Grief and its Unwieldy Ways

Posted: June 28, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Like many I cut my teeth on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying. At the time her work with dying patients was new, fresh and helpful. Her stages of grief popped quickly into the public imagination and became applied to every circumstance of loss imaginable: shock, denial, anger, depression, acceptance. She provided us with a language, an experiential idea base to interpret grief.

In the most recent issue of The Christian Century (June 28, 2011, p. 35) Tom Long discussed the new book by Ruth Davis Konigsberg, The Truth About Grief. Basically, she challenges both the science and conclusions of Kubler-Ross. She thinks her research flawed and schema for grief unsubstantiated. Well, I can’t say anything about the science, but I can say plenty about the conclusions.

Where I think Kubler-Ross has it right is in the existence of the powerful emotions she identified. If you consider your own grief, or that of others, you will be familiar, for instance, with the waves of anger – either directed outwardly or inwardly. Those emotions are easily observable, universal and repeating.

The place where I believe she overstepped was in making them appear more sequential than they really are. I would say, from my experience, that there is little if any predictable pattern. You don’t move through one and become finished with it forever, moving cleanly on to the next. No, they cycle and return and when they do they come in different and unusual forms. And many of the deep emotive responses coexist, taking place simultaneously.

I am frequently amazed how some deep emotion will wash over us like a wave, often when least expected. We thought we were past that, but no. And then it reappears with a vengeance. Something triggers it and it returns in living color.

Even more mysterious is the resolution of grief. By resolution I do not accept the notion of “closure” as it is popularly presented. I think that idea has been created to attempt to control grief. As long as we feel and are connected to the love of another life or thing, it continues to exist in relationship with us. That relationship changes over time and the sharp edges of pain may wear off. But we don’t “get over” someone we have loved and lost. Rather, they become part of the living biography that makes us persons.

Talking about our grief with a trusted soul may be helpful. But also sitting with it, waiting for it to unfold in its own mysterious way is just as important. It can’t be rushed. And then someday, somehow, we cross certain thresholds and it is transformed. I remember a moment in my own grief over the loss of my mother, on the tenth anniversary, my grandmother called me up and reminded me what day it was. After I hung up the phone I had a dramatic emptying of the remainder of the unfinished grief I had been carrying consciously and unconsciously. From that time on my experience of that loss changed shape. Its new form was a continuity of love. And I was not doing “grief work” that somehow caused it to happen.

Thank you, Kubler-Ross, for naming some of the ingredients in this wild, uncontrollable and mysterious stew. It’s not as tidy or systematic as you may have led us to believe, but you gave us a starting language. Now we will take it to places where you were not able to go.

  1. Barbara says:

    One has to experience grief to know just how true are your words!!!

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