About Nancy Berns
So how does one become obsessed with death and grief enough to spend years researching the idea of closure? It could be that I’m just odd. You would not be the first to think that. The truth is that I have always been drawn to broken worlds. I grew up on a Nebraska farm, nestled a few miles from a town of 300 people. I was sheltered from much of the world’s crime (except for that time I was picked up by police for driving a three-wheeler on the highway). Nonetheless, I grew up with a desire to learn about violence and crime.
As an undergraduate at Doane College, my interest in crime grew while working as an intern at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Nebraska. Always wanting to give back to my parents, I shared part of this experience by taking them to prison for an Easter service. Besides, after that visit they were better prepared for the sightseeing tour I gave them of a red light district in Germany where I pointed out drug deals and prostitution rings. I should clarify that I was not actually doing illegal work in the area, but rather spent a year in Hamburg, Germany as a Fulbright Scholar observing how police handle social problems such as drug use and prostitution.
In addition to prison, I also volunteered at two different rape and spouse abuse crisis centers. All of these experiences heightened my appreciation for the pain and loss that people endure for many reasons.
I received a Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in 1999. My dissertation research focused on how we understand domestic violence, which is the basis of my first book Framing the Victim: Domestic Violence, Media and Social Problems (Aldine de Gruyter 2004). I also met my husband, David Schweingruber, in graduate school where he also received his PhD. in sociology. (Disclaimer: I am not suggesting that meeting David while studying domestic violence was somehow connected. But, seriously, I am fortunate to not have personal experience with abuse.)
Now we live in Ames, Iowa, and I teach at Drake University in Des Moines. My first few years I taught classes including Criminology, Social Problems, Gender & Violence, and Restorative Justice. One day a student asked me if I would ever teach any thing that was happier. I told him that my next class was going to be on death and dying. He didn’t think that was any more uplifting. So in addition to the other classes, I also enjoy teaching Death & Society and Narratives of Tragedy & Grief.
As I mentioned, I have always been drawn to broken worlds. However, my interest in grief and death became quite personal after our son, Zachariah, was stillborn in 2001. My world was devastated and in some ways I am still picking up the pieces. But that experience continues to give me insight into these worlds and passion for writing about them.
My students often ask me how I can keep teaching such depressing topics. There is unexpected beauty and hope that is found in the midst of so much pain. It is always an honor to walk with someone who is going through a traumatic experience and witness how hope and resilience survive. There is joy in the midst of the pain. In fact, that is the topic of my current research: the challenge and hope of joy during grief.
I have not only experienced painful grief, but I am fortunate to know a lot about joy in large part because of my daughters, Lydia and Chloe. Some of my favorite things to do are playing with my girls, writing, and spending time outside when the weather is nice, which is not taken for granted when you live in Iowa. But rain or shine (or ice and snow), I am also active in our church, help out at my girls’ school, and enjoy speaking to groups about death, grief, and closure.
In closing, I’m reminded of someone’s suggestion that I end Closure in the middle of a sentence to indicate “no closure.” That might have been funny, but I