A Better Way to Grieve?

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.

6 Responses to A Better Way to Grieve?

  1. Thanks for your article. Today was the 31st birthday of my brother who was killed 18 months ago. This month is also the anniversary of my dad who died 5 years ago. I’m not even 30 – which gives me a real power-packed punch of victimhood every so often!

    After both my dad and brother’s deaths, my grieving process did not come in stages. In fact it was frustrating when when people knowingly said “grief happens in five stages”. Grief is like a strange serpent/dragon that rears up and subsides, twisting and turning, making you feel angry at times but mostly just making you yearn for that person, like you say.

    • leejagers says:

      Thanks for your very personal comments, Bethan. May you comfort others with the compassion and wisdom gained from your losses. You add a lot of substance to the mere theoretical ideas set forth in my blog post.

      Dr. Lee Jagers Director of Counseling Services Dallas Theological Seminary 3909 Swiss Avenue Dallas, Texas 75204 214-382-3902 e-mail: ljagers@dts.edu Blog: http://www.leejagers.wordpress.com

  2. Chris says:

    This is a helpful article for me as I grieve the loss of my wife after a divorce. There are times I often feel and/or think Im going crazy, literally, usually for no explanable reason…yet the next day I feel a bit more stability and hope (as Buckley states-“it comes in waves”). When I stop and explore my “craziness” I find that its centered around the loneliness and abandonment I feel as I live alone for the first time in my life. So much of this new life to get used to, and sometimes its overwhelming, which is okay (yet difficult to embrace at the time). As the article mentioned, Im learning to rebuild my world since my last one has been lost with the marriage–the hard part is to keep hope alive as so much reminds me of what I once had.

    • Lee Jagers says:

      Sometimes divorce can be harder to process than death, because divorce is a choice and more of a rejection. Either way, the painful emotions do come in waves and can change with no apparent provocation. The challenge is to be honest about owning the emotions and then set about rebuilding a new life on higher ground than the life that crumbled. This is where total surrender to God and devotion to His ways is so very important. Blessings . . . JLJ

  3. Sarah says:

    I work as a volunteer coordinator for a hospice program. I was drawn to this work following the deaths of all grandparents and parents by the time I was 35 years old. My Mom and grandparents had all died by the time I was 20 years old.
    The grief experiences for all those deaths have been so different for me: the grief following my father’s death was the best due to the hospice care and “good-bye” time.
    Yearning for what was and what could have been does describe grief. It also explains the differences in the grief process: needs and expectations met or unmet while the person was still alive definately impacts the grieving process.
    My understanding is that Kubler-Ross wrote about the patient’s stages of grief prior to his/her own death. Considering this, Kubler-Ross’s stages, which are really cycles, make more sense.

    • leejagers says:

      Thanks for taking the time to contribute such thoughtful reflections, Sarah. Your comments reveal your heart of compassion and your experience with suffering. I hold hospice workers in very high esteem. Blessings.

      Dr. Lee Jagers Director of Counseling Services Dallas Theological Seminary 3909 Swiss Avenue Dallas, Texas 75204 214-382-3902 e-mail: ljagers@dts.edu Blog: http://www.leejagers.wordpress.com

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