Good News About Grief -- Maybe what we've learned is wrong!

As a pastor I'm regularly called upon to walk with those who are grieving.  I'm not a trained counselor so I'm not equipped to do long term counseling and grief support, but I've learned the basics.  But, it's possible that much of what I've learned -- much of what you've been told might not be correct. 

In this week's Time Magazine there is an excerpt from Ruth Davis Konigsberg's new book The Truth About GriefIn this excerpt we learn about five myths that have been propagated over the years, often based on little research.  You will be surprised to learn, for instance, that there really isn't much basis to the Kubler-Ross teaching concerning the 5-Stages of Grief.  The most recent research shows that grief isn't a series of steps we all go through, but instead "a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and, eventually, simply lift."  

Another myth is that we should "express it; don't repress it."  You know how we're always pushing people to get it out, you'll be healthier if you don't keep it in!  Well there doesn't seem to be much basis for this need. 

I'm not at all surprised about the third myth -- that women have a harder time with grief than men.  My experience has been that many men, especially older men, find it more difficult to cope with the loss of a spouse than the other way around.  The fourth myth suggests that grief never ends.  There are those who have what is called "Prolonged Grief Disorder," but most people get back to life.  They don't forget the person, but they don't spend all their time dwelling on this as well.  So, resilience isn't a disorder to be cured!

Finally, and this really may surprise you -- there's no evidence that Grief Counseling helps.  Even though grief counseling is a major industry, with grief professionals and grief groups proliferating -- likely using as their guide the Kubler-Ross book -- Konigsburg writes that "for a practice that has become so ubiquitous, it has been awfully hard to verify its effectiveness, no matter how well intentioned its advocates may be.

Now, it could be that these myths are harmless and we shouldn't worry about this issue.  But, it is also possible that all our efforts to help people grieve can prolong the process and force people into rigid steps. 

So, she writes, and I'd like us to ponder this word of advice, if it is true:

Instead of rushing to prescribe ways to grief, it would be more helpful to spread a different, more liberating message based on what the science is beginning to tell us:  that most people are resilient enough to get through loss on their own without stages or phases or tasks.  A small minority will have a much harder time of it, and clinicians should focus their efforts on tailoring interventions for this group that are based on evidence, not assumptions.  As with all social science, these new findings are not the last word, but they do give us a better sense of the different responses to bereavement and their prevalence.
I'm not sure what to make of this, but just based on my own observations over the years, I think there's a lot of truth to these new findings.  I think it's incumbent upon the church especially to be aware of this and make sure we're not making things worse for our people.  So, what say you?


Brian said…
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Just being there, even sitting in uncomfortable silence, can often be very comforting.

We can honor each person's/group's grief. As Bob says, we can walk with them. But let's remember to remove our shoes, for someone's grief is sacred ground.
Unknown said…
Great post. I think K-Ross was helpful in realizing that people do have these reactions, but I don't think that she even suggested that they went in linear stages.
Removing the shoes myself...
David said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said…
I lost my Dad on new years eve. My right, lower eyelid twitched for about a week and 1/2.
David said…
corrected grammar.

We need to consider the context. If the loss was traumatic, as in a freak accident, or as a crime victim, that might be helped with therapy.
David said…
"But let's remember to remove our shoes, for someone's grief is sacred ground."

I like that Brian. Nice metaphor. Not practical in our culture...phew.
Robert Cornwall said…
Thanks everyone for the comments. As I read the article, I realized that this was an important opportunity to start a conversation about how we deal with grief.

The reality is that everyone deals with it differently. We need, especially as the church, to be present but we also need to be wary of any one-size fits all solutions.

And resiliency in the face of loss can't be seen as somehow inappropriate.
Brian said…
The term 'resiliency' is kind of value-laden. We don't know what is going on inside of anybody. People who grieve in a manner that is not 'resilient' are not emotionally weaker. People who appear 'resilient' are not emotionally stronger. People who need therapy are not emotionally weaker. People who don't go to therapy are certainly not stronger, as it takes remarkable strength to really engage in self-awareness.

I enourage caution. As Bob says, there is no one size fits all. Often standard symptoms of grief (sadness, anger, etc) will show up 6 months (or more) later.

I caution against calling funerals "Life Celebrations". Give people permission to show sadness. They are not weak for doing so. Jesus wept when his friend died, yet who is more resilient than the Risen One?

There is truth that everyone grieves differently, as K-Ross says herself, there is also truth that some show signs of denial of grief. Certainly we should respect their denial, as it can be part of someone's grieving process as well.

When discussing grief, we will have to be extra careful not to engage in passive-aggressive statements. (Bringing the topic up because we're upset at somebody's behavior.) Doing so as clergy would be an abuse of authority.
John said…

I am taken by your suggestion that to challenge another's way of handling grief may be passive aggressive. I can see that.

We are all confronted by situations of grief in our lives, and we all wonder whether we are being appropriate (should we cry? why haven't we cried? why have spent so little thought on the death? are we obsessing? did we love them too much? too little? will we grieve later? have I been grieving for years and didn't know it? etc, etc,).

And in the face of such feelings we note other's grief and we wonder at their way, and we begin to judge. (YOU NEED TO GRIEVE MORE. YOU OBSESS TOO MUCH. YOU NEED COUNSELING. IF YOU DON'T GRIEVE NOW IT WILL BE WORSE LATER.)

Is it possible that we are merely echoing our own feelings toward our own grief?

Thanks for giving me something to think about.

I'd like to point out that no one is talking about traumatic death- ie, the deaths of babies and children, horrifically traumatic for parents. Please consider reading this piece:

Thank you.
Robert Cornwall said…

Thanks for the reminder. In the article the author notes that we should focus our attention on those struggling with traumatic death, rather than focus so heavily on grief in general.
LJMichael said…
Alan Wolfelt has done tremendous work in this area. Society does not want to deal with grief at all. It's dressed up to look like life, and people become impatient when their friends, loved ones do not move on. It's a long process, and there are many factors that affect one's ability to reconcile, not recover from, their grief. The book helps us to dialogue, but I fear it may be a fascile treatment that reinforces the shallow attention given by many who do not want to acknowledge the emotional earthquake that has occurred in others' lives because of their loss.

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