Grief Counseling Groups


But what else is new under the sun?

Dirty feet

Image by Yannig Van de Wouwer via Flickr

A blogger I follow posted about how since the dawn of the blogosphere the dilemma we life bloggers face when the issue that brought us to the keyboard isn’t really the reason we stay on the web anymore. He began as a widowed blogger following the death of his husband, and his story was compelling. Single dad finds love, marries and in short order is widowed when his new husband is stricken with cancer.

It helped that he is keen and articulate and not prone to the navel gazing rut so many life bloggers – myself at times included – can fall into. His observations were insightful and he is a good writer.

After a time, he was picked up by Widow’s Voice and became a contributor there, but after a time, he began to do what all widowed people do even if they don’t realize it: he moved on. He still called what he was doing grieving but it’s a common mistake. The grief industry is built on faulty information that is part pseudo-science and mostly anecdotal, and it is fed by a culture that labels any normal event or action a dysfunction in need of 12 stepping.

We grieve in the beginning but the moving on process is not grief  unless you count the grieving we do for the people we used to be and can’t be anymore, which is apples to oranges. Moving on is work and it’s emotionally draining at times to be sure, but it’s not grieving. I don’t know if it has a name really. But during this time, we note our losses keenly when we are faced with the effort involved with the whole rebuilding of our lives. We miss and maybe long and certainly feel sad. All valid enough emotions on their own that they don’t need to be lumped under “grief”.

So this blogger is moving on. New city, job, home and new love. Enough “new” to send even a non-widowed person into a spin, but being widowed, he has grief to file it all under even when that’s not it. However, the issue is his blogging. Being a life blogger, he naturally shares his now, which is not really the raw, visceral stuff of active grief and his freshly widowed readers noticed.

He noted their notice and wondered if it was time to retire. It’s a natural reaction. The newly widowed are not fooled by those of us farther out. They know we aren’t really “feeling it” the way they do. It’s not posing really, but it’s disingenuous to claim one is a widow when one is moving into the territory of becoming “someone who was widowed once”. It’s noun versus verb territory, and most of us get there in the second or third year.

The trouble is that we are not supposed to admit it. Doing so is to relinquish membership in the “club no one wants to belong to”, and when you’ve found camaraderie there, it’s hard to walk away from it despite the fact that you really do need more in common than dead spouses to be friends or more. It’s no different from any other bonding event that brings people together. Marriage, motherhood, employment. At some point that one thing just isn’t enough.

But, my point. You are probably wondering and at 553 words perhaps I should get to it.

I commented on his post. Someone replied to me but yet at me. “I don’t want to cause controversy” which means, yeah I do but I don’t want to own it if actually happens. And the short was that I am wrong and callously so and probably a dgi to boot. Oh, and I am “rigid” and bossy.

When I first found widow boards and blogs the thing that struck me with the most horror were those who clung to the label and the false idea that grief is a quasi-mental health issue that is more or less chronic. You would always grieve in their opinion. It was like low-level exposure to nuclear waste to read what they wrote. No way a newly widowed person could avoid buying in to one degree or another without risking the community shunning that goes along with objecting and pointing out that most widowed folk never see the need for offline grief grouping let alone online or blogging. Most bereaved people couldn’t be fingered in a line up at the year or that and a half mark. Sure, they feel sad and they miss, but as I said earlier – those are distinct feelings of their own.

Another blogger at Widow’s Voice wrote recently about being a “fraud” because she really doesn’t feel any of the things she is supposed to feel. Commenters were kind and supportive of her right to not grieve like a “normal person” but adamant that this is not they way most feel.

Which is funny.

The Internet is a small place and the blogosphere smaller still. It could be argued that those who populate it aren’t really representative of the larger population or even what is considered “normal”.

I left a comment assuring her that she was not a freak because I knew that not many others would. Surprisingly the comment made it through. The woman who moderates there is not generally open to widow views that don’t match her own or the faulty grieving model the site pushes.

And your point is? Right, I was going to get to that, wasn’t I?

Grieving and moving on are highly individual for the most part but the fact is that most people don’t spend their lives doing either. They tackle one and move to the next in a relatively expeditious manner. If human beings weren’t able to do this, we’d have perished as a species before we even got started. It’s wrong to tell people grief is something that it is not or to lead them into self-fulfilling prophecies by misrepresenting where you are really at in the process. Telling people there is no right or wrong and yet clearly saying the opposite with what you write or how you present the facts is not being helpful.

