Grief Observed

A Greif Observed is the title of one of C. S. Lewis’ most poignant books.  It’s about losing his wife of only four years after being a confirmed bachelor.  Even as a young man it was difficult to read, now I postpone picking it back up.  You’ll get an idea of the poignancy of which I speak when I tell you his wife’s name was Joy and he entitled his auto-biography Surprised by Joy. [Unknowingly I have perpetuated a Lewsian legend.  He didn’t name his autobiography after his wife.  I’ve since reread A Grief Observed, and it tells you that.  “Good grief Charlie Brown will I ever get anything right?”] But I’m chasing rabbits here; I wish to report the happy news that Elizabeth Kubler Ross has been unhorsed.

A pastor cannot but deal with grieving people and every single one of them know Elisabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grief.  Funeral homes cite them like scripture and so do therapists of all stripes.  I was always bothered by them.  Grief was never that neat, clean, or orderly.  Then when I read that Ross attributed the discovery to of these stages to her spirit guide I was convinced they weren’t of any use. [In vain I’ve sought the scrap of paper with that important quote on it, but if you’ll go here and read this interview, it more than supports my point: .]

Even though I thought the stages of grief neither meet, right, nor salutary, I said nothing when, usually grieving people, explained their life by them.  In light of a recent Time magazine article, I may get bolder.  The article is entitled “Good News About Grief.”  It’s adapted by Ruth Davis Konigsberg from her 2001 book entitled The Truth About Grief.” It’s found in the January 24, 2011 issue on pages 42-46.

Here are her five myths of grief presented in the article:

Myth No. 1 We Grieve in Stages

Myth No. 2 Express It; Don’t Repress It

Myth No. 3 Grief Is Harder on Women

Myth No. 4 Grief Never Ends

Myth No. 5 Counseling Helps

You should recognize myths 1, 2, and 5 as coming right out of a psychology textbook.  In fact that is the point of this journalist’s book.  She sallies forth to meet the babble of psychology with empirical science.  Let me treat you to some gems from her article that may help to choke the babble.

In addressing Myth No. 1 We Grieve in Stages, Konigsberg says that a study published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Medical Association “found that most respondents accepted the death of a loved one from the very beginning.  On top of that participants reported feeling more yearning for their loved one then either anger or depression, perhaps the two cornerstone stages of the Kubler-Ross model…Skepticism about the stages has been building in academia for a long time, and yet they still hold sway with the practitioners and the general public…..[G]rief is not a series of steps that ultimately deposit us at a psychological finish line but rather a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and, eventually, simply lift” (44).  Your grandmamma or grandpappy could’ve told you all this.

In addressing Myth No. 2 Express It; Don’t repress It, our heroine says, “The American way of grief places great importance on the expression of your darkest emotions.  ‘Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process… [It] means you are progressing,’ Kubler-Ross wrote.  This may sound good, but it’s proving to be inaccurate: expressing negative emotions can actually prolong your distress….A related myth is that the ‘grief work hypothesis,’ which defines grief as a project that must be tackled in order to prevent psychological problems.  This notion can be traced back to Freud…..But a 60 person study…found that widows who avoided confronting their loss were not any more depressed than widows who ‘worked through’ their grief….In a study…in 2008, more than 2000 people were given the chance to express their reactions in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and were then followed for the next two years.  Contrary to popular belief, people who did not express their initial reactions showed fewer signs of distress later on, while people who did express their reactions had a harder time adjusting” (44).  We wonder why we have so many children, adolescents, and teens “acting out” when we have repeated the psychological mantra: repression is bad; expression is good.

In addressing Myth No. 5 Counseling Helps, our journalistic Donna Quixote slays the dragon in its lair.  Immediately after the Tucson shootings we were informed that counselors will be brought in to help survivors.  Konigsberg says, “I don’t think so.”  Well, actually she says that hospices “most of all” are leading the way on this.  In hospices “a minimum of one year of counseling after a loved one’s death is mandated by federal legislation passed in 1982.”  The “Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif., has trademarked the term grief recovery and charges $995 for a three-day workshop.”  A psychology professor at the University of Memphis and his colleague “analyzed the results of more than 60 controlled studies on grief intervention in 2008, they found no evidence that counseling helped most bereaved individuals any more than the simple passage of time….The only instance in which counseling showed a benefit was when it was targeted at people displaying marked difficulties adapting to a loss….That doesn’t mean that no one is ever helped by counseling but rather that counseling doesn’t, on average, seem to hasten grief’s departure” (45, 46).  Whether you think it was Chaucer in the 14th century AD or Menander in the 4th century BC, someone long ago told you, “Time heals all wounds.”

Finally, our ninjess with a pen concluding remarks are worth concluding with: “Instead of rushing to prescribe ways to grieve, it would be more helpful to spread a different, more liberating message based on what science is beginning to tell us: that most people are resilient enough to get through loss on their own without stages or phases or tasks….As a society, we will most likely be unable to face grief without some sort of script….But it certainly seems time to move beyond our current habit of using untested theories to create unnecessarily lengthy – and agonizing – models for coping with grief that have created more anxiety about the experience instead of alleviating it” (46).

As one who has observed grief and grieved there is one Scriptural truth that needs to be regained.  The prophet says, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” but my spell checker will never accept a plural of grief.  But in my experience it is never in the singular, and thanks be to God that Christ bore the plural long before I new it existed.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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