Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Thoughts on Megan O'Rourke's "Good Grief: Is there a better way to grieve?"

As usual, I'm way behind on New Yorkers. Fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on the kind of day/week/month I'm having--my husband tries to flag articles he thinks I'm going to want to read, so there's really no guilt-free tossing to be done.

 Last month, while on vacation, he set the February 1, 2010 issue on my night table, folded to O'Rourke's piece, and said that I should take a look at, that there was some stuff he'd never heard before in there. I've been carting the issue  around in my backpack ever since, looking for an opportune moment to read it. Today's subway ride (hello 1 train!) to the upper west side turned out to be it.

The piece is basically a cultural history of grief, and largely framed around the life of Swiss-born psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who is credited with making death, dying, grief and loss acceptable topics of conversation in the U.S. and paving the way for the hospice movement. Many know her best for the five stage model she came up with for the emotional process people go through in facing their death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. What Paul said he hadn't realized was that, when it comes to loss, the model has been largely discredited.

Kubler-Ross only briefly believed that the five stage model applied to grief and loss, as well as those facing their deaths. She recanted the idea herself--to no avail. In fact, it's a profound source of irritation for grief experts that the five stage model has managed to so deeply entrench itself in the American psyche that many who've never even read Kubler-Ross's work can quote them.  

I discovered the professional view of this whole issue when researching The Empty Room, and wrote about it. But even before that, I would have said the five stage model bore little resemblance to my grief experience. And I'm willing to be others who have travelled this particular road would agree. "Perhaps the stage theory of grief caught on so quickly because it made loss sound controllable," writes O'Rourke. Yes, exactly. And, just as importantly, for those terrified of loss--and aren't we all?--it makes it seem like there's an end to it. I wish it were that neat. But it's not.

I found O'Rourke's article, which covers the evolution of thinking on grief beyond Kubler Ross, as well,  thorough and well written. But I was disappointed that it didn't delve into a lot of what is, to me most current and interesting in this field--i.e. the research on continuing bonds, i.e the notion that many of us have a sense of continued relationship with those we've lost. It's an idea that directly contradicts the theories of the past (i.e. that "healthy" grieving is letting go), and, in my experience, speaks to the way many feel about lost loved ones.

That said, someone's got to keep chipping away at the our cultural grip on the five stage model of grief--I feel so sorry for those, vulnerable from loss,  who find themselves trying to fit their experience into it--and, as far as we may have come as a society in making death, grief and loss discussable...we have a long way to go. So, here's to more discussion....!


mrjumbo said...

Each mourning has its own personality, as each loss differs from every other loss: The loss of an aged parent isn't the same as the loss of an unborn child, so why would we expect the grief to be the same? A foreseen death (illness) isn't the same as an unexpected blow (car crash). Contexts complicate further: Was there suffering? Was it someone's fault? Also, the mourner is not the same from loss to loss. And yet each of these is a loss, and the resulting griefs will share some elements.

The Kubler-Ross model does help find words for those trying to come to terms with an unspeakable, overwhelming emotion; it names sights to look out for along the way. That gives a mourner something to do, which can be important: Prepare yourself for a few of these things, which might come along. Some people don't need or want this. Some need something.

But it's a mistake to think that all these reactions would come as discrete steps, or that each would come only once, and in a fixed order. I think anyone who has mourned knows it's muddier than that in the trenches; bargaining might come again and again, or not at all; you can find acceptance and still be depressed. There's overlap; multiple cycles can run through different stages at once.

But anything that opens the discussion, however incomplete, has value.

It's interesting too that Kubler-Ross's work springs from her contact with those facing their own death, which is its own distinct experience.

Most of the above is fairly obvious.

I had a conversation lately with a divorced mom, talking about her kids' reaction to the behavior of her ex; it boiled down to their having to deal with losing him. I asked whether any of the Kubler-Ross model might apply, since a loss is a loss. She said Kubler-Ross had never done much for her; she offered instead Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, which starts (she recited by heart), "Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

I loved Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays when I was in my 20s; it and some of her other early work gets deep into death and loss and mourning. I have never been able to dig into Magical Thinking, maybe because it touches too close to home, or maybe because I'm less preoccupied with the bleak and morbid than when I was younger. So I can't tell you what tools Didion offers.

