what I learned about widowhood at the YWBB


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.


moving on

Image by alexdecarvalho via Flickr

From the beginning, I mean the very beginning when Will was first diagnosed and I knew he was going to die, I wanted… needed… to believe that the whole light at the end of the tunnel thing was real. I fixated on the hope that someday there would be happiness again. I put all my trust in that one idea and amazingly it seems to have carried me through to the place I am now. But it is not that way for everyone I am coming to learn. Rob reminds me from time to time something to the effect that widowhood does not create saints out of sow’s ears. If you were not an optimistic person before being widowed, you are very unlikely to become one, and the same holds true for being kind and compassionate.

 

I read a column by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald today. It was about the Virginia Tech murders, but the central question of his piece was “Can you fix meanness?” And he was talking about the soul. Some people just seem to have this meanness at their core and nothing touches it. It’s there and it shows through no matter what they do or their circumstances in life. Nothing changes that core personality.

 

It’s hard not to go through the widow journey without hitting patches of anger and resentment and wanting to lash out whenever an opportunity presents itself. I have been there myself. It wasn’t fun though. I felt just as awful when I was in that mode as I had before I entered or even after I exited. There was no release from the anger, and it was wrong to purposefully bring negativity to a place, like the YWBB, where people were doing their best to rise above pain and hurt.

 

I left the board today*. It was time. And it may seem cowardly or defeatist to walk away from trying to help those who are truly in need of solace or advice and reassurance from someone who understands, but there is an underlying negativity about the place, that actually may have always been there and I didn’t notice, and a meanness in the loudest voices that can’t be overcome by just one person. There are dead and dying souls there. People who will never be whole, maybe because they never were.

 

Mr. Pitts posed an interesting question in his column “How can you fix a deadness of the soul?”. I wonder about that too. His reply was that there are days that you can find the answers and fix the problems and then there are those times when the answer is that you must simply accept what is. The living dead wander among us. There is negativity and meanness in the world that cannot be overcome by simply handing out hope and understanding. There are no answers, just more questions.

 

It reminds me a bit of the musical by Steven Sondheim, Into the Woods. There is a scene in the second act where the Baker leaves the others to the mercy of the Giant who has invaded their land because he is overcome with grief over the death of his wife and the belief that his baby son would be better off without him. The Baker encounters the spirit of his recently deceased father who reminds him that running away is not the answer to any problem he sings,

 

Running away, go to it.

Where do you have in mind?

Have to take care.

Unless there’s a where

you’ll only be traveling blind.

Just more questions.

Different kinds.

 

There is meanness in the world. I don’t have to be a part of it. I have a where. Canada. A new life with Rob. And, there are different questions to be asked and answered more in tune with the forward momentum of my life now.

 

I am sure I sounded self-righteous and judgmental in my last two posts today. It was hard to keep a neutral tone, though I did try. There are many people there who are wonderful and thoughtful and positive. They are the majority actually, but like many majorities they are largely silent when meanness rears its head. They are cowed by its shrillness and reduced to its ugly tactics and means when they object.

 

I don’t have answers. I only know what is best for me. To move forward. To acknowledge the sadness when those moments arise and refuse to step back into the darkness.

 

*I left and returned a few more times before I just deleted my posts completely. You will only find my a sign in name and a handful of vague references.

I went out for dinner with two girlfriends tonight. Really nice place near my home. While we were waiting for our table my married friend struck up a conversation with a couple of guys at the bar who were watching the Bears/Packers game. She did this for me because she knows I would never even think to notice that there were unattached men in the room or that they were nice looking.

She also did it because she is not overly approving of the fact that the only men I currently talk to live in cyberspace.

One of them, upon hearing that I am a Packers fan, suggested that we buy each other rounds every time the team we were not rooting for scores. It was a sweetly transparent way to establish contact and pave the way to further interaction.

It was about then that the hostess came to seat us and we bid the gentlemen goodbye, but once we got to the table, Vicki suggested that we send them a round anyway. Sure, I agreed, but it made me uneasy.

My last live encounter with a man is still a pretty vivid disaster, and my latest attempt at online flirtation is not much less so.

They sent us drinks too. And they came to thank us and say goodnight before they left. Nice looking. I still notice. I don’t react.

The rest of the evening was nice. Fun even. We even planned another night out in a couple of weeks. Home before midnight though.

The last New Year’s I saw in was 2001. Wow. That was a long time ago. The last full year I had with Will before his illness claimed him and morphed him into a stranger.

I have been reading on the YWBB all these posts about how miserable everyone is being without their loved one on New Year’s and how no one has hope, or much hope, for the new year.

I can’t relate. I lived in limbo for years. One year was not a bit different from another and there was no hope of improvement. I am not in limbo anymore, but I am not really going anywhere either.

According to the astrological charts, 2007 is supposed to be a great year for me. Things are going to improve noticeably. It doesn’t say what, if any, effort will be required from me.