The Truth About Grief

Inconsolable grief

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Just finished journalist Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s new book, The Truth About Grief: The Myth of the Five Stages and The New Science of Loss. At not quite 300 pages, and through mounds of boiled down research and stats, she reaches the completely unsurprising conclusion that the grief industry is at best mildly interfering for their own purposes and at worst scamming people.

Davis Konigsberg is one of those rare “grief” book authors who didn’t come to the genre from a place of self-interest. There are no tragic personal losses in her past driving her need to write the book. In fact, her only impetus seems to be a genuine interest in wanting to put the facts of what grief is and isn’t in front of a public that has been fed a steady diet of anecdotal misinformation since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages were misapplied to grief.

One fact, and it was hardly a shock given who I know, struck me about why the whole notion of the five stages and grief work has always rankled me so much – it’s not based on any actual research.

None.

Kübler-Ross wrote up case studies of terminally ill people and proposed a theory about what the dying experience based on her observations. She published it. It was neat and concise and hit the public at one of those lightning strike times. It was then quickly appropriated by the fledgling grief counseling industry, which needed something on which to base its idea that family members needed support after the death of a loved one.

It wasn’t until George Bonnano began his actual research that anyone had bothered to look into whether or not grieving had stages at all or if people were helped by grief counseling.

As it turns out – there aren’t – only about 10 to 15% of people experience long-term difficulty after the death of a loved one that might require professional help. And by “professional” it is meant those with actual degrees in psychology. Not people who once lost someone*. That’s like supposing that having been sick makes one qualified to practice medicine.

Perhaps shockingly to some, but not to me, a lot of those in the grief counseling profession don’t have any real training. But it doesn’t stop them from pushing their services or the misguided notion that grief is work and without putting in the time, a person is doomed.

The idea of grief as work is a one off of Freud’s. But he saw the work of the grieving as being detachment from the deceased so that one could form a new attachment with someone else. He apparently felt, and there is some validity to it, that the cure for a broken heart was new love whether it be a new partner or another baby. It wasn’t about replacing the person, but giving the feelings a new outlet.

But grief as a chore was the bane of my widowed existence and it made no sense for me as my late husband had been physically separate from me for 15 months and mentally/emotionally lost to me since his diagnosis due to the dementia. His death freed me and all I got from the grief people was that now I was finally ready to get down to the work of feeling truly wretched.

Grieve now or get bitch slapped by the Grief Monster later.

That was one of  many rather unhelpful pieces of advice thrown at the newly widowed on the YWBB.

Fascinating to me was that the author actually attended the infamous Ft. Lauderdale MLK Weekend Widowbago that is now in its fifth or sixth year. She interviewed a gentlemen, who I remember well from my days on the board. An even-tempered – mostly – ex-military chap, who also organizes a camping trip for the widowed parents and their kids every June in Tennessee. Well meaning, as “veteran” of the board, he offered the same “do your griefwork”, “grieving is a process”, and “you’ll never really be over it” advice that dominates the grief counseling industry from church basements to hospice groups.

At one point Rob and I enrolled Dee in a children’s group via the Edmonton hospice program. While she was playing games and struggling with a program that was geared toward remembering a dad she was too young to recall, Rob and I were stuck with a volunteer grief counselor who goose-stepped us through the five stages.

Rob’s disgust vibrated through the room.  I, foolishly, tried to point out fallacies but was ill-received.

The only time I ever found “group grief” remotely real and accessible were the few times the counselor couldn’t attend and the parents were left to “talk amongst themselves”. As one of the longer widowed folk, I was asked a lot about what was normal and if they would ever “be okay”. And I did my best to reassure them that life got better and being okay was the norm.

I did this online too though I earned myself quite a reputation as a heretic and I am sure there are still faceless widowed out there waiting for the day that “grief will get me”.

Truth?

85 to 90% of all those who suffer the loss of a loved one will be fine within 6 months to a year after the loss with absolutely no outside help required. No one really knows why, but spontaneous relief from active grieving is how it works for the majority. Perhaps people are not the delicate hothouse flora the grief industry would prefer we think we are.

Yep, and that’s a proven fact with research to back it up though it is the pet peeve of nearly every widowed person I know.

“We’re not all better at the year anniversary!”

Except most of us are.

I remember the YWBB gent speculating that the members of the board fell into a small percentage of those without much real world support or those with “problems” that they undoubtedly had prior to their loss and which the loss made worse. The new science supports this theory of his but won’t be welcome news to those who need it most.

What’s more. There is no evidence to support the idea that grief counseling will help people return to normal faster than those people who have no guidance at all.

In fact, Bonnano found that people who are encouraged to replay the tragedy and their negative feelings are more likely to wind up with prolonged grieving than those who focused on the positive, good memories of the deceased and kept themselves involved in their lives.

And here’s something else that made perfect sense. In the Asian communities, grief is not discussed. They feel it is inappropriate to burden others with negative feelings, and it is in a way, disrespectful to the deceased. Stiff upper lip and moving on is emphasized though there are quiet rituals to remember the lost loved one that are practiced. And guess what, they do better in the long run than those who are encouraged to “lean into the pain”.

