaning-making.’

Objectives: This paper reports findings from a qualitative investigation which explored what role, if any, the commonly-reported yet controversial experience of ‘sensing the presence of the deceased’ might play in a bereaved family, how it is talked about and made sense of and what impact it is perceived to have on the family as a whole.

Design: A case study framework using group and individual interviews was employed. Ethnographically-derived observations were used to provide contextualised understandings of the phenomenon.

Method: The study focused on one father-bereaved family in the south of England reporting such experiences. It included a mother and her three children aged 16, 14 and 12. Fieldwork spanned six months in total.

Results: Interview data were analysed from a pluralist interpretative stance, applying both phenomenological and social constructionist readings to the same data set. Ethnographic observations were used additionally and reflexively where relevant. Seven phenomenological themes were identified, showing a division between the mother, who found the experiences comforting, and the children, who rejected them as scientifically explicable phenomena that did not fit their worldviews. Discursive data analysis identified strategies at micro and macro level which functioned to work up credibility (mother) or dismiss the experiences (children), according with other generational tensions observed.

Conclusions: The study highlighted the complexity of interpersonal, systemic and cultural factors potentially at play when disclosing and negotiating sensitive and controversial meanings in relationally significant contexts. It draws practitioners’ attention to contextual factors as impacting on individual and family sense-making of such bereavement experiences.