Sunday, January 30, 2011

Good grief!

Cry me a riverI’ve been catching up on some magazine reading this weekend (along with continuing on my book), and last night I read an article in Time about a new way of looking at the accepted grief model. (“Good News About Grief,” Ruth Davis Konigsberg, Time, January 24, 2011)

In the traditional model made famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, the stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What most of us don’t realize—or haven’t been taught—is that she was writing about facing one’s own death, not the death of others. Other practitioners glommed onto her stages of grief as applicable to all causes of grief, and Kübler-Ross didn’t discourage this. This is unfortunate, because after my Dad’s death, I was kind of starting to wonder if something was wrong with me because I didn’t react as predicted!

First of all, denial. If you could have been a fly on the wall during the whole time, you never would have heard me saying something like “No, no...this can’t be happening.” Maybe it’s the rational scientist in me, but it would be silly to deny what was unfolding right in front of me. Also, Dad was 86 when he had his stroke. He was in good health, but he was not a young man, and had had surgery several years ago to unblock one of his carotids. Of course, I wish he would have had many more quality years with us, but how foolish to deny something that has undeniably happened. What is the point?

Anger? Again, why be angry about something you can’t change? I suppose if he’d been hit by a drunk driver or something like that, I’d be plenty angry. On the verge of blind rage angry. (He was once, and yes, I was furious with that other driver. Dad was okay…lucky break for the driver, both from a prosecution standpoint and that of having to deal with me and my sisters. Believe me.) But that wasn’t the case. Who would I be angry at? Dad? For something that was beyond his control? Myself, for not being able to prevent something that was beyond MY control? God? Not even a factor. There was nothing to be angry about.

Bargaining. I suppose this is where people say things like “God, if you just give him five more years, I’ll do this or that, quit this or start that, blah blah blah.” I don’t make such bargains with anyone, let alone someone who, again, is not even a factor. Any entity who would harm an innocent person in order to get another one to believe or behave in a certain way is no one I want to be associated with. I don’t negotiate with terrorists.

Depression. That one did get me for a while, at least it seemed like it. However, when speaking to my doctor during a regular checkup, she said that she didn’t think I was experiencing actual depression, and that there is a big difference between depression and simply grieving the loss of a loved one. I was keeping a close eye on myself, believe me. My sleep patterns were wonky for a while, but I didn’t lose a bunch of weight or put a bunch on, I was perfectly capable of functioning, and I didn’t take to my bed like a sad flower and not get out for days at a time. I went through a very sad time, definitely, but I don’t believe I went through a clinical depression. Not even close.

Grief2Acceptance. See #1 above, Denial. Although acceptance is supposed to be the final stage in the Kübler-Ross model, I accepted it from the very beginning. What was not to accept? Talking with the doctors, finding out the damage, hearing that there would be no recovery. I accepted it as soon as I heard from Cousin Ron what the doctors were saying. At first, things were chaotic, and I didn’t know how bad it was. People recover from strokes all the time. But not this time. That was reality, and we had to accept it. There was no other choice.

Well, talking about all that kind of bummed me out! haha That was my personal experience with the loss of someone very near and dear to me. I’ll write a little more about what the article said. It addressed several myths about grieving.

We grieve in stages. As was my experience, subsequent studies showed that the majority of participants accepted reality almost immediately. Rather than anger and depression, most feel a yearning for their loved one. That’s me, too. I’m not angry that Dad is gone, and I’m not depressed about it...but sometimes I sure miss him. Just being able to pick up the phone to talk about a game. Or just to shoot the breeze.

Repression prolongs the process; we need to talk about it with others. Further studies have shown that expressing negative emotions can actually prolong your sadness. In fact, avoiding those feelings is termed “repressive coping,” and can actually protect us psychologically. Of course, you do have to deal with it, but perhaps repressing some of the most painful feelings is what allows us to go on until we’re a little stronger and a little more capable of coming to terms with our loss.

