Capacity Building Workshop Bereavement Research and Practice

Following the 2008 Russian–Georgian armed conflict we, like many others, received an urgent request from Georgia to provide support for Georgian psychologists’ work with internally displaced persons. This resulted in exchanges between the IUPsyS President and Professor Irakli Imedadze, Director of Uznadze Institute of Psychology and President of the Georgian Psychological Society, as to what form any support could take. After exploration of support from various philanthropic bodies, a proposal was submitted to the German Exchange Service (DAAD) for funding to hold a workshop on ‘Bereavement, Research and Practice’ focusing on the Caucasus region. This was helped by the fact that the DAAD has a long history of funding scientific research with the aim of promoting peaceful development. The workshop was to be organised under the auspices of the IUPsyS capacity-building program. Support was received from the DAAD on the understanding that the workshop would form part of a series under the heading of “Conflict Prevention in the South Caucasus Region”. One other stipulation was that several Caucasus countries must participate, and that funding would only relate to participants/faculty from the Caucasus countries and Germany.

Given the topic and our aims, additional support was also a prerequisite. This was provided by IUPsyS and the University of Jena. IUPsyS offered additional financial support related to the participation of workshop faculty members not covered by the DAAD grant, and the University provided organizing staff and office facilities. The organizing team comprised Professor Rainer K. Silbereisen (as President of IUPsyS and Head of the Department of Developmental Psychology and Director of the Center for Applied Developmental Science, University of Jena), Professor Wolfgang Miltner (Head of the Department of Clinical and Biological Psychology, University of Jena), Dr Verona Christmas-Best (University of Jena) and Sebastian Grümer (University of Jena).

The structure of the workshop was such that it would cover the topic of bereavement from a broad perspective, ranging from the normal lifespan-related loss of family, friends and acquaintances, through loss due to accidents and natural catastrophes, to loss caused by armed conflicts. Participants would be invited from Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and would include senior scholars but in the main comprise young investigators and PhD students interested in clinical psychology and related fields, such as developmental and social psychology. Overall it was anticipated that 2 professors, 5 young scientists, and 2 graduate students would be invited from each of the three Caucasus countries. And naturally there was a premium on people with some experience and interests in the field of bereavement.

Before funding was fully guaranteed, we started making contact with the three countries in question to establish a network of potential participants. As anticipated, this took some time, particularly concerning Armenia and Azerbaijan where actual contact information was particularly hard to find, and where contact information that was found was often no longer current. Thanks to help from IUPsyS officers, the organizers of the 2008 Berlin ICP, and the DAAD representatives in the region, we were able to find seed contacts in all countries. Following email exchanges with these contacts, which included an outline of the proposed activity and a request for the names of other potential participants, we received details about several more psychologists whose work included the field of bereavement. These new contacts (who were typically more senior professors) were sent a full outline of the workshop and a draft program, and asked to nominate up to five young scientists (close to completing their studies for or having just achieved a PhD) and two graduate students (having achieved their first degree and now being on a Masters course or just starting a PhD course) whom it was felt would benefit from participating in the workshop. The participation of senior professors whose interests were also in or related to the field of bereavement (which could include them) was also sought.

With regard to selection, potential participants were told they should be prepared to present a poster on their work, an abstract of which should accompany their nomination. These abstracts were to confirm the suitability of each nominee’s participation in the workshop and to help ensure a comprehensive coverage within the workshop with regard to area of research interests.

