Every once is a while, we hear a fresh, more realistic, explanation of the grieving process. An article in the January 31, 2010 issue of The New Yorker Magazine provides just that. I’ve written about this before, and since then haven’t heard much more worth repeating until now.
Here’s a well-written summary of the article from Diane Sollee, Director of Smart Marriages:
Fantastic, very helpful overview of the latest books and research attempting to make sense out of the grief phenomenon – concluding that it’s less about neatly packaged stages (Kubler Ross) and more of an amazing undulating process “with a level of fluctuation that is nothing short of spectacular.”
Also, that: “A 2007 study . . . found that the feeling that predominated in the bereaved subjects was NOT depression or disbelief or anger but YEARNING. “. . . drawing on work by John Bowlby, an early theorist of how human beings form attachments, noted that [in grief] we feel alarm because we no longer have a support system we relied on. . . . . we continue to search illogically (and in great distress) for a loved one after a death. After failing again and again to find the lost person, we slowly create a new assumptive world, in the therapist’s jargon, the old one having been invalidated by death. Searching, or yearning, crops up in nearly all the contemporary investigations of grief. (Which fits this passage, one of my favorite on grief) from Christopher Buckley’s book, written about his grief following the death of his mother and father, in close order:
It comes in waves. One moment you’re doing fine, living your life, even perhaps feeling some sort of primal sense of liberation . . . Then in the next instant, boom, there it is. It has various ways of presenting, as doctors say of disease. Sometimes it comes in the form of a black hole inside you, sucking the rest of you into it; at other times it is a sense of disconnection, as if you had been holding your mother’s hand in a crowd and suddenly she let go.)
And, back to the New Yorker article:
“Perhaps the stage theory of grief caught on so quickly because it made loss sound controllable. The trouble is that it turns out largely to be a fiction, based more on anecdotal observation than empirical evidence. Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process‹sometimes one that never fully ends. Perhaps the most enduring psychiatric idea about grief, for instance, is the idea that people need to “let go” in order to move on; yet studies have shown that some mourners hold on to a relationship with the deceased with no notable ill effects. (In China, mourners regularly speak to dead ancestors, and one study has shown that the bereaved there suffer less long-term distress than bereaved Americans do.) At the end of her life, Kübler-Ross herself recognized how far astray our understanding of grief had gone. In “On Grief and Grieving,” she insisted that the stages were “never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.” If her injunction went unheeded, perhaps it is because the messiness of grief is what makes us uncomfortable.”
To say that grief recurs is not to say that it necessarily cripples. Bonanno argues that we imagine grief to be more debilitating than it usually is. Despite the slew of self-help books that speak of the “overwhelming” nature of loss, we are designed to grieve, and a good number of us are what he calls “RESILIENT” mourners. For such people, he thinks, our touchy-feely therapeutic culture has overestimated the need for “grief work.”
Interesting commentary on grief becoming a private process and the loss of
public rituals, etc around the time of the overwhelming losses of World War I.