Grief is harder on women. The studies that showed this seem to be flawed based on gender biases. Many of these studies dealt mainly with widows who were dependent upon their husbands; a female psychologist conducting a study from 1967 to 1973 wrote that “a woman’s identity is largely framed by relationships...In losing an essential relationship, she loses an essential part of herself.” For those of us who have lived on our own and supported ourselves, that seems horribly antiquated. Although relationships are important, if you define yourself only by that, you’ve got a problem. Women also have higher rates of depression in general, and when they accounted for that and previous depression levels, they found that men suffer more from and have a harder time dealing with bereavement.

Grief never ends. Researchers have found that the worst of grief is over in about six months. Most people deal with loss with resilience, which some interpret incorrectly as delayed grief or coldness. Researcher George Bonanno writes, “If you’re resilient after a horrible car accident or a traumatic event, then you’re a hero, but if you’re resilient after a death, then you’re considered cold.” We all cope in different ways. I have been perceived as cold by some, and probably rightly so; however, that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel things acutely. It just means that I’m not demonstrative in my grief, or any other strong emotion. The more that people around me are losing it, the more likely I am to shut down and keep my cool. Is that a good approach? I don’t know. It’s just the way I am. (I guarantee that if we’re in some sort of a situation where people all around us are losing their shit, you’ll be happy I’m with you.) The researchers can’t predict resilience in people; it has to do with personality, financial security, social support, little stress in other areas, and other undefinable factors. The article states “What we do know is that while loss is forever, acute grief is not.”

You haven’t seen me write a lot about my feelings on the loss of my Dad for a reason. I have appreciated all the support you’ve all given me throughout these months, and I have plenty of people that I know are there for me if and when I need them, but I know that ultimately it is up to me and my own psyche to find that healing place.

Get thee to a counselor. Although grief counseling is widely accepted as appropriate and, some say, even necessary after a loss, no evidence supports that counseling helps people any more than the simple passage of time. Almost everyone eventually gets better: time heals all wounds. Counseling doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t lessen the period of grief. For those who have an obvious problem in dealing with their loss and a grief period extended beyond the norm, counseling is beneficial. For those who are experiencing the normal time frame of the grief response to a loss, it makes little difference.

Grief eyeThe article concludes that these recent studies allow for a different, more liberating response. I heartily concur! I can’t begin to tell you what a feeling of relief I felt after reading this article. We all deal with loss in our own way. If my response is different from others, that doesn’t mean it is wrong. The accepted response has meant an inflexibility in how we believe others should behave; rather than showing understanding and realizing that people are strong enough to make their way on their own path (with a little help from their friends and family), we try to pigeonhole and categorize them and say “You should be better by now,” or “You shouldn’t be acting this happy this soon,” or “Why aren’t you following the prescribed formula of recovery?” Grief is a very personal response, one that each individual must navigate on their own, with the one universal truth that the majority of us will feel our loss less acutely after some time has passed. Social support is a necessity, but time and our own strength and resilience will get us to a brighter place.

We will survive.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Excellent post! I've navigated my own losses and grief very much the way you are doing. It takes time for the pain of missing them to lessen, but it gets better. I still miss my father and other close relatives and friends who died but am thankful I have such good memories. Sometimes though I just miss them. Thanks for this post!

    (sorry - I had a typo that bothered me)

  3. I read that article and was pleased to see it. None of the people I'd ever worked with who were experiencing either "normal" grief or what was known as Complicated Grief were going through any discreet steps whatsoever...not even when it was in anticipation of their own imminent death. When the models don't fit observed phenomena and vice versa, pitch the models.

    "Any entity who would harm an innocent person in order to get another one to believe or behave in a certain way is no one I want to be associated with. I don’t negotiate with terrorists." This is so good, I'm going to have to quote it!

