Not everyone must grieve a loss for long

Christine Kenneally in doubleX:

The idea that grief is work that we must do began with Freud. He believed that if you didn’t labor at it, you would never recover the psychic energy you had invested in a person who was no longer there. Over time, psychologists developed ways to describe the various stages of this “work.” Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages are the most familiar: Stage 1, denial—“This cannot be!” Stage 2, anger, followed by bargaining, then depression, then acceptance. The stages have great intuitive appeal, but, according to Bonanno, both Freud and Kübler-Ross were wrong.

The way that grief unfolds for most people is almost nothing like the old model says it should. It is not work, and it doesn’t occur in stages. It can be short-lived for some people and never-ending for others. Like breathing and consciousness and almost everything else about us, grief fluctuates. Our biggest mistake when describing grief, Bonanno writes in his deep and intelligent book, The Other Side of Sadness, is that we underestimate the resilience of the bereaved.

Modern scientists have by now thoroughly picked apart Freud and his idiosyncracies, but Bonanno says that Freud’s pronouncements about grief were particularly incomplete. The father of psychoanalysis never really explained how “work” turned “grief” into “recovery.” His statements were brief and preliminary, and he himself qualified them as pretty speculative. Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief have been similarly accepted without any rigorous testing. It’s also crucial to note that Kubler-Ross came up with her stages after observing people’s reactions to the news that they themselves were going to die—not to the news that someone else had. Only later did she and colleagues apply “the five steps” to grief resulting from another person’s death or to some other great disappointment.

Those are not all the doubts Bonanno raises about we think we know about dealing with grief. Read it all.

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Category : The Lead

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  1. While Bonanno’s assessment of the misuse of turning Kubler-Ross’s work on the dying into seven stages of grieving is well-taken, his idea that there is no “work” to healing process we call grief is misleading.

    Freud’s work on grieving came from his early career before he formulated the theories for which he is best known, and the tentative nature of that writing comes from the observation that grieving people do go through a perceptible process of mourning that most often leads to healing. His later work took him in other directions.

    That everyone experiences particular losses in different ways, and that each persons grief is their own is both well-observed and well-documented. If Keneally wants to know what is involved in the works of grieving, one need only refer her to William Worden’s “Tasks of Mourning” as but one useful model of the grieving process.

    Andrew Gerns

  2. None of us who work with grief on a regular basis are surprised that each person grieves in his or her own way, and that apparent resilience is not pathological. On the other hand, neither is it pathological nor a denial of resilience if a griever has intermittent moments or days of recurring intense grief.

    I also aware of and sensitive to the pervasive thought that a griever might not be expressive enough, nor have worked hard enough. For so long in our culture we have sought to deny death, and in our desire to deny death have sought to deny grief – and worse, to deny others their grief. I hear expectations that the person “be over it” more frequently than I hear expectations that the person “hasn’t worked hard enough.” By the same token, I hear more often “I still have bad days” than I hear “folks want me to express feelings I don’t have;” although I certainly hear both.

    While I wouldn’t deny that grief comes within the purview of the clinical psychologist, in general (and notwithstanding the research Bonanno refers to) their practice is precisely with those whose grief is unusual. We in the Church have as our common practice normal and normative grief, and I would not undervalue our experience and practice with the grieving.

    Marshall Scott

  3. John B. Chilton

    I like meaty, informed comments. Thanks for providing food for thought, Andrew and Marshall.

  4. David Allen |dah • veed|

    Those of us who have walked with those preparing for death or a form of physical loss, such as an amputation, gradual deafness or blindness, and have experienced first hand others actually going through Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief are very aware of the accuracy and validity of her initial research. Many also pointed out that attributing these same steps to others having experienced a close death warned that there was not enough research to support such a leap.

    Ms Kubbler-Ross got whackier and nuttier as she moved into her geriatric years. It was sad as she went from respected grief analyst to kooky spiritualist!

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