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....!
My Brother: Nine Years Gone
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