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Journal of Social Work in End-Of-Life &

Palliative Care
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A Review of: Wolfer, T. A., & Runnion,

V. M. (2008). Dying, Death, and
Bereavement in Social Work Practice:
Decision Cases for Advanced Practice.
Cheryl K. Brandsen PhD, MSW
Academic Dean for the Social Sciences and Contextual Disciplines
Calvin College , Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Published online: 16 Mar 2010.

To cite this article: Cheryl K. Brandsen PhD, MSW (2009) A Review of: Wolfer, T. A., & Runnion,
V. M. (2008). Dying, Death, and Bereavement in Social Work Practice: Decision Cases for
Advanced Practice., Journal of Social Work in End-Of-Life & Palliative Care, 5:3-4, 216-218, DOI:

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DOI: 10.1080/15524250903555742

Wolfer, T. A., & Runnion, V. M. (2008). Dying, death, and bereavement in
social work practice: Decision cases for advanced practice. New York:
Columbia University Press, 260 pp., $29.50 (Paperback).
Downloaded by ["Queen's University Libraries, Kingston"] at 22:11 28 December 2014

Death, Dying, and Bereavement in Social Work Practice: Decision Cases for
Advanced Practice is an extraordinary book. It contains 23 decision cases orig-
inating from the practice experiences of social workers. The cases require that
readers make decisions about how to respond to unresolved professional
practice cases that are complicated, ambiguous, messyand also real.
One of the factors that make this book so extraordinary is the way in
which practice cases were developed and written. Using a collaborative pro-
cess, small groups of social workers assembled as teams led by authors.
Using an iterative process of telling their stories, receiving and answering
questions from the team, and writing and re-writing, social workers accounts
of their practice experiences were developed into cases. Because of this,
these cases are diverse, detailed, and contextual across a range of practice
settings, ages, and population groups. They highlight difficult ethical issues
in both direct and indirect practice, and in situations where death is expected
and unexpected. The cases raise a range of critical clinical, biological, legal,
and policy concerns that seasoned practitioners recognize as authentic, and
new social workers recognize as the hard work of learning to think critically.
This collaborative model between social worker practitioners and academics
with respect to case writing is also an excellent model for other kind of
professional scholarship in the field.
A second reason why this book is so extraordinary is that readers are
challenged to draw upon their social work knowledge and practice wisdom
to think critically about presenting problems, possible solutions, and pre-
ferred interventions. Decision cases present readers with unresolved situa-
tions that incorporate the ambiguities and dilemmas of social work
practice and require active decision making (p. 1). These cases do not tell
readers how cases were resolved and then ask readers to reflect on the out-
comes, as do many case-based exercises. Instead, readers are invited into the
story and challenged by the same issues that challenged real social work-
ers. As a reader, I found myself quickly drawn into ethical dilemmas, legal
entanglements, relationship webs, and even a sense of urgency about
timeor lack thereofin making decisions.
The organization of the book and the ancillary materials also make
this book extraordinary. The preface and introduction provide helpful

Book Review 217

information about using decision cases. This is followed by a brief summary

of all the cases, which makes for ease in narrowing down possible cases to
use in teaching or workshops. Following this, a most helpful rubric is pre-
sented which maps the particular characteristics of each case by a variety
of categories: case settings, client system=target of change, ecological con-
text, populations at risk, other critical factors, chronology, ethical issues,
social work role in end-of-life care, biological and medical aspects, technical
knowledge, and major social trends. Each of these categories is further
defined (e.g., the major social trends category contains quality of life, good
death, cost containment, medical advances). Instructors or workshop leaders
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looking for a case that includes, for instance, attention to advance directives
can easily locate possible resources. The book is also accompanied by online
teaching notes, available only to instructors. The notes assist instructors in
choosing appropriate cases by providing brief summaries and possible learn-
ing outcomes. The notes also assist instructors in preparing for class dis-
cussion. The discussion questions for each case, organized by four
categories (facts, analysis, action, personal reflection), are thoughtful and
challenging. The teaching notes also provide supplemental activities for
using in discussion and additional resources (print, electronic, media).
Wolfer and Runnions book will be useful to social work students (both
undergraduate and graduate) as well as practitioners, including experienced
social workers. To illustrate this, I field-tested the book with a group of senior
BSW students and a group of masters-prepared medical social workers who
meet monthly for joint supervision (average of about 9-years experience).
The cases were compelling and stimulating for the experienced social work-
ers, ringing true with their experiences and allowing for discussion about dif-
ferences in perspective and preferred practices. They expressed appreciation
for the tone the authors used, noting that judgments are not made about how
effectively the cases were handled, but rather highlighting the difficult deci-
sions to be made. Undergraduate BSW students, just weeks away from gradu-
ating, also found the cases interesting. While their observations were not as
sophisticated as seasoned practitioners, they demonstrated an understanding
of important policy issues, organization and community concerns, inequities
related to health care, and case management possibilities. Their training as
generalist social workers enabled them to find this a useful resource. In short,
this book will be useful across the spectrum, from nearly graduated BSW
students through veteran social workers.
Wolfer and Runnions book most obviously belongs in social work
courses dedicated to the study of dying, death, and bereavement. But it
can also be used effectively in other social work courses. The rubric
described earlier makes it possible for instructors to select cases that could
be used in policy, practice, HBSE, human diversity, and capstone courses
(e.g., when teaching content about populations at risk, practice skills across
a range of client system sizes, resolving ethical dilemmas, understanding
218 Book Review

persons as bio-psycho-social-spiritual beings). These cases could also be

used effectively in continuing education courses or joint supervisory sessions
with practicing social workers. In addition, these cases could be instructive
for non-social work personnel working with dying and bereaved persons,
not the least as a means to raise awareness of the valuable knowledge and
skills social workers bring to end-of-life care.
One caution is in order. Using decision cases to further learning is not as
easy as one might imagine, and instructors unfamiliar with this method will
want to become familiar with it before implementing it in the classroom. The
methodology is far more than an expansive So what do you think? question
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to students; such a question does not always bring forth thoughtful and
reasoned responses. The teaching notes will be extremely valuable in help-
ing instructors use the cases effectively. A professional literature also exists
for teaching instructors how to use decision case methods in teaching, a
literature well worth reading if one is going to use this methodology success-
fully. A good place to begin is by consulting the references following the
introduction in the book (pp. 1112).
The project of collecting and writing the cases found in Death, Dying,
and Bereavement in Social Work Practice: Decision Cases for Advanced
Practice began with grant funding from the Soros Foundations Project on
Death in America in 2002. The funders can be confident that their support
has produced an exceptionally fine resource for and excellent contribution
to the social work profession.

Cheryl K. Brandsen, PhD, MSW

Academic Dean for the Social Sciences and Contextual Disciplines
Calvin College
Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA