In yesterday’s post, Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part I, I discussed some of the opinions about grief mentioned in the Time Magazine article of January 2011 “New Ways to Think About Grief.” Today’s post continues my evaluation of that Time Magazine article.
Supposedly, researchers have identified specific patterns to grief’s intensity and duration. (Sounds like “the stages of grief” all over again, doesn’t it?) “And what they have found is that the worst of grief is usually over within about six months. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002, Bonanno tracked 205 elderly people whose spouses died, and the largest group — about 45% of the participants — showed no signs of shock, despair, anxiety or intrusive thoughts six months after their loss.”
First, you can’t extrapolate a defining pattern of grief from 205 people, let alone a group of elderly people. Though there are some similarities in how those of us who lost a mate feel, grief is specific to each person. To make any generalities, especially with such a small group (and one that is not reflective of the population in general) is like telling us there are stages we go through when we know very well we didn’t go through any stages.
Second, the age of the person who died affects your grief. One of the things that has driven my grief is that my mate died when he was only 63. I could not comfort myself by saying that he’d lived out his full lifespan. I couldn’t comfort myself by saying at least he accomplished all he wanted. His dreams died with him. Another thing that drove my grief in the first year after my life mate’s death was my age. I come from long-lived people. I might have twenty-five or even thirty-five years to live without him. If we were both old, then we would already have grown old together, but I am now left to grow old alone. I’m not saying the elderly don’t grieve as much or feel as much as younger people. Nor am I denying that they have their own particular challenges to face. All I’m saying is that a study of elderly people has little relevance to the challenges the rest of us face. So much of my grief and that of my bereft friends stems from the relative youth of our mates and the long, lonely years stretching out before us, both facets of grief the elderly do not have to face.
Third, so what if 45% of the participants showed no signs of shock, despair, anxiety, or depression six months after their loss. That means a lot of people continued to suffer with these symptoms. And just because you’ve gotten over your shock and anxiety by six months, that does not mean you got over your grief. There are other facets of grief that do continue — bursts of grief, upsurges of sadness, missing your mate, yearning for him.
And Bonnano agrees: “That didn’t mean they didn’t still miss or think about their spouse, but by about half a year after their husband or wife died, they had returned to normal functioning.”
As for normal functioning (whatever that is) — I do not know of a single person who lost their mate who wasn’t functioning normally after a month or so. Generally, we functioned normally from the beginning. We felt our grief, we wept, we screamed, we cried out to our dead mates, but all of that was about relieving the incredible stress the death of one’s mate, one’s way of life, one’s dreams, all put on a person’s psyche. It was about making sense of the totally senseless. Coming to grips with how terribly gone the person is. But we continued to do everything we had to do despite how we felt.
Still, according to Bonnano’s study, some people’s grief left them earlier than other people’s grief. (I wonder how much grant money he spent trying to figure out that little gem.) His conclusion was that some people were simply more resilient than others, and the resilient ones handled their grief better.
Resilient? Resilient? I’ll tell you about resilient. While dealing with the horrendous loss of their mates, while still grieving well into their second year, women have travelled the world alone to honor their husband’s dream. By themselves, they have closed up the house they lived in for twenty years and moved halfway across the country. They have put in irrigation systems, have finished building a house, have written books, have taken up painting, have gone back to school, have started businesses, have blogged about their journey. They have made new friends. They have worked to support themselves and their families, and to pay the bills their husbands left behind. They have welcomed grown children back into their homes, helped take care of newborns and elderly parents. All while dealing with active grief. These women sound pretty resilient to me!
The article continues; “Only about 15% of the participants in Bonanno’s study were still having problems at 18 months. This small minority might be suffering from a syndrome clinicians are starting to call Prolonged Grief Disorder.” Perhaps some of those 15% needed help, but perhaps some of them had an added depth to their grief that not everyone feels. Grief depends in part on how many roles your spouse played in your life, perhaps best friend, lover, companion, support group, home, business partner, teacher/student, the one person who understood you, the one person who loved you no matter what. If your spouse played a single role, and other people played other roles, then your grief is considerably less complicated. But if your spouse was your soul mate, and he played all the roles, then each role has to be grieved and processed. Which could take a lifetime, especially since the one person who could help you through your grief is the very person you are grieving
For a small percentage of grievers, there is an additional shock to the system. If you were deeply connected to your mate in some mystical way, then part of you went with him when he died. You feel the breath of the eternal, the awesomeness of life and death. You feel — or almost feel — the driving force of the universe. This is something we humans are not equipped to handle, and so we grieve. And we yearn. And we search for new meaning.
But this mystical aspect of prolonged grief is not one that shows up in any study.
Bonnano concluded “What we do know is that while loss is forever, acute grief is not.” Sounds like a contradiction to me. Nowhere in the Time Magazine article, except for that last sentence, was there any mention of “acute grief.” Because yes, there are variations of grief, perhaps even vague stages, just not the typical stages that have been rammed down our throats.
One final contradiction. The woman who wrote the article spent many words telling us that talking about our grief or going to grief support groups didn’t help, but that “perhaps just the knowledge that our survival instinct is strong and that a great many people have not only endured terrible losses but also thrived can be a source of hope, something in scarce supply in our grief culture.” That is exactly true. But without grief support groups, without talking about it, without sharing what we are experiencing, how would anyone ever know there is hope?