Let the Guinea Pigs Speak: Detaching Grief from Theory

By Donnali Fifield

KotaPress Editor's Note:
In December 2001, we published an essay called "Aggrieved: The bereaved have to cope with their loss—and with the pressure to heal" by Donnali Fifield. That essay was an adapted excerpt from Chapter 16 of Donnali's book titled William & Wendell: A Family Remembered. Last month (April 2002), Donnali wrote to tell me that she had just published an afterword to the Aggrieved essay called "Let the guinea pigs speak: Detaching grief from theory."

It is my firm belief that this ground-breaking work should be mandatory reading for anyone who is offering counsel to bereaved people. And it is, at this point in time, also necessary for bereaved people to read and understand this work prior to entering any therapy setting as well. If you have or ever find yourself in a situation where you are guilted or shamed by a therapist (or even a friend or family member), then this work is going to help you understand why that is happening and how to disentangle yourself from it.

That said, we offer you:

Let the Guinea Pigs Speak: Detaching Grief from Theory
Grief is not the time to tinker with people's lives. The therapeutic concept of resolution has led to a cultural belief in closure and recovery. Therapists have begun to admit, tentatively and sidestepping any culpability, that the theory was mistaken, too late to make it up to all of the bereaved people who have endured the harassment of being told to recover or the distress of having their feelings for someone who has died slighted by comments about getting on with life, dispatching the person as belonging to the past.

Goading people to move forward and urging them to rupture their ties to the deceased are both elements of grief theory. To achieve recovery, mourners are supposed to work at grief, undergoing a process that will detach them from the dead and complete their healing.

The deaths in my family convinced me that a trauma has permanent consequences, both good and bad. Each of these deaths also had far more layers than I saw described in the literature on grief. The books, written by therapists and aimed at healing, only covered the most overt emotions, not the underside of grief, the dimensions of loss that give particularity and weight to a death.

For instance, although bereaved parents often have different styles of grieving, they have the memory of their child in common and the embodiment of the other parent as a link to the child. The other parent encodes, in flesh, a reminder and an emblem of the child, giving a momentary hope at times that, through touch, the child can still be reached and is palpable. I did not see this aspect of parental bereavement mentioned in any of the literature, and yet it's a vital connection between the parents, and one many of them would recognize.

My book is an account of my losses and how they refuted the concept of resolution. Trusting the theory more than my feelings, I felt guilty for years because I didn't recover. In my book, I explain why the theory had made my experience of grief even harder. I belong to an organization of grief theorists, the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), which I joined in the hopes of discussing the ideas in my book with the leaders in the field. As far as I know, there aren't any books, from a bereaved person's point of view, about the impact of their ideas.

The response of the theorists I've contacted has been, for the most part, cordial but unreceptive. I hope they will see that they need to look outward. Their training, when it isn't measured against people's experiences or tempered by a recognition of fallibility, can bring about painful ideologies. The group, though small, is significant because its members shape how society views grief. I think if therapists had been more open to listening to the bereaved, instead of to each other, they might long ago have revised their ideas, which have now become so entrenched.

A couple of the ADEC members wrote me back, noting that most grief experts now agree with my perspective on recovery. Grief theorists have begun to distance themselves from catharsis theory and a stage model of grief that ends in resolution. This shift was inevitable, as their earlier concept of grief wasn't realistic and didn't conform to people's experience. The change in their thinking will take several years to become mainstream. When it does, fewer people will be badgered to let go and move on, or consider themselves inadequate if they don't succeed.

But until therapists incorporate complicated and contradictory emotions into their theories, they still won't portray grief accurately, and they will continue to set up unwarranted expectations for the bereaved.

I read an announcement in a publishing newsletter this past December of a forthcoming book by a noted trauma and grief expert, who appears frequently on television. Her book is supposed to show readers "how to transcend their loss by ensuring that something positive comes from it."

Yet another book on how to overcome loss. The therapist as gentle shepherd, coaxing the reader's way to transcendence, isn't new either.

The clergy used to be the pastors. Therapists have taken over this function, perpetuating and unfrocking the language of redemption. The destination isn't heaven, but growth, personal transformation, a positive ending. The assumption that a loss has to have a triumphant outcome still exerts an implicit moral pressure. Once therapists go beyond their role as listeners, the major and best help they provide, and present themselves as mentors—the knowers of the right path, the right way to be—they don't give the bereaved the room to feel a full range of emotions.

