John McKnight

offers some further observations on

John Deere and the Bereavement Counselor

excerpts from a transcript of interviews by David Cayley, taken from the radio program “Ideas”

produced by Bernie Lucht transcribed by Hedy Muysson

all rights reserved copyright 1994 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

reprinted with permission

See a related investigative report, “Grief Police,” by Kelly Patricia O’Meara on page 9. That report appeared in the March edition of Insight on the News.


CAYLEY: John McKnight has worked with communi­ties and neighborhoods throughout Canada and the United States as well as directing the program in community studies at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago. He believes that a service economy based on needs hides a very different landscape in which gifts and capacities are what count, and he believes that a good society in which everyone’s gift can be given only begins to be born when this obscuring veil is lifted.

He explored the issue of how families and communities lose their vital functions when he gave the fourth annual E. F. Schumacher lecture in 1984. He called his lecture “John Deere and the Bereave­ment Counselor.” In it he considered the suggestive analogy between the two figures of his title.

John Deere was the blacksmith from Grand Detour, Illinois, who in 1837 invented a new tool, a steel plow capable for the first time of busting tough


And now we are ‘enriched’ because grief is a professional specialty.

prairie sod. With this new tool the great plains were tamed for agriculture. But the settlers, as they moved westward, often left behind them deserts of depleted soil, which later arrivals had to learn to husband and regener­ate. Bereavement counseling, McKnight claimed, is a tool with comparable effects on the human ecology; it cuts into the weave of community life as surely as Deere’s plough sheared the tangled grasses of the prairie, and leaves behind a social desert.

MCKNIGHT: How did commu­nities deal with tragedy before bereavement counselors and psychological therapists de­scended on us when a tragedy came? They came together and sat with each other, and they cried together, they held hands, they wept on each other’s shoulder. They remembered stories of other suffering and told those stories to each other. They sang songs that had been a part of the memory of their people forever, about tragedy and about the meaning of life in the face of tragedy. And they said the seven hundred prayers they knew that called for God to help them through this time, this people, this people together. And they lit some incense, and they sat in silence, and then they got up and they had a man with a mask of the devil, and they danced with the devil and scorned and laughed at him. And then they came together

and they had a great meal, and earlier, would have met incredu­they laughed, and they drank, lity. ‘You’re a what?’ — ‘We and they cried.And all of that know how to grieve.’

was what we did. The need must first appear

But now we are ‘enriched’ plausible. The bereavement because instead of that we have counselor will say, ‘Yes, it’s very a person with a master’s degree well for you, McKnight, to in bereavement counseling from vaporize about community and the University of Minnesota all the wonderful things that

who can come to our home and used to happen, but in fact,
sit with us and put inputs into lonely, isolated people need
us that will help us process our my service.’
grief, like a sausage-making
machine processes sausage. We MCKNIGHT: Ah. And I can
are impoverished by that service assure you you’re correct. I
if it ever replaces our prayers, actually had the honor of
our songs, our tears, our hands. meeting the first masters degree,

certified bereavement counselor CAYLEY: But does it ever in the United States of America. precisely replace them, or is This is about fourteen years ago, there always a gap? I mean, a and I met her at the University bereavement counselor, had he of Minnesota. And that was or she appeared a generation exactly what I was wondering.

MAY - JUNE 2002 • PAGE 29

There was a time when nobody in the community thought

They think they’re meeting a need.

Where in Canada or the United States would I find anybody who, when asked the question, ‘Do you need a bereavement counselor?’ would say, ‘Yes”?

They would not have heard of one, they wouldn’t know what one did, and it might be hard to imagine. So the bereave­ment counselor I met had to figure out some place to begin the work of introducing this new service in society that didn’t really see a need, and exactly the people you’re talking about are the people that the bereave­ment counselor picked.

‘Oh, we understand you’ve got a family, it still functions, these relationships are there, but there are lonely widows in nursing homes who just lost their husbands and they have nobody. They need my service.’

And I think the way the progression goes is: they find those people who are the most defenseless and underprivileged, and introduce their services there. And then they approach the institutions of society — the United Way, the government or foundations — and say, ‘You should pay me to provide my bereavement services to this poor lonely widow. If they’re successful in that, they get this institutionalized as a service.

Then they will build out from there, and they will say, ‘We have done studies that show how kinship grieving is all right, but there are seven stages of grief, and our studies show that the grief process in the strongest of kinship groups involved in the traditions of solace only reaches the first three stages of grief, but there

are four later stages of grief that our research has discovered, and we meet the needs of those four stages of grief.

