Not everyone must grieve a loss for long

Christine Kenneally in doubleX:

The idea that grief is work that we must do began with Freud. He believed that if you didn’t labor at it, you would never recover the psychic energy you had invested in a person who was no longer there. Over time, psychologists developed ways to describe the various stages of this “work.” Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages are the most familiar: Stage 1, denial—“This cannot be!” Stage 2, anger, followed by bargaining, then depression, then acceptance. The stages have great intuitive appeal, but, according to Bonanno, both Freud and Kübler-Ross were wrong.

The way that grief unfolds for most people is almost nothing like the old model says it should. It is not work, and it doesn’t occur in stages. It can be short-lived for some people and never-ending for others. Like breathing and consciousness and almost everything else about us, grief fluctuates. Our biggest mistake when describing grief, Bonanno writes in his deep and intelligent book, The Other Side of Sadness, is that we underestimate the resilience of the bereaved.

Modern scientists have by now thoroughly picked apart Freud and his idiosyncracies, but Bonanno says that Freud’s pronouncements about grief were particularly incomplete. The father of psychoanalysis never really explained how “work” turned “grief” into “recovery.” His statements were brief and preliminary, and he himself qualified them as pretty speculative. Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief have been similarly accepted without any rigorous testing. It’s also crucial to note that Kubler-Ross came up with her stages after observing people’s reactions to the news that they themselves were going to die—not to the news that someone else had. Only later did she and colleagues apply “the five steps” to grief resulting from another person’s death or to some other great disappointment.

Those are not all the doubts Bonanno raises about we think we know about dealing with grief. Read it all.

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