A loss can give birth to compassion. But also to bitterness. This result is equally valid, and worth recognizing. Hostility, vindictiveness, and anger are, for many people, part of the texture of life after a traumatic death. Therapists call these emotions negative, a bland word but the disapproval behind it still sinks in and insinuates guilt. These feelings have value: They reflect the reality of a loss, and its cost.

As long as psychologists approach grief clinically, as a disorder to be treated and mended, they won't grant these emotions their due. A conditional view of grief, which isn't based on an idea of wholeness and healing but embraces complexity, would be more gracious. A trauma has warping effects, but it also gives people edges that make them interesting, and it is in the struggle with these feelings, as they continue to come up, that people develop personality and acquire depth.

Reading the grief books, I resented the implication that these emotions were wrong and required correction and improvement. I came to my conclusions about recovery theory by comparing it with what I thought and felt. The theory put an obligation on grievers. To heal and renew themselves emotionally, they had to undertake a process of evacuation, sundering, and reinvesting: venting emotions to eliminate them and severing from the deceased to become available to other people. The theory's reasoning seemed to me coercive as well as false, and I wrote my book to pinpoint why. I guessed that if I reacted this way, others might too, and I hoped my ideas could spare others from unnecessary pain.

Now therapists themselves are modifying their views. They are giving importance to memory and to the wish to maintain some kind of bond with the dead. Finally, after decades, therapists are acknowledging a fundamental impulse. Theory had blinded them to the obvious.

The change in their views shows the mutability of expert opinions—and the necessity to challenge any of them that don't ring true. Grief is too profound an experience to cede it to outside authorities, however well meaning; the well intentioned can still cause damage. Life after a traumatic loss is difficult enough without having to live up to the precepts of experts who haven't gone through anything similar. Unless they have had the same losses, they are only speaking in abstractions and are, by far, the novices. One of the grief educators at ADEC referred to my book by its subtitle; a bereaved parent would have known instinctively the importance of the title—my children's names on the cover, setting them in the present, in the tangible of a book when they have no visibility or physical form elsewhere.

Experience teaches this perception, not credentials.

To point this out to a therapist is to pull rank. They are not used to having their authority questioned, or being put in the position of the sheep. Many of them, as I'm seeing, react defensively. They don't like to feel at fault. And they don't seem eager to hear ideas that oppose theirs, balking when the need for betterment applies to them. It offends them. How dare you?—their status giving them a shield, a buffer that isn't available to those they counsel and who can't as easily shake off what the experts tell them.

Except for this reflex, however, the experts respond no differently when the power relation—master to subjugant, healer to sick person—gets overturned and they become the ones subject to reform and guidance, manifesting anxiety, guilt, resentment, anger, a sense of inadequacy and oppression.

Maybe, in their case, also a feeling of injury, of being misunderstood and wronged, because they think of themselves as earnest and caring helpers.

They help by listening and by suggesting skills for how to adjust to a loss, but not when they trespass into the realm of decreeing conduct, deciding which emotions are worthy. The standard for therapists isn't whether an emotion is right or wrong, but whether it's healthy or unhealthy, a different wording than clerics use; nonetheless, this classification, which includes applying the vocabulary of disease to emotions, establishes a system for evaluating conduct, just as religion once did, and it endows therapists as the arbiters of appropriate behavior.

In their books, articles, and public appearances, therapists are often tranquil scolds, calmly and confidently admonishing people on how to feel and how to behave in order to live healthily. But therapists define what's healthy. Catharsis theory held that having a persisting bond with the dead was a sign of pathology. Recently, grief experts have begun to say that it's normal and healthy. This verbal blessing will help erase the taint they introduced by their previous claims. The pining for a continued kinship was legitimate all along, as are so many other emotions they castigate and have yet to reconfigure conceptually and linguistically.

So therapists can blunder. As they have shown with bereavement theory, therapists can build their theories on a misplaced idea, which can even have a callous component. Asking the bereaved to cut ties to those they cared about is a serious misjudgment of human feelings. In their theory, therapists fused two therapeutic principles with grief: catharsis and individuation. According to the first concept, speaking about emotions releases them. People also need to separate—individuate—from others to have a healthy self and sound relationships. Extrapolating, therapists believed that talking about a loss would discharge the emotions associated with it, putting an end to the emotions and to grief, and that breaking a hold from the past would free people to form new attachments.

