41 - Meaning Making after Sudden Death: An Interview with Leading Thanatologist Dr. Robert Niemeyer

 In today’s podcast I interview Dr. Robert Niemeyer, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Psychology at the University of Memphis. Dr. Niemeyer is a leader in the field of Thanatology, the science or study of death, dying and bereavement. He has published 33 books, including the New Techniques of Grief Therapy: Bereavement and Beyond, and serves as the Editor of the journal of Death Studies. He is the author of over 500 articles and book chapters and a frequent workshop presenter. As a clinician and researcher, he is perhaps best known for his work on meaning making in grief and is currently working to advance a more adequate theory of grieving as a meaning-making process.

Key points:

In our interview we explore the meaning making process of grief after a sudden or unexpected death and the concept of narrative reconstruction used in meaning making.

Dr. Niemeyer also demonstrates three techniques that can be used in therapy to facilitate meaning making after a traumatic loss each of three domains: 1) the story of the event, 2) the backstory, and 3) the creation of the self, or meaning of our lives, going forward.

He used a technique called restorative retelling, developed by Dr. Ted Rynearson, to help find meaning with the story of the event. Dr. Niemeyer demonstrated this technique as an appropriate way to work with someone who is struggling with the details of the circumstances that ended their loved one’s life. For the second domain, he showed us a way to restore connection with a deceased loved one to communicate what needs to be said. And finally, for the third domain he described a technique called composition work. This intervention uses objects such as stones to represent aspects of the self, such as, roles and feelings along with other articles to represent those who are important and loved in an individual’s life. Then the objects and articles are rearranged on a table or sand tray at different life periods of a client’s life including prior and post death, and in the future to help connect with different and emerging parts of the self.

Dr. Niemeyer is also the Director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition and shares opportunities available at the institute for clinicians interested in specialized grief training.

I have been fortunate to attend multiple trainings by Dr. Niemeyer over the years in person and online, and I have always left these trainings with greater insight about myself, a deeper understanding of grief and new ways to work with clients who are living with grief. In addition to the opportunities Dr. Niemeyer shared at the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, he has also just released a Grief Therapy Masterclass entitled: Advanced Skills in Working through Loss. This class covers the meaning-based model he briefly addressed today along with a module on trauma-informed approach to loss, realigning relationships with the deceased and reinventing the self after loss.


Information about this masterclass will be posted in our Facebook group, Talking About the Podcast Untethered with Dr. Levin, along with the books he mentioned. If you are living with traumatic grief, you may find it helpful to begin exploring meaning with your therapist or to begin exploring some of the resources Dr. Niemeyer recommended on your own.


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