Aggrieved: The bereaved have
to cope with their loss--and with the pressure to heal.
Therapists speak of grief as a healing, purposeful, cathartic process
ending with resolution if a person grieves fully. I began to doubt this
idea when seven members of my family, including my father and twin sons,
died in a variety of circumstances within the space of two years. My twins
Many people used this language with me. Some even referred to the stages of grief. I started to dread the words recover, heal, let go, move on. These phrases--platitudes--set up overwhelming demands on me to feel, at a time when I was most vulnerable and powerless, that I should be active in patching up my pain. I saw the same emphasis in the recovery books. The books advised that it was necessary to work at grief in order to heal. Meditations, exercises, and workbook programs aren't bad in themselves; they're helpful as techniques and can guide mourners through volatile emotions, but once their concepts cross over into a mainstream belief in recovery, they put an insidious strain on the bereaved.
By codifying the steps of a proper and purgative mourning, grief theory
inadvertently turns a major life experience into a task to be accomplished.
On top of grief, I felt I had to measure up to standards tinged by the
work ethic and by a premise of emotional conquest. And since my pain didn't
Another yardstick I had to contend with was the time limit placed on grief. Within days of my first twin's death, people started to urge me to put it behind me. Both Wendell and his brother, William, deserved grief. So did my father and the rest of my family, but after each death I was immediately told that I had to get past it and move on with my life. I had the stress of having to overcome grief, and the worry that I was taking too long to do so.
Part of the reason for this pressure, I believe, came from the prevalence
of therapy, which has an ambiguous attitude towards grief. The grief books
implied that there was a timetable for recovery. Psychologists said that
grief was normal, but also communicated that it needed to be dealt with
The specter of a time frame for recovery--and of mental disturbance if I didn't achieve it--added to my anxiety. In one textbook for obstetrical nurses, I read that the acute period for the death of a baby lasted about six weeks. Mine, I knew, wasn't over, and it had been more than a year since my babies had died. I also sensed a time-bound expectation whenever reporters, newspapers, or magazine articles used those two lethal little adverbs: still and even, as in "still haunted" by a death or upset "even months later."
Eleven years later, the death of my twins continues to affect every day of my life. During the first years, I blamed myself for not recovering. The real culprit: the now-conventional interpretation of grief as a vehicle for personal growth and healthful, completed healing. The idea of closure was only a theory, but it had infiltrated my thinking, and everyone else's, becoming accepted as true.
The current view of grief results from the popularization of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' studies on dying patients and how they come to terms with death. In her analysis, the terminally ill first deny their condition, then get angry, make some bargain to rescind their diagnosis, and after this magical pact fails, become depressed before reaching the final stage, acceptance, when they reconcile themselves to death. The stages coincide with the progress of their illness and are impelled to a conclusion by the finite interim before death. I question whether this pattern always holds true. Some people, I imagine, feel more relief than resignation, others may rage to the end, most probably die raging and hoping and accepting, all at once.
Kübler-Ross' five-stage theory offers reassurance to the dying by recognizing that anger and depression are normal. Its culmination in acceptance, though, subtly creates pressure, imposing a standard for a right way to die; the dying have to make a psychologically virtuous farewell, with every word said, every issue resolved. Now that the theory has become ingrained and transposed to apply to grief, this same double-edged aspect confronts the bereaved: Grief theory confirms the appropriateness of anger and depression, but ends up policing what we feel.
Why should loss always be an occasion for emotional growth? Why must it be talked about as a catalyst for personal improvement? Bitterness is just as likely, and just as legitimate, an outcome. I would guess that most people, if they were allowed to speak freely, feel a mixture of emotions years after a trauma--more compassion, a greater understanding of mortality, envy of those who have not had the same loss, anger underneath the surface, rising up quickly whenever circumstances again take away their sense of control. The darker emotions, however, have no place in the grief experts' narrow definition of resolution. Their goal is emotional health. A humbler approach, conceding the complexity of human responses, is far more helpful.
After my children died, I saw a peer counselor for four years. Her training
as a witness, the sensitive attention advocated by therapy, was her greatest
gift to me. Compassionate listening is the contribution grief theory has
made to the comforting of the bereaved. By listening--witnessing--she
gave importance to the deaths in my family. But she recognized that she
had a limited power to help, and she didn't judge me according to the
moralisms of her profession. My peer counselor had become a therapist
after a series of losses in her own life; so she had the humility and
self-awareness to know that a trauma has lasting effects. When our sessions
came to an end, I was
Her attitude was unusual. The grief books I read all disparaged anger and other natural emotions by presenting them as feelings that had to be worked through and released.
In their endorsement of grief as a cleansing and reparative process,
the books turned grief into a therapeutic procedure. Two ideas seemed
to underlie their concept of a wholesome recovery: catharsis, or purging;
and decathexis, withdrawing emotional energy from the person who has died.
By being open to the emotions of grief and feeling them thoroughly, according
to the books,
I was supposed to decathect from my father and children. I already had to let go of their physical person. Death had taken care of that. Now I had to let go of my connection to them, too. What would be left? The same memory that wounds connects me to them. This seems to me a dilemma inherent in surrendering the past, which recovery literature doesn't analyze as it recommends forward-looking solutions.
Even the books' vocabulary sounds like the antithesis of grief. Their
authors talk of healing by means of catharsis, purging, release--images
of riddance--when every impulse wants to hold on. Since recovery theory
begins with this idea, which adapts the practice of therapy to grief counseling,
Had I never read these books, their philosophy still would have influenced
me. Pervasive, optimistic, and dedicated to hands-on cures, popular psychology
dovetails perfectly with pragmatic ideals. Self-improvement programs represent
the transfer of the American dream to the emotional plane. For prosperity,
they substitute personal fulfillment; for the belief that life can be
controlled and turned into success, its parallel that emotions can be
mastered and made healthier and happier. But after a death that matters
to you, that changes your circumstances, or that has happened under