How are we to understand bereavement?
Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to explain it. Perhaps the most influential and well-known theory has been that of Dr. Elisabeth Küber-Ross, in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying” focused on an emotional transition through five stages, beginning with denial and progressing through anger, bargaining and depression before arriving at acceptance. The “stage theory,” as it came to be known, quickly created a paradigm for how people die in our western culture, and eventually a prototype of how we should grieve.
The trouble is that stage theories of grief that make loss sound so controllable turns out largely to be fiction. Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, more recent research suggests that grief and mourning rarely if ever follow such a checklist; the process of grief is often complicated, untidy and unpredictable, more of a process than a progression, and one that sometimes never fully ends.
Even Dr. Kübler-Ross herself, towards the end of her life, recognized how far astray our understanding of grief had gone. Her book, which was written for those diagnosed with a terminal illness, was being used out of context to somehow also explain the bereavement process. In her book “On Grief and Grieving” (1995) she insisted that the stages were “never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.” If her injunction went unheeded, perhaps it is because that very messiness of grief is what makes us all so uncomfortable.
The implied suggestion of many traditional grief models seems to be that the person suffering a loss simply has to go through the inevitable process, wait it out, “see it through,” on the assumption that “time heals all wounds,” and that eventually “in time,” they will “get over it.” This would seem to suggest that in the emotional aftermath of a loss, bereaved individuals are essentially passive, having to simply submit to suffering through a series of stages or a certain structured grief system over a defined period of time and incidentally over which they have little or no control and in which there is not much choice.
But this is not what people actually experience in bereavement. We cannot understand the grief process ONLY by some “timeline” system or “set formula” whereby a person goes passively through certain emotions, stages, phases or reactions in order to somehow eventually arrive at this destination we erroneously call acceptance.
We cannot understand bereavement and every individual response to it unless we appreciate how each bereaved person’s world has been forever changed by the loss.
I am suggesting a different paradigm, another way of thinking about our topic. The main focus should not primarily be (as it so often is) on a person’s emotional reactions, or on their behaviours or manifestations of grief, and more specifically how we can “control” these in order to get things “back to normal.” Those who focus on these considerations are trying to “fix” a situation that simply cannot be fixed; trying to get “back to normal” something that is forever changed.
Put simply, instead of trying to get people back to normal by seeking to resolve and rectify their emotions and behaviours, we should rather regard these reactions as a symptom of the much deeper issue, namely, “My world has changed … and I don’t like it.” Grief is a protest against something I didn’t want, don’t like, but can’t change.
We would probably all agree that bereavement is a “choiceless event.” But, from another perspective, while the loss may be a reality we are powerless to avert, the experience of grieving itself involves hundreds of concrete choices that the bereaved person is invited or forced to make. We have a choice of whether to attend to the distress occasioned by the loss or to avoid the pain by “keeping busy” or “trying not to think about it,” which is an impossible task, by the way. We may not have a choice in what has happened, but we do have a choice in what we do about it.
Grieving is something we do, not something that is done to us.
We need to gain a better understanding of not only “what” people experience after a loss, but also “why” grief affects people so uniquely and individually. We have come to realize that people do not passively and inevitably go through a series of stages or tasks. Rather the grief process involves many choices, with numerous possible options to approach or avoid.
In other words, any good paradigm of grief will not simply propose some futile attempt to re-establish pre-loss patterns of emotion or behaviour, expressed in comments like “getting back to normal.” Life has changed and will never be the same again! But that does not mean it cannot be good. The challenge is how we can support the person in integrating these changes into their life as it now is.
Perhaps we can illustrate it this way. We all write a script for our lives. As the main character in the production, our draft scenario included going to school and university, having a career, meeting and marrying. As the plot progresses, we would work hard, have children, do things as a family and when the kids were grown we would travel, then retire, and ride off into the sunset together.
Every human being constructs a unique world of meaning. We all make assumptions about “how life is going to be” in the course of daily living. We are sustained by the network of explanations, expectations and enactments that shape our lives with ourselves and others. These assumptions provide us with a basic sense of order regarding our past, awareness regarding our current relationships and predictability regarding our future.
And most of us, at the end of the script, whatever the final details, add the words, "and they lived happily ever after.” Because that is what most of us would like to think is going to happen. While the particulars may change from time to time, we all want to think that life will be orderly, predictable, and go “according to the script.”
But sometimes life does not go according to the script. Not everything works out the way we planned. And then we find ourselves struggling to come to terms with “the grief of unmet expectations.” So, we need to place the loss in a context of meaning. We can do this in one of two ways. First, we can reaffirm what we formerly believed about life; or secondly, we can establish a new belief system about the meaning of life. In other words, does this experience make sense according to what I believed about life before or do I have to adapt my way of interpreting how life can be meaningful. The challenge is to find ways to integrate the experience into life as it now is, and to adopt new assumptions about our world which has been shaken and even violated by the loss.
Thus I contend that helping people through the grief of bereavement is not simply a matter of understanding the emotions that they may be expressing. Rather it involves supporting them through a reinterpretation of “how life can be meaningful again, even in the light of loss,” and empowering them to define life as it now is and to help them discover a meaningful new normal.