We also wanted to secure workshop faculty members of the highest caliber and to this end letters of invitation were sent to internationally renowned experts working in the field of bereavement as academic researchers with practical experience in bereavement work. The request was for them to become part of the faculty supporting the workshop, to make a 45 minute presentation on their field of work, to hold a question and answer session following their presentation, and to set assignments for group work. From this process the following agreed to participate and to present on the topic shown:

  • Professor Martin Hautzinger, Tübingen, Germany: Theories of bereavement
  • Professor Claudia Dalbert, Halle, Germany: Measurement and diagnostic issues
  • Professor Buxin Han, Beijing, China: Bereavement in the Chinese culture –example of the Wenchuan Earthquake
  • Professor Frank Neuner, Bielefeld, Germany: Bereavement and trauma in the context of poverty and war
  • Professor Thomas Elbert, Konstanz, Germany: Prolonged Grief and Potential Interventions
  • Professor Hansjörg Znoj, Bern, Switzerland: Intervention and Complicated Bereavement
  • Professor Rainer K. Silbereisen, Jena, Germany: Issues of professionalization of psychology
  • Professor Wolfgang Miltner, Jena, Germany: Education and training in clinical psychology

In addition to the workshop faculty, other presenters were invited to give an evening lecture during dinner. These were intended to be short presentations on topics of interest to the workshop participants but not necessarily related to the topic of bereavement. The following lectures were planned:

  • Affiliate Professor Eva Schmitt-Rodermund, Jena, Germany: Solidarity among and International Co-operation between Universities. A Perspective from Jena
  • Professor Uwe Cantner, Jena, Germany: Jena’s Miracle #8 – success factors and risks of the East German Boomtown
  • Professor Rainer K. Silbereisen, Jena, Germany: Human Development and Social Change

A formal welcome reception was also planned for the first evening, with guests invited from the University’s administration and public relations, from the DAAD, and from the Department of Caucasian Studies at the University of Jena.

The workshop started on November 2, 2009 (arrival November 1) and was planned to last until November 6 (departure November 7). In all there were 21 participants from the Caucasus region – we had expected 24 but at the very last minute 3 participants from Azerbaijan withdrew on financial grounds, sadly leaving us no time to be able to help. The travel experiences of the participants had been very mixed, but all reported being very happy to be at the workshop and to be looking forward to a meaningful learning experience, as well as to be able to exchange information with colleagues from across the Caucasus region and from across the world.

Returning to the format of the workshop itself, and in order to provide a point of reference for subsequent workshops in the series, the following description is given in some detail. For the main working days, the format of each day was to start with a 45 minute presentation by a faculty member followed by 30 minutes of questions and answers and general discussion. After a short break, there was a presentation of approximately 6 posters, with each presenter having roughly 8 minutes presentation time, followed by around 7 minutes discussion. The afternoon sessions also started with a 45 minute presentation by a faculty member followed by 30 minutes of questions and answers and discussion. The final activity of the day was group work. For this the participants were placed into groups of either 5 or 6 members (following a grouping exercise to ensure random membership) and asked to work on questions posed by the two faculty presenters of the day. One hour was allocated to this activity followed by half an hour for groups to report back. Notes of points raised during feedback were recorded directly onto computer and displayed overhead for all to see.

This daily format was very successful, although almost all sessions overran, especially the poster sessions, which led to intense discussions. In fact, participation in all discussions was so lively that midday breaks, originally planned to be an hour and three quarters, were always less than one hour, and the afternoon session typically finished with only a short pause before dinner.

Wednesday had been planned as a free day when participants were invited to join a guided of Weimar, the historic town made famous by, amongst others, Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Liszt, and Nietzsche. Lunch was held in the famous Gasthaus, ‘Zum weißen Schwan’. Sadly the weather was not ideal – rainy and windy – but despite this everyone seemed to enjoy the trip, especially the lunch!

Thursday: day 4 of the workshop followed the established pattern of presentations and activities, but in the afternoon we were joined by a group of visiting students and their tutors from Radboud University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, a leading center of research in human development. These young people acted primarily as observers, but were invited to join in the group activity and to consider the questions posed in relation to the afternoon presentation. This they did with wonderful flair, including reporting back, and thereby adding to the quality of the workshop. From feedback received, the students thoroughly enjoyed their time at the workshop and felt it had been a tremendous learning experience. The workshop participants also reported very much enjoying having the students join the workshop. Other occasional visitors from the Caucasus region who study or work at the University of Jena also joined the workshop from time to time.