  4. From what I remember, one can bounce around from one "step" to another without making that textbook progression. I think that was always the question I wanted therapy to answer; how do I deal with loss. Still don't have a straight answer there. But I think we each grieve in our own ways and don't need to be told how to do so.

  5. I've found grief is different for everybody. There's no "wrong" or "right" way to do it. I skipped some steps and doubled up on others.

  6. Excellent post, Beth. We can all recognise this. I've relayed it onto Call for Support.

  7. You experienced the same with your Dad as I did mine. I thought I must be heartless to not 'go through the stages'.After all,I loved my father very much.I miss him everyday that I breathe.But it seemed the only thing I really went through was a sense of loss. I was depressed to a slight degree for years,sometimes I think I still am,but it also concerns other things in my life.
    Good to know I am not the only one that went down the same road the same way.

  8. one of your very best usual,you make sense,and i agree with you.we all deal with grief in our own ways,and as long as we can cope,it's fine.brilliant work hun,and one i shall remember for a long time,tc love mort xxx

  9. That was an excellent article Beth. Thank you.
    It is very true that everyone deals with grief in their own way...righly or wrongly...and it can take a short or very long time to come to terms with a loss..
    Once again Thank you
    love sybil

  10. I know I did not go through the normal stages when my Dad passed, so I knew that you would relate to this article.

  11. This is a very beautiful and insightful post, Beth. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. I'm sure that it is going to be a lot of help for readers.

  12. I am always troubled by this concept, primarily in the news media, of obtaining "closure"... as if one can take a tragedy and put it away in the memento closet. I don't think there is such thing as "closure"; these events live with us for the remainder of our lives. People NOT experiencing tragedy want to think there is some cure and call it closure. It's a myth.

  13. Very nice article, Beth. Everyone grieves and finds closure in their own way. I am a very emotional person and often wear my heart on my sleeve. I also find comfort in talking with others about the person that has passed. I have periods of "shut down" from the shock of it all at the beginning. Thank you for sharing the article and your insight.

  14. I'm so glad you articulated the difference between grief and depression. I've been there both ways. It's so important that people know the difference so that they can treat those who are suffering from one or the other appropriately. Nobody is immune to either grief or depression, but to be honest, I'm glad yours was grief. It's much easier to handle because you had a specific reason to grieve. Thanks for more good, sensible writing, Beth.

  15. i don't fully understand the closure thing myself. i also think you can grieve things that are not just losses from the death of a loved one, and the standard model doesn't always apply to that either.

    thanks again for sharing this and adding your perspective and experience. a lot of the feelings i experienced when my grandma died were very overwhelming to me and this article really helped me to make sense of what was a very chaotic time in my life.


  16. I have always been under the impression that the steps that Kubler-Ross spoke of were for one accepting his/her own death, not someone else's death.

    I have also believed that everyone grieves in their own way. This would be concerning someone else's death or their own death.

    Many people do not grieve just the way Kubler-Ross suggests in her book -- even when sensing their own death is imminent. Some persons in this world are not afraid to die -- they are yearning to see the Lord, and be in a place where they will no longer suffer, as well. They want to be forever with the One who loves them so, and whom they love.

    There are other reasons persons who know they will die soon sometimes don't grieve just the way Elizabeth Kubler-Ross suggests. That is bc we don't always grieve in perfect steps. And one may go to one stage and come back to another stage, and then move on again. Going back and forth between stages, or even skipping stages could happen many times in one's journey toward acceptance (which may or may not ever come) of one's own death.

    Coming back to dealing with the death of others, I think you are right, Beth. There are no patterns to follow, and we must all grieve in our own way.

    Thanks for an interesting post.
    krissy knox :)

  17. I started my blog here as a way to share my emotions without having to speak them. Odd, I have yet to tell my family or friends about my blog... those are the ones who keep asking me "How are you doing"... I was curious to read your post. I am not of a generation that needed a man to survive but the loss of my guy has removed a major part of my love of life.


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