Grief counseling


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.


James Tissot - A Widow

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The link at the bottom of the page is to a column in the local newspaper. My personal opinion of the paper and its editorial writers is fairly low. The newspaper itself is generally light on actual news, and whatever course reporters take in journalism school to learn about bias and the importance of neutrality and fair and balanced reporting is evidently not a required one judging from the slant in most of the news articles I have read. Columnists are generally exempt from being non-judgmental. In fact they are paid o be opinionated. Infuriating columns are read by those on both sides of the issues. Employing an irritating columnist or two (or all in the Des Moines Register’s case) is good for the business of selling newspapers. Newspapers are not in the business of reporting news these days, or maybe ever, as an educated and informed populace is not the point. News is entertainment and going strictly by the number of talk news shows and the heads that populate them, some people are being entertained at the expense of those who need to be informed.

Although it is hard to pick a least favorite member of the Register’s editorial team, Rekha Basu probably ranks close. She favors heavy-handed liberal social agenda stuff. Her style is fairly dry, and she is preachy. Her late husband was a much better writer. His style was personable in a story-teller way and had he chosen heavier topics, I think he would have easily proved his superiority. My dislike of her is personal though. It goes back to the early days of Will’s illness when I was trying desperately to get him on SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance). Having been told by the kindly young man who walked me through the application process that it was fairly likely that Will’s claim would be denied, I was willing to try anything to call attention to our plight and elicit some help in getting him accepted. At this point I had already sent emails to both state senators and several legislaturers. I would eventually receive help from the Republican Senator, Charles Grassley, but at this point I was desperate.

Someone I knew thought that I should contact Ms. Basu. This person was a fan of her writing and thought that Will’s story was the kind of cause that Basu usually took up. And I have to admit, she does use her column to point out social inequities and injustices an often uses real life stories of Iowans to do this. Not feeling I had anything to lose, I sent her an email as well. Within a few days I returned home to a message on the answering machine from her and asking me to call. I did. I never heard back from her.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned, through her husband’s column, that she had joined me in the widow in waiting club around this time when he was diagnosed with ALS. Will was in a nursing home by then. It was closing in on the last summer of his life. I don’t think I paid much attention to the news coverage and columns that followed but to note that it must be better to be famous when you were terminally ill because you seemed to get more help and support that way.

She lost her husband the June after Will died. There was a lot of press coverage. She was sainted. Shortly after she began writing her series on Surviving. In her widow’s zeal to make sense of her tragedy by helping others, which many of us do early out, she wrote about all forms of loss as though they were equal. Any widow can tell you that in no way does losing your spouse compare with divorce or unemployment, but she was very early days and, evidently, number than most at that point.

There was a message board attached to the series. It invited people to comment and tell their stories. I was just coming out of the fog at that point, and shy I am not when it comes to sharing my opinion and feelings in a message board forum. Let’s just say, I could have employed more tact. But since no one ever responded to me, I quickly lost interest and went elsewhere.

A couple months later, Ms. Basu wrote a column about the WET group, Widows Experiencing Transition, that was active in the metro area where I lived. I had been trying desperately at that point to find a support group that wasn’t online. The only ones I could find though were mixed groups, not just for those experiencing the death of a spouse or for groups or widows and the divorced which I couldn’t fathom attending. Thrilled to know of a real live widows’ group I sent her an email. Judging from her reply, she had read my posts to her message board and apparently I was not someone she wanted to hear from. She sent the contact information for the group but wrote also that she didn’t think I was the kind of person who would benefit from it. Ouch. I wrote her an apology and then scurried off the the UK widows’ board to flog myself for having hurt her feelings. It was only then occurring to me that as the further out, I should have been more cognizant of the tone of my posts and more supportive of her efforts. It was a mistake I have since strived to avoid in my dealings with “younger” widows.

I don’t read Rehka Basu’s work much anymore. I find her writing clinical and self-righteous still though I was impressed by the piece she did on profiling when her son was victimized by it recently. I also read her column about the death of her mother-in-law which kicks off her semi-dormant surviving series was again. The link is below.