Most of the struggle I had in the last three or four months of that first year of widowhood are directly attributable to the bad examples and just plain wrong information I was provided by widowed people who were years ahead of me. Granted, a generous handful of these people were mildly dysfunctional to bat-shit crazy even before their spouse died and so perhaps I am judging them too harshly. But some of them were simply using the venues for purposes unknown though being helpful couldn’t be truthfully numbered among them.

Both the Widow’s Voice bloggers I mentioned seem genuine and I think their views and struggles in the moving on period are valuable. I wish them well and hope they blog on, remembering though that at some point it’s not grief anymore. Not really. Not the way the newbies live it, and there comes a point when you aren’t doing them any good wearing the widow mantle as though it were a tiara. It’s like the high school prom queen who never really got over graduation and growing up.


Broken Vows

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In the course of the “uproar” about Joyce Carol Oates tome, A Widow’s Story, I pondered yet again my withdrawal from my memoir. I truly believe that most memoirs slog through a marsh of well-trod ground, offering nothing new in terms of insight. They hack up analogies, metaphors and similes like a cat does hairballs. Just so much stinking, steaming emotive glop.

Without anything new to add to the conversation, it’s just another entry in a reality-soaked entertainment genre that’s come to define our society. It’s pretend self-help because no one wants to be helped. Misery loves company, but it craves validation more.

That’s why grief blogs and on-line communities thrive. The hurting arrive looking for hope and answers and stay because being accepted and understood in the dark  Gollum-like shady places is easier than getting back out into the harsh light and starting over again.

Mostly, I have been John the Baptist in the online grief world. Yelling like a mad-man out in the desert. Chastised and dismissed or ignored entirely.

So I thought, what have I to offer? My clichés and analogies? They are no different from Oates. She wryly observed all the same odd and annoying aspects of losing a loved one that I have read hundreds of times before from better writers possessed with abundantly more self-awareness.

“But what about our story?” Rob asked. “You have our story to tell.”

Yes, but what can I add to that old plotline? Widow finds love again. Widower finds love again.

Finding love again is the basis of every rom-com ever inflicted on the movie-going public.

I think our story is as special as he does, but what makes it worth the time of someone else to read? And doesn’t our contention – that love is possible, attainable and doable after loss –  fly in the face of grief’s tenets? The work of sorrow, the long hard hoed row, and the idea that one never heals?

It knocks the stuffing out of the soul mate theory, and the notion that seconds (a charming term I learned recently from the widowed community) should simply be grateful for a spare room in someone’s chapter two because the master bedroom is a memorial shrine as “til death do us part” applies to other people’s lesser romances.

And then I was perusing a couple of the more well-known widowed folk blogs. Reading comments, one where I was kitty-clawed a bit for my insensitivity, and another that dealt with someone discussing the new person in his/her life that was so insulting to this new love that I nearly asked the blogger why he/she was dating in the first place* and it hit me.

What I have to offer is dissent.

I don’t agree. Widowhood is not a life long emotional disability. One can, and most do, move on. MOVE ON. Not “forward”, but “on”.**

We can and many, many of us do love others just as deeply and passionately and with our whole hearts – not some basement room or attic space.

Life does get better and sometimes it even gets awesome. And it’s a choice.

Oh, and our children? Not doomed to be emotional eunuchs. They will be as okay. They are far more resilient than they are painted.

And the vast majority of people whose hearts have been broken – because it’s hardly just a widow thing – don’t snivel, whine or retreat into lives of quiet desperation. At least not at a rate any more significant than the rest of the population, who believe it or not, also don’t enjoy single parenthood, loneliness or having no family or friends who understand them or have their backs when they need help. They too are under-appreciated, overworked and struggle financially, which might have more to do with their lack of interest in your problems than “not getting it”.

We are not special. Charlie Sheen is special.***

*Really, if I read one more person droning on about how their dead spouse in every and any way can’t possibly be replaced and that the new boy/girlfriend should just shut up and be grateful for scraps – I might go on a commenting frenzy.

Seconds? Shudder. It’s like a derogatory term from a bad sci-fi movie about artificial lifeforms.

**Semantics? Yep, telling semantics. And not in a good way because when one needs to parse things so finely, perhaps relationships are part of one’s past, or one is more concerned about what others think of them than in being honest.

*** Rob is fond of a saying of his late, and certainly unsympathetic, father. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re special, son,” he would tell Rob. “Because they mean you’re retarded.”


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.