A Review of The Truth About Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg
The Five Stages of Grief, formulated by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, are so ingrained in American culture that they merit capitalization and scarcely need repeating.* Actually, “invented” might be a better term to describe what Kubler-Ross did. Unless you are prepared to relinquish the slavish belief to her system of grieving, don’t read this book. You’ll need to give up some other cherished assumptions about grief, like this one: if you don’t grieve properly at first, you’ll have to do it later, or longer. And this one: if you skip any of the Five Stages, you’ll haved to go back and do it in the future, or start the whole process again.
In Konigsberg’s well-researched book about grief, she uncovers Kubler-Ross’ own lack of credible research. For starters, the Five Stages were meant by Kubler-Ross to describe the process faced by the dying person, not that of the mourners left behind. When others picked up the latter notion, she ran with it and made a good living doing so. Others made – and continue to make – a good living in the grief counseling industry. Among the things Konigsberg found out: for all but the most extreme, debilitating cases of grief, with grief counseling, most mourners got over the worst of their grief in about 6 months. Without grief counseling, most mourners got over the worst of their grief in about 6 months. (Read that again, it’s not a typo.) And yet, the grief counseling industry is enormous, despite the fact it makes little or no measurable difference.
So well accepted are the Five Stages that they have been applied to any sort of loss – divorce, loss of a job, disability and so on.
The amount of damage done by the Five Stages is not possible to calculate. Unquestioning belief in the Kubler-Ross system gives rise to the idea that some people don’t “do it right” when it comes to grieving. It also gives license to others to urge mourners to “get over it” or to “get on with their lives.”
The truth about grief is this: there is no single, correct way to do it. It is a process, and it may include some or all of the Five Stages, in no particular order and not according to any prescribed timeframe. Grief is personal.
Another long-held belief is that there is no worse loss than the loss of a child. In fact, this may not be true for some people. If you are a 65-year-old woman, losing a husband may actually affect your daily life more than the death of an adult child who lives in another city and doesn’t see you all that often. Both are horrible and completely unnacceptable to the psyche, but widowhood may be harder for some people to deal with…no life partner, financial issues, loss of couple status, and so on.
Two friends of mine recently lost their husbands within days of each other, both to cancer, both after long, happy marriages and long, hard illnesses. Both women report that people have said terribly inappropriate things to them. “He’s in a better place” and “it’s a blessing” are, of course, the front-runners for well-intentioned but clueless remarks. The worst (according to the widow, who works for a school and was off for the summer anyway) was, “At least it came at a good time.”
Another friend lost her only son, a father of two toddlers, in his 30s, to suicide. This family is Jewish, and suicide is particularly unacceptable in that culture, adding another layer of judgment by some. As I watched her deal with her loss, I was amazed at how well she seemed to be doing, publicly at least. That may be partly because Judaism has a somewhat useful progression of rituals that help the mourner to acceptance and help the community give the mourner the space to do that. It may have also been due in part to something else that Konigsberg found in the research: people deal with death in about the same way they deal with other types of adversity; resilience gets them through it. At the memorial reception for this woman’s son, who lived and died in another state, one visitor asked, “Do you think you’ll see your grandkids much?” I felt like I had been hit in the stomach, just hearing that, but my friend showed great equanimity in her answer: “Yes, I’m sure I will.”
There are only four words that absolutely work with every mourner: “I am so sorry.” Any sentences that begin with “I know…” and “I’m sure you…” are destined to be wrong. Nobody knows what the grieving person is feeling at that moment. Grief is particular. Grief is unpredictable. Grief is inconsistent. Expecting people to adhere to five neat little stages is unrealistic and cruel. When you’re ready, read The Truth About Grief.
*denial, anger, bartering, sadness, and acceptance