I’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.
Acceptance. 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.
The 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.