God, I hated that expression. Lean into the pain is the backbone of grief work and it probably couldn’t be less helpful.

The best thing one can do for the newly widowed? In my opinion, of course.

Tell him or her that he/she will be okay. To take things one day at a time. To find distractions if necessary. Focus on immediate tasks. Get enough sleep. Exercise.  Eat. Be around people.  Laugh. Smile a little. And stay away from anyone who encourages you to feel like a victim, which means avoid offers of grief groups, books and counseling as if they were plague.

The Truth About Grief is not really a “grief book”. It will rile up anyone who thinks they are doing good, setting up organizations, websites or planning conferences for the grieving because it will challenge them to think about what really motivates them, and why they are doing something that hasn’t been proven to work and can even harm those susceptible to complicated grief issues. It isn’t a “how to get over your dead (fill in the blank)” book, which so many grief books are.

It’s also not self-serving “year of magical thinking” tripe. Grief memoirs are plentiful and some are really good, compelling stories. But they aren’t blue-prints and should be taken as one person’s experience and not applied to what is true for most people in the same situation.

Davis Konigsberg’s work is a well-presented set of facts based on research and if you are a Kübler-Ross worshipper**, will give you something to chew on.

* p.122 the author asks sociologist Vanderlyn Pine to comment on the influx of grievers turned grief professionals – something he warned the industry about back in 1977. When asked how their experiences can influence the kind of help they provide he said, “The problem is that when people enter the field with a broken heart because someone close to them has died, they feel they have paid their penance and therefore already know all that there is to know.”

And unlike professional psychotherapists, these amateurs are not required to undergo counseling themselves so that they are aware of their prejudices. And yes, I am fully aware that I have a bias where amateur grief do-gooders and not so gooders are involved. It’s also why I stepped away quite a bit from blogs and sites devoted to this feel good industry. I can only speak from my own experience. I have no training aside from the little bit I received when I was teaching – where we were subjected to quite a bit of professional development of the counseling nature.

**My favorite Kübler-Ross quote from a 1981 interview on applying her stages to grief, “Any natural, normal human being will go from shock all the way through to acceptance. You could say the same about divorce, losing your job, a maid, a parakeet.”

That totally needs to be on a t-shirt.

15 responses to “The Truth About Grief

  1. I stumbled across this while looking for the link to YWBB (new member there).
    I agree with everything you are saying. However, I am sorry your experience with YWBB wasn’t the best. It’s a constantly evolving and transient group, since people heal and move on; and then every week new members join because death is unfortunately not going to stop happening anytime soon. So I was a bit disheartened to see comments that might turn people from YWBB. To me it’s like classes in a school system, the graduating class of X has an entirely different set of minds than the class of Y or Z.
    I just felt the need to say this because I have enjoyed the site, even though I don’t agree with everyone’s posts nor do I grieve the same as anyone else.

    And if I hear 5 Stages of Grief (ick) I simply say, “not actually based on grief, try Other Side of Sadness.”

    • I appreciate your taking the time to comment, but I don’t tell people not to seek out or use the various grief boards (of which YWBB is only one) but warn them about the reality of them and that they can be unsafe places – just like anywhere else on the Internet.

      A lot of things were going on at the YWBB back in the mid-part of the last decade that don’t occur there now. In fact, I believe the those who “moderate” the board have even banned bad actors, which is something they would not do back then even when it was clearly warranted.

      The tone of the YWBB is much more “live and let live” now and the old guard has either left or toned down their rhetoric and bullying. There is at least one fairly original member of the YWBB who still posts, but whatever drove her to mercilessly pick on newbies who differed from her opinions (of which she had many) seems to have been resolved.

      And you are right, it is like high school – the least appealing part of it – but high school nonetheless.

      There is still some mean-spiritedness. I followed a link back one day and discovered a gang (a couple of whom seem to consider themselves elder statesmen though I remember when they were brand new) tearing into Abel Keogh, and his Dating a Widower series, with glee. So, I know that it can still be a place of where deliberate misinformation and character assassination still goes on. (For the record, I have “known” Abel for quite a while and even contributed to one of his books. He is a really nice guy who writes and blogs because he cares and wants to help.)

      I am glad that you’ve found the site helpful. It can be useful. Friendships are made. New relationships are made (I met my current husband there, which probably was one – but not the only thing – that led to some of the harassment and bullying). However, it’s the Internet. The people there are all in different stages of hurt and need. And you should be careful.

      And I stand by my opinion that newbies are best served by hanging with each other rather than being “mentored” by people years out.

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  3. Thanks for this. I may check this book out. Did you find any resources that were beneficial in helping young school-age children deal with the loss of a parent? Reluctant to try group programs, in part because it’s such an impressionable age, in part because unsure of their actual qualifications. Any resources that were beneficial would be very much appreciated!

    • You’re welcome.

      There are not a lot of good resources for kids. Groups are hit and miss. You could try Abby Carter’s blog list of resources – http://networkedblogs.com/eng1m. You could also try Supa’s site. Just click on her name in the comment. She has blog w/resources and a link there to her Facebook page that will have info on a private community for young widoweds. I don’t generally recommend online groups but Supa is one of the best at moderating multiple voices and views and is generally non-judging – a plus you won’t find too many places.

