Holding loss: How social workers talk about ‘viewings’

Dr John Drayton1, Ms Kristine  Flint2

1University of Queensland, St Lucia, Australia, 2Queensland Health, Brisbane, Australia

The process of facilitating ‘viewings’ of the bodies of deceased people for bereaved relatives is a confronting but not uncommon role of Allied Health professionals based in the hospital setting.  While there is a growing literature on the benefits of viewings for mourners, there is little available on the ways in which Allied Health workers themselves describe and experience the role.

With the support of social work management in a number of Brisbane health facilities, a series of interviews with social workers in coronial and hospital settings were conducted. Participants were asked to share their thoughts, experiences and impressions of the role itself and their understanding of how an allied health perspective contributes to the usefulness of the viewing for people in mourning. In this presentation we explore the workers’ nuanced and at times very moving contemplation of mortuary-based interventions.

We emphasise three particular themes arising from the interviews, each of which speaks directly to a key function and value of Allied Health professionals. The worker as Human – a non-clinical, non-judgmental presence able to relate to the bereaved from a position of compassion and experience; the worker as Mediator – between not just the health system and the bereaved but, in a very real sense, between the deceased person’s body and the family and, finally, the worker as Nurturing Presence, maintaining a ‘holding space’ in which the bereaved are able to safely and unflinchingly encounter the darkest of experiences. In each of these, workers take on a role which is at once minimalist and highly skilled.

The presentation concludes with some observations on how workers and students might be most effectively trained in the provision of this vital and at the same time somewhat unrecognized service.


Dr. John Drayton practiced as a social worker in forensic mortuary settings for 20 years. He was awarded his PhD in 2016 and is now a lecturer in the school of Nursing, Midwifery and Social Work at the University of Queensland.

Ms. Kristine Flint is a clinical social worker with Queensland Health. She graduated with First Class Honours in 2017 and conducted many of the interviews on which the presentation is based.

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