January 30, 2011

New Ways to Think About Grief

TIME had an article last week that I found really interesting, called Good News About Grief (online it's called "New Ways to Think About Grief.") The article basically says that most of the common wisdom about grieving of the last few decades, much of it originating in the work of Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross, doesn't have much scientific basis. The author contends that this "wisdom," so familiar to us, could better be categorized as myth:

1) we grieve in stages
2) we need to express our grief, not repress it
3) grief is harder on women
4) grief never ends
5) counseling helps

Recent studies of people who have lost someone they love apparently don't back up these points. The studies indicate that grief is more like a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and eventually just go. Those who express themselves more or get counseling don't on average feel better 18 months or 5 years later than those who don't, not that these things might not be good in themselves.

Having struggled mightily with how to grieve "properly" for Marj, I was really encouraged by the author's discussion of resilience and his belief that people are resilient in managing loss. One quotation I found comforting is by the scientist Bonanno who said, "If you're resilient after a horrible accident or a traumatic event, then you're a hero, but if you're resilient after a death, then you're considered cold." One study also found that the length of recovery after the loss of a spouse didn't depend on the quality of the relationship they'd had.

In the end the author wisely points out that no society can be without some sort of script for grieving. What I took from this article was that our script may soon become less prescriptive and more positive and helpful.


  1. This rings very true. It seems that we have a lot of "shoulds" around the concept of grief, and most aren't at all helpful.

  2. Everyone's grief is their own, perhaps we 'should' just be true to ourselves. There will be similarities and differences among us. It's always this way. It's not a bad thing it is just our thing. These are my thoughts on it, so far.

  3. I agree with both of you. I think the "shoulds" come from the desire for a script - we cling to something that will make the trauma more measurable or mathematical, e.g. 5 stages of grief. The new script - e.g. that grief does end, that it is a grab bag of symptoms that comes and goes - seems more closely to approximate the uncertainty and variableness that attend our experience of death.