But I do find her title intriguing. About 13 months after Mom died, in a parking lot I ran into an old friend whom I hadn't seen since before Mom's death. It was good to see her. I told her about Mom, apologizing for not getting in touch sooner. Susan had lost her father a few years before. She absolved me for not mentioning it (not that big a deal, but good to get off my to-do list).

Then she said that after her dad died, she had come to see the sense in a lot of cultural institutions that create a special space for mourners for the first year after their loss. She had learned not to judge her family on their actions in that year; she said it may feel like you're done mourning after a few months, but you realize looking back that the cycle lasts more like a year, before you really come out of the tunnel—the same, but changed.

There's not an on-off switch; it's about transitions and shades of development, but she said a year felt about right. So it's interesting to see Didion talking about a period of a year. I hadn't really thought about it till then, but that gave me a useful lens through which to see my siblings' behavior in that first year, distinct from what came before or after.

The shades of a loss stretch further, but eventually they start to mingle with the other colors that make up our personalities. The loss isn't gone or forgotten, but it recedes from the foreground to fit in with the rest of our emotional landscapes.

mrjumbo said...

I like your point about continued bonds vs. letting go. How many people find value in keeping a connection by setting flowers at a grave, or wearing a loved one's favorite piece of clothing, or rereading a poem shared during life? The memories go on; the influence stays.

Loss through death and loss through separation share a lot. When someone moves, you may know you'll never see them again, but a connection remains. When someone dies, parts of them are gone forever—you will not talk to them on the phone again—and yet a lot remains to support a connection that continues. Carried too far, I'm sure it can be pathological, but in reasonable measure it seems healthy to honor those who are a part of you, whether they're gone or still around.

By the time Mom died, she had lived 40 years in the house I grew up in. As each of her six kids moved out, she reclaimed our rooms as storage space. Some of what she kept was humdrum and easy to toss: bank statements, annual reports, credit-card bills, theater programs. Some is more fascinating to go through: notes and cards we sent her as kids or young adults, letters from her father to her mother when they were courting, heirlooms from the 1800s kept by one of her spinster aunts and passed down to Mom as a young lady. Mom had room, so as she came across intriguing bits of memorabilia, she preserved them. She shared a lot with us, describing nuggets she'd discovered. But a lot is new to me, and with even more I can only half-remember a story, and I have to consult with my brothers and sisters to piece it together.

Going through her house, her stuff, I have learned a lot about Mom, in a good way, and I frequently find myself talking to her as I try to figure out what to do with an old handful of Christmas cards, or a stack of travel brochures saved from a hotel, or a set of unidentified boots. Family heirloom? Junk? It doesn't all come with labels.

I have learned more about Mom's life and her projects, the dogged, methodological way she went about gathering information on this or that branch of the family. I knew for the past few decades that she was doing it, but now I'm face to face with her notes, her files, her tools, her approach. Going through her boxes, I'm up to my elbows in the nitty-gritty, stuff that I later heard in recap form, but now I see the raw data that went into what she learned. I get a little sense too sometimes of the loneliness of some of what she discovered; these puzzle pieces mattered to her, but she didn't have anybody to share them with, who would marvel at the perfect prize she had found. She was alone in a hotel room in the Midwest, making connections nobody else would appreciate. I find a new respect for the volume of her work; I had known she did a lot, but the more I unearth, the more it stretches beyond my imagination.

And Mom's there all along the way, not as a wraith or anything morbid, but in the way that an author hides in the words of his books, visible but intangible. She's around every corner; she has just left the room, and left a page half finished. She has left traces of her handiwork, sure signs of her craftsmanship like the tooling marks a cobbler leaves on boot leather. She's a presence, not in the sense of someone who's alive or who can answer my questions, but in the way the stacks I'm going through were shaped by the contours of her questions.

So I agree with you that beyond letting go there's a healthy way to share a continued bond with someone who is gone, even if that person is no longer able to respond and continue building on what came before. Yes, of course, we have to let go to some degree and acknowledge and process what has been lost. But what lies beyond that bleak grief is not necessarily an abyss. What has enriched us before continues to enrich us.