How are we to understand bereavement?
Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to explain it. Perhaps the most influential and well-known theory has been that of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” focused on an emotional transition through five stages, beginning with denial and progressing through anger, bargaining, and depression before arriving at acceptance. The “stage theory,” as it came to be known, quickly created a paradigm for how people die in our western culture, and eventually a prototype of how we should grieve.
The trouble is that the stages of grief that make loss sound so controllable turns out largely to be fiction. Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, more recent research suggests that grief and mourning rarely if ever follow such a checklist; the process of grief is often complicated, untidy, and unpredictable, more of a process than a progression, and one that sometimes never fully ends.
Even Dr. Kübler-Ross herself, towards the end of her life, recognized how far astray our understanding of grief had gone. In her book “On Grief and Grieving” (1995) 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 that very messiness of grief is what makes us all so uncomfortable.
The implied suggestion of many traditional grief models seems to be that the person suffering a loss simply has to go through the inevitable process, wait it out, “see it through,” on the assumption that “time heals all wounds,” and that eventually “in time,” they will “get over it.” This would seem to suggest that in the emotional aftermath of a loss, bereaved individuals are essentially passive, having to simply submit to suffering through a series of stages or a certain structured grief system over a defined period and incidentally over which they have little or no control and in which there is not much choice.
But this is not what people experience after bereavement. We cannot understand the grief process ONLY by some “timeline” system or “set formula” whereby a person goes passively through certain emotions, stages, phases, or reactions in order to somehow eventually arrive at this destination we erroneously call acceptance.
So, consider this foundational fact:
We cannot understand bereavement and every individual response to it unless we appreciate how each bereaved person’s world has been forever changed by the loss.
I am suggesting a different paradigm, another way of thinking about our topic. The main focus should not primarily be (as it so often is) on a person’s emotional reactions, or on their behaviors or manifestations of grief, and more specifically how we can “control” these in order to get things “back to normal.” Those who focus on these considerations are trying to “fix” a situation that simply cannot be fixed; trying to get “back to normal” something that has changed forever.
Losing someone we love is often likened to an amputation. But even this analogy tends to be too clinical. The word bereavement comes from the root word “reave” that literally means being torn apart. Losing a loved one has been described as being like a branch that is torn off a limb, not in some nice sanitized surgical way, but literally being ripped away. The emotional and behavioral reactions of the grieving person should be seen as symptoms of this unwelcome change.
I am suggesting that we serve people better if we focus on the significance of this bereavement to the individual rather than on the substance of their specific reaction to the bereavement. Rather than concentrating on the reactions of grieving people and then quantifying their responses, we need to ask the “why” of these reactions. We must understand the meaning of the loss to this individual, which I suggest is being “expressed” through their specific emotions and uniquely individual behaviors.
In other words, the emotions and reactions of grief should be seen symptomatically as behaviors in response to and in protest of the need to search for meaning in what has become a new and unwelcome world. This is the crucial point in understanding bereavement, one which many people do not recognize, understand, or perceive. The task is to help the bereaved and grieving person locate themselves in a world that they know nothing about, and that they, and indeed WE, cannot fully understand.
Put simply, instead of trying to get people back to normal by seeking to resolve and rectify their emotions and behaviors, we should rather regard these reactions as a symptom of the much deeper issue, namely, “My world has changed … and I don’t like it.” Grief is a protest against something I didn’t want, don’t like, but can’t change. And the challenge for the helper is in enabling them to come to terms with this new albeit unwelcome reality by beginning to form appropriate new patterns of emotion and behavior.
We would probably all agree that, in one way, bereavement is a “choiceless event.” Few if any would choose to lose those they love or suffer through the other life losses that inevitably affect us. Even when the death is “by choice” such as a suicide, the incident is usually “choiceless” for survivors who wish they could have “done something” to change the outcome and feel guilt and regret because that option was not made available to them. Thus, bereavement is an unwelcome intruder in our lives, one which refuses to retreat despite our impassioned protests.
But, from another perspective, while the loss may be a reality we are powerless to avert, the experience of grieving itself involves hundreds of concrete choices that the bereaved person is invited or forced to make, or indeed avoid. It is in another way a call for us to change. To go with it, or to resist the process. We have a choice of whether to attend to the distress occasioned by the loss or to avoid the pain by “keeping busy” or “trying not to think about it,” which is an impossible task, by the way. We have a choice as to whether to feel and explore the grief of our loved one’s absence or to suppress our private pain and focus instead on simply trying to adjust to a changed external reality. Loss may be inevitable, but what we DO about it is optional. We may not have a choice in what has happened, but we do have a choice in what we do about it.