      Alicia has written about her experiences too and you might find them helpful. She has young children as well.

      Wish I could be more help, but I think I have pointed you towards others who might have the info you are looking for. Take care of yourself.

  4. Pingback: Running Forward: » Widower Wednesday: Grief Counseling

  5. As a therapist, I have learned that grief is a very person experience. There is no one way to approach it. Even within one person’s life, how we grieve the loss of a parent or friend will differ when we’re 20 as opposed to 40. I know people who are still mourning the death of someone who has been gone for decades.

    One of the ways I came to terms with my partner’s illness and passing was to keep a journal. I’ve recently published it on Amazon.com – titled “Slaves to the Rhythm.” It was a powerful, helpful experience.

    Terry

  6. Hahaha, I usually don’t reply this much in comments but it’s very nice to find a kindred spirit in thought 🙂

    You are absolutely correct in the statements regarding what do we have to share really? Unless, yeah, we jump on board with writing a book… but I’m no author 🙂 And yes, we are the example I searched for in my supposed “grief” period. I swear, I bought probably over 20 books (no lie…. and that’s what I was told was “healthy”) searching for “the resilient young widow story”…. I read probably around 5 books before I realized that they all were the SAME. Sure, some were dressed up differently or explained it differently but end result? They all ended up being donated to the library. Oh well, I lived, and I learned 🙂 I did document small parts of my own healing in my blog, and I have 1 friend who really did focus in on these. I’m happy to say that she is doing wonderfully and shares her story as well now, quietly, and only to interested individuals 🙂

    Thanks for the heads up on Oates book, and I agree with ur opinion on it, even before reading it 🙂

    Only final thought on this is that the only books I did actually hold onto were the ones which discussed parent loss (hells bells, I had 3 boys all under age 5 when he died, it was a little bit of a life changer). However, even then, I’ve always known that children learn most by example, and as of today (almost 5 years out) I still have yet to crack one open in need of help in this matter…. and have a feeling ill never need to 🙂 Genetically speaking, we are all born with a survival instinct, I’m just happy that I could foster this skill development through that time with my boys 🙂

  7. Loved it. I’m a huge fan of “The Other Side of Sadness” (I think it’s actually how I stumbled upon your blog….)

    One side note…. I am of the *ahem* “club” that was well grounded and resilient. I had no problems bouncing back into my normal routine (often times even chastised for it). I would fair to say that you belong as well… and that side note is that it’s too bad that places like YWBB DO treat people as ourselves with such disrespect and discord… Because in my heart, I believe we could be a better service to many then the ones who promote extended grieving/counseling/medication as a natural part of the false grieving process.

    Thanks for sharing! I might have to go search out the book at our library 🙂

    • You’re welcome. I don’t know that we have much to share but our example is one I know that I looked for. I was not interested in those who touted long arduous vision quest journey’s that wrung us out and burned away our former selves … blah, blah, blah. There’s nothing that mystical or Hollywood about it. People die. Survivors deal and move on. It’s been that way since the beginning and no amount of kicking and holding breath will change the fact that those who cling – for whatever reason – are putting themselves in danger of being socially “culled” from the herd, which will only make their lives harder in the long run.

      There’s a moderately huge debate going on about Joyce Carol Oates new widow book. I swear, every widowed person thinks about or actually writes a book. She overemotes at 400 dreary pages that only someone deep in widow culture or new grief could love but apparently, leaves out the fact that she dated early and was engaged by 11 mos out. How can you overlook moving on? How freakin disingenuous is that? And how unfair to the unsuspecting widowed person who is probably combing your memoir like it was a how to book. Sure, give them the misery and the societal propaganda but leave out the hope, joy, the leaving active grief behind and falling in love? I call scam. Ugh.

      But the Davie Konigsberg book is good. Points out the faulty assumptions that theories are often based on – not just grief related – and puts solid fact in place of the anecdote of memoirists and the “culture”.

      (chuckle) The Culture would be a good name for a story, eh?

  8. Great post. Makes me want to read the book. Most people are more resiliant than they think but many have been conditioned to think they can’t get through a tramatic event w/o the help of professionals. This would make a great WW guest post.

    • Thanks. If I was more militant, this would be my cause, but I have alienated myself enough in the widowosphere. However, feel free to use it as a guest post. Non-widowed might find it helpful.

  9. Sounds like they decided to create a business to make money, and have since convinced all of these people dealing with grief that they need extensive counseling to get through their grieving process which keeps the money rolling in. Our society is all for the quick fix. And I think it is a status thing too for many of the people getting the counseling. Self reliance seems to be a thing of the past.

    • Self-reliance and resilience are keys that the new research points to but are typically things that the grief culture downplays or scorns even. But I wouldn’t say it’s money for everyone. I know people on the ‘net who’ve started groups and such who are coming from a sincere place. Trouble is there is no actual basis for the type of help they provide and most have no counseling or psychology background/training, which means the potential to do damage is high.

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