Meg Jorsh speaks to bereavement theory pioneer Linda Machin about her groundbreaking research

Grief affects all of us at some point in our lives. When a loved one dies we may feel crushed, overwhelmed. Then it fades to a quiet pain that hides behind everything we do until we finally learn to live with it.

But for some of us, relief never comes. The waves of sadness continue to mount, so that everyday life seems tiny by comparison. For these people bereavement holds risks of its own – depression, anxiety disorders, substance misuse, sudden cardiac events and potentially suicide. They need professional help to adjust to their new way of living.

Unfortunately it can be hard to tell the difference between those treading water and those not waving, but drowning. It has been the life’s work of bereavement expert Dr Linda Machin to better understand the landscape of loss and the ways individuals grieve. Her pioneering research has helped countless professionals to understand grief and bereaved people to feel better understood.

“I think a lack of understanding can make grief longer-lasting than it needs to be,” says Dr Machin. “It can bubble along even worse for some people if they feel misunderstood and their care isn’t addressed appropriately.

“People who begin to grieve chronically can also become depressed and anxious, the ultimate potential risk is suicide. You only have to look at the media attention to Princes William and Harry and their comments about losing their mother to appreciate the long-lasting and persistent nature of grief. They were young people then but it can apply to people at any stage of their lives.”

Models of Bereavement

Dr Machin is best-known in her field as the creator of the Range of Response to Loss model and Adult Attitude to Grief scale. These psychological tools allow professionals to categorise a bereaved person’s  grief according to their levels of overwhelmed, controlled and resilient reactions. A more overwhelmed person may be so distressed they feel they can never be happy again, whereas a more controlled person may refuse to accept the reality of their loss. On the other hand, a resilient mourner may feel they are able to cope with their pain.

“The AAG scale is a kind of a triage system,” Dr Machin explains. “The interventions that are deemed appropriate are based on the scale. Some people who are very overwhelmed by their grief will need a very different intervention to someone who’s closed down on their grief but is still not coping.”

“NICE have produced guidance for bereavement intervention – the first group is one where people simply need signposting to practical advice and support from family and friends. The second is one where people do need some opportunity to talk about things that are troubling to them. Then the third are the group who are most vulnerable and are likely to need longer-term intervention by therapists.”

Further Research

The more recent development of the AAG scale to identify  vulnerability was funded by the North Staffordshire Medical Institute for research with two Marie Curie hospices (Hampstead and Belfast), the Dove Service bereavement support team in Stoke-on-Trent and the bereavement service of St Giles’ Hospital in Lichfield. It is now being used by a range of UK organisations including Marie Curie and Cruse Bereavement Care, as well as internationally by groups in Canada, Iceland, Portugal, Australia, Pakistan and the USA. Dr Machin is also working on a modified version for people affected by terminal illness.

“It’s  looking at the whole question of mental health and loneliness,” she says. “The ultimate aim is that this is a method that allows the practitioner to enhance their work with people as  they progress from end of life care  to bereavement.”

Dr Machin and her team, based at Keele University, received a £4,500 grant from the North Staffordshire Medical Institute in 2011.

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