Speaking about emotions gives a feeling of release; this doesn't necessarily mean that the emotions themselves have been released. The bond to a crucial person who has died, father, mother, sibling, child, love, or friend, isn't superseded by new relationships either; they coexist.

The dead aren't replaced by the living, they are alongside them. As time elapses, it becomes harder to speak of those who have died, but they reside in memory and become part of a clandestine, inward life that is parallel to the external one of work and everyday transactions.

This interior life, in which absence becomes presence, is one legacy of a loss. Another is a lasting shadow, if the loss eviscerated prior hopes and beliefs. With such losses, the allegation that the loss will be healed, but only by those who truly labor at it, induces a feeling of incompetence. Successful grieving, as some books put it, is also a concept that's framed in the parameters of the old world: reward for work, success for effort, values that can get shattered by extreme experiences. Rebuilding a set of ethics is part of the aftermath of severe or numerous losses. I think the willed morality that can result, when people learn to navigate through life again by forming a new and personal code of behavior, is a richer phenomenon than the restitution to social norms premised by recovery theory. The new rules, coming into being in a context of anarchy, are a step against it, all the while knowing the arbitrariness of values. Broken once, fragile forever. Nor is the making of these choices as innocent as earlier beliefs. Underlying them is the ambivalent cognizance that the opposite, nihilistic action could just as easily be taken, too, a license to do what one pleases, a lawlessness that is self-justified by the entitlement that can derive after a trauma—a feeling of being owed. I would like to have seen all of these issues explored in the recovery books.

I thought, reading the literature, that it did not give enough gravity to loss. Although I've managed to go on and create a life for myself, the deaths of my father and twins have left a constant sadness. Good days, happy events, joyful moments don't diminish it. Everything is tinged by their deaths. For me, grief theory became pernicious because it pushed for resolving a loss, which begets pressure both from within and from others, rather than for ameliorating it, a more feasible and tactful approach.

Grief theory, I felt, devalued the past and its philosophy of a purifying emancipation had an aggressive side, though it was put forward with mild phrases. As a twin, and as a mother of twins, attachments mattered to me. Being a twin may have attuned me to the emotional violation embedded in the theory. I didn't want to banish the past or liberate myself from my family. But the therapeutic mandate of healing had steeped into the culture, and I was still under its thumb, reproaching myself for not recovering, even though I sensed that the theory might be wrong.

Not only had therapy engendered the concept of a healthy recovery, it had fostered the notion of closure. The stage model of grief, inspired by the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, encouraged the belief that grief could be terminated through ventilation: Feeling every emotion completely would return the bereaved to normal, resolving their sorrow, anger, and helplessness. By packaging this concept in recovery programs, therapists gave it formality. Repeated, undisputed, and growing enshrined, the idea of resolution turned into an orthodoxy. The intent of therapy is to help make people aware of their emotions and manage them better, but therapy, like any method that sets out to alter behavior, has the inherent liability of becoming dogmatic, with censure potentially lying in wait for anyone who fails to heal or get rectified as demanded by its conception of virtue.

I was grateful to the peer counselor I saw after my twins died. She accompanied my search for meaning. She didn't take it over or prod me to fulfill any expectations for how I should become.

If a therapist is not sensitive, as she was, to the fact that a likely outcome of a traumatic loss is partial and additive—deeper sympathies and sharper hatreds, fatigue with life and rage-fueled activism, for examples of some of the possible paradoxes—the therapist will be more prone to a rigid, unimaginative belief in therapeutic perfectibility. I had a phone conversation once with a psychologist who had called me about some matter unrelated to my book. He asked me what works I had published. I told him that I had written a book that disagreed with the therapeutic axioms of healing, detaching from the dead, catharsis as a redemptive cleanser, and grief as a restorative procedure. He told me I was showing resistance and denial. He said it with a kind, complacent insistence. When I wouldn't back down, he quickly became threatened, telling me that it would have been worse for me if my children "had been eaten by rats." All of the assurance he had shown five minutes before crumbling into the crudity of this comment, a swipe he made, I believe, because the fortress of prerogative that had let him smoothly criticize me hid a secret doubt that many therapists must share: the knowledge that their casting of themselves as the docents to conscious, enlightened, fully realized living is an act of presumption.