Friday was organised slightly differently to the main workshop days. The morning session followed the usual format of presentation, question and answer session followed by the final poster presentations. However, following the afternoon presentation and question and answer session, the workshop moved from its base at the Best Western Hotel and Conference Center, Jena, to the Institute of Psychology, University of Jena. Here, participants were given an introductory talk about the work of the biological psychology laboratory, headed by Professor Dr. Miltner, before having a tour of its facilities. Participants then moved to the Center for Applied Developmental Science where they were able to visit a scientific exhibition on adolescent development, and to meet and talk to several project leaders and research associates.

In terms of substantive achievements the faculty learned about the situation in the countries involved, concerning the political situation and academic training. The participants learned about the concept of bereavement as loss of significant others, resulting in grief as an affective response, and mourning as culture-typical manifestation. Information was provided on the natural course of bereavement and on complicated versions including maladjustment, antecedent conditions and long-term consequences. Examples referred to life-course events but also to natural catastrophes and armed conflicts. The discussion in break-out groups was very efficient at deepening the structure and applicability of the knowledge gained. The presentation and discussion of posters resulted in a form of advisory support not experienced previously by the participants. In general they learned about better ways to use data for testing propositions – and they had very interesting data indeed. Most problems seemed to lie with scientific training and it was clear that there is a strong role for a workshop such as this in supporting the younger and the older generation of scientists.

A few more comments are required concerning IUPsyS. As other officers were not able to attend, the President informed the participants about the Union and its mission, utilizing materials prepared for a similar purpose at the Guatemala meeting of the Inter-american Society for Psychology. It became very clear that inactivity or non-membership is a disadvantage, especially for new nations that still need to find their way into the international community of science. The impression was that we had hit a point, and most likely some momentum was initiated by this talk. Observing IUPsyS procedures of quality control for our activities, we had asked all participants to spell out their expectations in advance of their travel to Germany. After the workshop an especially designed questionnaire that requested an evaluation of various aspects of the workshop experience was handed out. Judged by participants’ responses, the workshop was very successful and fulfilled pre workshop expectations to a very high level. The quality of the faculty, their depth of knowledge and the immediacy of the content of their presentation were especially well rated. The most negative substantive aspect was that participants felt they did not learn much from their fellow participants (as opposed to faculty) and that could have been more variation in teaching techniques. There were, of course, also suggestions for general improvement some found the pace of the workshop tiring with too much input in one day, but others thought the opposite and would have liked more time to go deeper into areas under discussion, to obtain more knowledge. All this has to be seen against a remarkable variation in pre-workshop familiarity with the topic and in experience as an international audience.

The proposal presented to the DAAD delineated 3 steps – first a workshop with the aim of exploration of bereavement events and approaches (this was the Jena meeting), followed by a workshop focusing on conception and training of practical means to treat bereavement, and finally a workshop concentrating on implementation. The aim of the last step is to develop curricular elements in the training of psychologists in the region, to help in implementation, and in general to establish measures for institutionalizing such developments. It remains to be seen as to where would be the optimal place to hold the next workshop. It was mooted that it should be somewhere in the Caucasus region, but our feeling is that organisation might be problematic and that for the next workshop to be as successful as this one seems to have been, then it might be helpful for it to be held once again in Jena. Whatever the decision is in this regard, if we want to proceed along the lines set out above, the next application has to be submitted shortly. As a precursor for things to come we still have funds to support a few short-term follow-up visits by younger scientist among the participants. To this end we informed participants about eligibility and opportunities and are now waiting for requests.

The workshop concluded with dinner at the home of Rainer Silbereisen. This was highly appreciated by all who attended, especially the excellent food. The evening became very lively when one of the participants discovered a piano. This lead to the singing of Georgian and Armenian folk songs, and of course added to the fun of the evening. It was also a very appropriate way for the workshop to end – harmony not just through work but through pleasure.


Bereavement Workshop: participants with organizing team and faculty members.