Challenging the stage theory of grief: Women and men speak out ten to thirty years after the loss of a baby

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Marjorie DeVault


bereavement, parental grief, Families & family life, Personal relationships, Sociology, Social psychology

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


This dissertation is a study of the self in long-term grief. It presents the perspectives of mothers and fathers speaking about the experience of losing a baby and living beyond their loss. The primary data source for the study is in-depth unstructured interviews with twenty-four women and seventeen men who experienced a pregnancy loss, a stillbirth, Sudden Infant Death, or neonatal death between approximately ten and thirty years ago. Informants had no psychiatric history at the time of their loss and lead fully functional lives. The study argues that while contemporary American culture instructs parents to not only desire but cherish their children as priceless, there is an incongruous lack of acknowledgment and support when a pregnancy fails or a baby dies. Four factors interact synergistically to deepen grief's isolation: (1) The intrinsic character of the emotional experience of grief, (2) The failure of individuals to have a clear vocabulary, for understanding and expressing the predicament of long-term grief, (3) The incomprehensibility of long-term grief to outsiders, and (4) The stigma attached to "going public" with one's grief after a period considered average in its duration--typically not more than one to two years. There are four principal discoveries to emerge from this research: (l) People don't "get over" the loss in the conventional sense; for some people losing a baby has long-term consequences, (2) People find distinct and personal ways of managing long term grief; professional guidance is relinquished in favor of grief routines and rituals. The three expressions of this phenomenon are discontinuous grief and memories, continuous grief and memories and capricious memories and intrusive grief. (3) There is no supportive social context and professionals who are supposed to help often make things worse. There are no identity politics for bereaved parents--they do not tend to take up the gauntlet of responding to negative definitions with the aim of changing them. (4) Men also suffer and the health care system and therapists often ignore them.


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