The Truth About Grief – And Why It Won’t Matter

The Truth About Grief came on my radar in 2012. The book is an exposé of the myth perpetuated in the name of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. I first heard about it, I think, on NPR. It is well-researched and well-reasoned, and will certainly change how you minister to the grieving and think about grief in general. But be warned. You’ll be swimming up stream, you’ll be with Bob “running against the wind.” Myth-busters, along with slayers of sacred cows, are the only groups lesser appreciated than a prophet in his own town. Below is the ad for this book that caught my eye. (PS. You can get this for a lot less than 26.00.)

The advert is compelling enough – at least to me – to cause me to read the book, but let me provide a little grist for the mill, a little tobacco for your pipe, a penny to start your thoughts.

Kubler-Ross published On Death and Dying in 1969. She actually wrote the book about the experience of facing your own death not the death of another. “It was other practitioners, having found the stages so irresistibly prescriptive, who began applying them to the grief in the 1970s, a repurposing that Kubler-Ross did not object to….” However, this repurposing did “turn a description of one way to grieve into a prescription for the only way to grieve” (Konigsberg, 8, 196).

This is really the case for all Post-Freudian assumptions. They are the founding “myths” of our world and virtually everyone has them as presuppositions. Not only the 5 stages of grief, but the importance of self esteem (See my June 18, 2018 blog “On Exploded Ordinance”.), the existence of the subconscious, the dangers of repressing, and the disease model of mental health and sin too, are all accepted, promoted, and are the lens in most people’s mind’s eye that reality is viewed through. To challenge them is the mental equivalent of poking someone in the eye.

“Kubler-Ross transformed herself from a pioneering psychiatrist who exposed the insensitivity of her follow doctors into a New Age healer who attended seances, sought guidance from two spirits named Salem and Pedro, and in 1977 declared that death did not exist” (Konigsberg, 8, 86).

Actually, Kubler-Ross having no clothes was first made known to me in 1996 thanks to Dr. John Stephenson’s book Eschatology. He said in a footnote that Kubler-Ross’ was involved in New Age occultism. He said this was set forth in detail by Eastern Orthodox writer Seraphim Rose in a 1980 book The Soul After Death. This work tells how her occult experience began with a visit from a dead patient in Chicago in 1967. She called it a ‘ghost’ and then she had instructional sessions with a “’guardian angel’” who took her back to one of her past incarnations which was in the time of Christ. “Speaking in the Bay Area in 1976, Kübler-Ross reported, ‘Last night, I was visited by Salem, my spirit guide, and two of his companions, Anka and Willie. They were with us until three o’clock in the morning. We talked and laughed and sang together. They spoke and touched me with the most incredible love and tenderness imaginable. This was the highlight of my life’”  (Stephenson, John, Eschatology, fn. 12, p. 44).

I’m appending the flyer because I want you to see how straightforward it is about calling into question the received wisdom about grief since circa 1970. And though this corrective went out in 2011, the Juggernaut of the Stages of Grief trundles on.

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“Veteran journalist Konigsberg offers a spot-on critique of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s seminal theory the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. This ‘staged’ approach, Konigsberg argues convincingly, is unscientific, tends to assume more prolonged mourning, and ‘completely omits positive emotions that are also integral to the experience of grief.’ (Konigsberg] writes clearly and engagingly, and uncovers a host of interesting facts…this book is well worth reading.” – Publishers Weekly

The Truth About Grief

The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss

Do we really need to make death any harder to cope with? When someone close to us dies, it’s already an emotionally overwhelming experience- one that requires us to make immediate, major, permanent changes to our established routine when we might not even feel like getting out of bed. It should be a time when we’re allowed the freedom to manage our complicated emotions and given the chance to heal with minimum outside pressure.

Americans, however, have adopted a strict set of convictions about the appropriate way to handle loss. Specifically, the “five stages of grief”—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—developed more than 40 years ago by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. These steps have become part and parcel of our culture, so entrenched that most of us take their validity at face value. We give lip service to the notion that each person grieves in their own way, but insist that the sadness is something that must be “worked through by adhering to a uniform process. And we can be suspicious of—even unkind to—those who recover from a loss more quickly than society deems “normal.”

In THE TRUTH ABOUT GRIEF: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss (Simon & Schuster; January 4, 2011; $26.00), veteran journalist Ruth Davis Konigsberg takes a hard look at what science really has to say about grieving. What she found will surprise readers —and come as a relief to many.

For starters, when Kübler-Ross introduced her five stages in her landmark work On Death and Dying (1969), they were a theory not about how people mourned for others, but about how individuals dealt with the notion of their own impending deaths. In fact, it wasn’t until her final book was published in 2005 that Kübler-Ross wrote about the stages as pertaining directly to grief. Moreover, when she first developed them, her work was based entirely on anecdotal evidence, and she was more focused on observing how medical students interacted with terminally ill patients than on how the small sample of patients felt about their circumstances.

Nevertheless—and despite scientific researchers questioning their accuracy as early as 1972—Kübler-Ross’s ideas rapidly acquired a large following, due to their instinctive appeal. And once they took hold, they gave rise to an entire industry of grief counselors, further cementing the mindset that healthy grieving must be a protracted struggle and that it can’t be done properly without professional assistance. Although the rising number of “bereavement specialists” fostering this thinking may have the noblest intentions, many of them lack any sort of substantial accreditation as therapists. They counsel others based on gut feelings, rather than research on normal grief or a clear understanding of proven techniques.

What is most notable, however, is that hard data increasingly shows that most people recover from a loved one’s death equally well with or without counseling—and that frequently, it doesn’t take as long as one would think. More and more, rigorous studies indicate that:

  • The bereaved accept the death of a loved one from the beginning, and feel a sense of pining more than anger and depression, the two cornerstone emotions of Kübler-Ross’ stages.
  • “Delayed” or “repressed” grief is not a common phenomenon.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg

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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