This occurred in 1994 or 1995. His words made me feel guilty, as though something were wrong with me because I wasn't prevailing over my emotions. But the error wasn't mine; it was his, and it arose out of his ignorance. They were my children. I had an absolute right to be bitter that they had died. And to hang on to them for as much as I wanted. At that time grief experts didn't yet respect the longing for a connection to the dead, nor had it filtered into the therapeutic community. He dismissed my reservations about grief theory. Today, he might give them more credence. Some of the same ideas are now being expressed by bereavement experts, which would bestow upon them, in his mind, the sanction of his industry.

But eight years ago, benighted and operating from faulty book learning, he blithely blamed me for not getting over the deaths of my children. He lacked the wisdom to know his place. A death brings on a crisis of belief, to which no one has the right answer or definitive solution. Therapy can help, it can't cure, or offer earthly salvation. I was being upbraided by someone who hadn't been tested by loss but nevertheless had an utter righteousness in telling me I ought to recover. His pugnacity was only a crasser instance of the attitude I was reading in the recovery handbooks. I didn't find any that didn't end with resolution or a tone of victory, as if loss—and life—is a matter that, if strenuously worked at, can be conquered, redeemed, and brought to heel.

An illusion and an enormous case of resistance and denial.

Therapists may be moving away from the idea of grief work. I haven't been able to determine this yet from their writings. But, from the evidence of the upcoming book by the grief expert, they haven't given up their emphasis on a positive, transcendent conclusion to loss.

An entire generation of bereaved has had needless extra pressure because of the utopian and remedial expectations of therapy, and so will the next if grief theorists don't have the courage to own up to their responsibility in inculcating the concept of resolution, and then go further, examine why the structure of their profession had prevented them from recognizing the concept's deficiency sooner. Then see if the same inertias are at work in preserving the bias that permits them to label anger and other untamed feelings as maladaptive, discounting them and their advantages.

The bereaved, too, can fight back, diminishing the therapists' power by rejecting any theory that can't be verified through their own experience or that besets them—during the most difficult and vulnerable time of their lives—with any task or duty that requires them to renounce their most basic feelings.

For the past century, therapists have become seen as the professional interpreters of emotions and major life stages. Yielding to experts gives them primacy, when what they assert isn't proven empirically and may even, as with grief theory, contradict what people feel. In their one-on-one encounters with clients, therapists probably display a more delicate and generous understanding of grief than indicated by their books and media sayings. The trouble is the simplification of their ideas. They have wrought it themselves through their television and magazine advice and their step-by-step manuals. They have made their ideas commonplaces, but are now, gingerly, starting to retract them. Because of their influence, I am afraid that they will replace cartharsis theory with a new formulation of grief that will also become routine, and stealthily but unintentionally prescriptive.

The surrender to experts has allowed therapists to gain cultural dominance. If their next theory also has flaws, there won't be any countervailing forces to call therapists to account or to stop them from propagating it.

Why surrender? The mantle of certification does not make them own grief. It belongs to each person who experiences it. Grief, when beliefs and institutions come under review, is a state of rebellion. The powerful, from God to tinier authorities, get a grilling because the world is not as taught. The militancy that sometimes comes with grief springs from a subversive desire to change how things are, to make them right so that no one else will have to suffer in the same way, channeling the disaffection and feelings of betrayal, injustice, and revenge into action. Anger, unbowed and intemperate, is what animates these crusades, which can have useful results and which might have withered if the anger had been mollified; an example of a vivid, dynamic, therapeutically maligned emotion that has multiple facets, creating from belligerence and subversion some good.

In their descriptions of grief, therapists don't include subversion as one of its traits, though it's one of its most intrinsic qualities. Subversion is another of those ambiguous gifts that grief brings, one therapists would consider negative. I learned to use it after my father and twins died, and it spurred me to spend years on my book, putting into words why what is exacted of the bereaved, including by therapists, so often makes the terrible worse. I hope this insight will help others. We can turn the alienation of grief, the toppling of trust in officials, to our benefit and protection: to test the experts' theories in the lab of our own hearts, judge which are apt, by seeing how well they fit with our experience, and assert equality, control, and freedom from velvet-wrapped bullying: keeping and appreciating any of their ideas that resonate as true and resisting all that are intrusive.

This essay is also available at:

Author Biography
Donnali Fifield is the author of "William & Wendell: A Family Remembered." A description of the book, with links to the first chapter, reviews, and news about the book, is available at Times Two Publishing Company:

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