‘You may not be underprivi­leged and you may have a full family, and you may have a community that provides you solace and support, but our research shows that there are four additional stages of grief that will not be affected by this, and you’ve got that need.

‘There’s something wrong with you, David: You have four stages of unprocessed grief, and let me tell you, we have just got the government to agree in its social insurance to fund grief counseling, so not only can the community not deal with all of your grief and we can, but you’re paying for it and if you don’t use it, you’re just wasting your money.

‘So call us in, David, because you need us.’

And when you call me in, when you call in a bereavement counselor, and your Aunt Mary calls to say, ‘David, I’d like to come over this afternoon,’ because she’s a part of the solace of your community, you say, ‘Aunt Mary, I’d love to have you come over, but the bereavement counselor is here. Could you come this evening?’

And Aunt Mary comes to know the real truth, which is, the real solace is the solace you pay for and hers is just the sort of a tawdry, shabby, second-rate thing. And that’s right, because she has been replaced by a bereavement counselor. And that’s the way it works.

CAYLEY: John McKnight sees community and social service as bound in the relationship mathematicians call ‘inverse proportion’ — their sum is constant, so as one waxes, the other must wane. And he believes that where consolation

he needed to be fixed — because nobody proposed to fix him.

or other social supports are absent, the question must always be, ‘Where is the com­munity?’ and not ‘Where is the bereavement counselor?’

Justifying bereavement counseling on the basis that there is no consoling commu­nity, even though it may in some cases be true, will also ensure that no community regenerates. Consolation will warp towards a standard culti­vated in graduate schools, and a professional grouping will appear with a vested interest in damping down or denying community capacities.

But though Aunt Mary and the bereavement counselor may be alternatives, it is clear that the consolation each offers is of a very different kind. Commu­nity responses to life’s vicissi­tudes differ from institutional responses. They cannot be managed in the same way, nor can they be certified or guaran­teed. Community responses rest on character and ingrained virtue, things which can vary, waver, and fail.

This may be one of the reasons, John McKnight sup-poses, that communities have yielded before the utopian promise of a system that cares, and cares unfailingly to the highest professional standard.

Regeneration of community, therefore, depends on our abandoning the fantasy that our highest hopes can be transformed into effective techniques. John McKnight calls it ‘the belief that people can be fixed.’

MCKNIGHT: There are all kinds of people called ‘developmen­tally disabled’ who are in institutions and group homes, who were born with a set of gifts and capacities and a set of limits. If you go and look at what’s being done with a lot of them, you will find forty-year-old people with whom profes­sionals are working and they’re teaching them how to tie their shoes.

And if you say, ‘How’s he coming along?’ the answer is, ‘Well, he can’t tie his shoes.’

‘How long do you think people have been trying to teach him how to tie his shoes?’

‘Well, I’ve only been here four years and we, you know, we do this getting ready for com­munity life practice here twice a week, so I don’t know, but probably, with the people before me, maybe twenty years.’

‘Oh,’ I say to the profes­sional, ‘twenty years teaching this man how to tie his shoes. If he ever learns how to tie his shoes, then — am I correct? — then he’ll be ready for commu­nity life and he can come out with us in the community?’

‘Yeah, that and a few other things.’

Now that man will live in the womb of professionals until he dies. He’ll never be born to the community because they are going to fix somebody who is unfixable, and in the course of that deny his gifts to commu­nity. It’s a terrible trade-off!

But most people in the community probably believe that he needs to be fixed. Now they believe he needs to be fixed because somebody came into the community and said they could fix him, because there was a time when nobody thought he needed to be fixed — because nobody proposed to fix him.

So in that sense the possi­bility of saying, yes, you never will be able to tie your shoe or read, [and that] is the door to community and the recognition of your gifts. All of community life is like that.

There is nothing fixable in perfection. It think it comes with human nature that we are not finally going to be fixed.

And so I think I start with that premise, that to the degree that all of society is committed to and invested in fixing people, it creates huge and increasingly burdensome and increasingly tyrannical institutions interven­ing in the lives of people, when what was needed was a commu­nity that saw their gifts and said, ‘Those gifts need to be given.’

We have wonderful possibilities in society if we’re willing to fail to be gods — if we give up the idea that we can create institutions and systems that will fix everything, that will be the modern gods, that will make us whole, make us real.

That’s when life will come alive and communities will grow

— when we see the wonderful possibilities of failing to be God.