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Rethinking Grief

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 12, 2011 09:59 AM

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You've probably never heard of the psychologist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, but you've almost certainly heard of her five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They're widely used by psychologists, psychiatrists, and grief counselors. Even Conan O'Brien has joked that getting replaced at The Tonight Show involved going through the stages of losing a talk show: "Everyone goes through it, I've talked to Arsenio, I've talked to everybody.... It's just science, man!"


Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.

Is it, though? That's the question Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a journalist, asks in The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss. There is, she argues, very little empirical evidence that people actually grieve by going through five lengthy stages. Instead, she argues, most people grieve pretty quickly, and in their own way.

Kubler-Ross's stages entered the national consciousness in 1969, when she published a book called On Death and Dying. Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist at Billings Hospital in Chicago, was as surprised as anyone when her book became a bestseller. In fact, On Death and Dying wasn't about grief per se, but instead about dying patients, and about the experience of dying "in a society bent on ignoring or avoiding death." Her central argument was that a terminally ill patient needed to be told the truth about his condition in a timely way, so that he could "work through his own grief and show his family by his example how one can die with equanimity." Working through one's own grief about one's own death involved the now-famous five stages.

Well-intentioned psychiatrists seized upon Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief, and they were widely taught in medical and nursing schools and in psychology classes. Today, Konigsberg argues, they are at the center of American "grief culture" - a culture that insists that everyone go through the same, often lengthy, grieving "process" or "journey." Mourners are often pushed to share their grief (because, according to Kubler-Ross, "Grief must be witnessed to be healed"). Many Americans now feel that grieving is something one can do only with specialized help.

Konigsberg is deeply skeptical, and in The Truth About Grief she cites studies which show, for example, that most people accept the loss of a loved one almost immediately - people are "more resilient" than the stages suggest, and more quickly ready to move on with life. "We have been misled," she writes, into thinking "that grief is a series of steps that ultimately deposit us at a psychological finish line." Studies, meanwhile, suggest that grief is "a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and, eventually, simply lift." What really determines how you grieve, she argues, is simply how resilient your personality is in general.


Ruth Davis Konigsberg.

Why, despite all of the evidence, are the stages of grief "the idea that won't die"? In part, Konigsberg argues, it has to do with our culture's general move away from rituals of mourning, like wearing black; these have been replaced by rituals of grieving - rituals, she argues, which are actually more restrictive, because they dictate not how you ought to dress, but how you ought to feel inside.

We've also been beguiled, she writes, by the idea that there is a 'natural' way to grieve. Konigsberg is one of a number of writers who have started to question the 'naturalness' of today's psychiatric categories. She cites Ethan Watters, whose book Crazy Like Us tells, among other stories, the bizarre tale of well-intentioned American psychiatrists who travel to Sri Lanka to help with grief after the tsunami. ("Without a sophisticated mental health system or trained counselors," one wonders, "where were the survivors going to turn?"). "We never seemed to notice how grief had been shaped by all these social and cultural forces," she writes, "in part because we had been told that our way of grieving was natural and instinctual, and therefore the best way." You shouldn't need a counselor, though, to help you do what comes naturally.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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