Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part II

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?

20 Responses to “Rethinking Ways to Think About Grief — Part II”

  1. Deborah Owen Says:

    I would enjoy reading about the husbands (and wives) that have passed on. Maybe it would be comforting for the surviving mates to talk about their loved one during the Christmas Season.

  2. Mary Friedel-Hunt Says:

    You said it all….well. Bill was 79 when he died. I turned 70 the day after his funeral. I consider that young. His study with elderly….just what is elderly. Most would call us elderly but we had more energy and vitality than most 40 year olds and more dreams and goals….he was my soulmate, friend, business partner…all of those things you named. I read this guys stuff when it came out and am just as angry about it today as I was then. I don’t wish anyone the grief I feel but I wonder if he is capable of intimacy and if he has ever lost a really close beloved. I doubt it. I love how they Dx grief also….it has to be a disease. Awgh!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who got furious about his study. It’s every bit as damaging as Kubler-Ross’s. I think you’re right — he must be studying grief since he never lost anyone. If he had, he wouldn’t have to study what other people do. Besides, the terms he uses in his study are so vague: elderly, grief, functioning, resilience. In my book, if you’re still missing someone, that’s grief. Maybe not screaming-to-the-winds grief, but it is still part of the spectrum of grief.

      I used to go to a grief support group until the moderator started dismissing everything I said. He tried so hard to fit everything everyone felt into one of the five stages of grief (he didn’t even know there were seven, that’s how untrained he was) that he always overroad everything I said. He still has his wife, so he hadn’t a clue about grief except for a couple of articles he read.

  3. Deborah Owen Says:

    What was he like, Mary?

  4. Joy Collins Says:

    OK, now I’m angry. “Prolonged Grief Disorder”!? How dare they? Just what this world needs – another label to pigeon-hole people into when others can’t relate to what those people are feeling.
    John was all of those things you mentioned, Pat. He was my true soul mate. And we did have a mystical connection. There is even something called Twin Flames which takes the concept of soul mates one step further. Whatever there is beyond soul mates, John and I were it. He did take part of me with him when he died and I yearn for the day when both of us are whole again with each other.
    That study is so flawed I can’t even begin to dissect it but you did an excellent job for all of us. Thank you.
    John was only 67 when he passed and I was only 62. I’m 63 now and the years ahead without him seem an insurmountable obstacle. I also feel robbed. We had planned on growing old together, sharing that last step with each other. We would have taken such good care of each other and I miss not being able to do that.
    And I functioned from the very beginning. John died while we were on vacation in NY. I had to get myself – and him – back here to Arizona. I had to notify people. I had to plan a service and funeral. I had to take care of our animals and our home. Somehow I did it but that did not mean I grieved any less. Losing a spouse is hard. Losing a spouse who is a soul mate is harder. Losing a spouse who is a soul mate suddenly and unexpectedly is worse still. I had the trifecta. We had no idea this was going to happen. I woke up in the middle of the night away from home and John was gone. Can you imagine?
    My grief is forever. Just because I am able to get up every morning and do the things I have to do does not mean I am not still grieving. Just yesterday I had a meltdown. The enormity of John not being here just hit me – again – and the tears and the sobs came. I expect it will always be so. It will never be all right that he is gone and I am still here. I miss him with every cell of my being.
    Articles like that do so much damage.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I agree about such articles doing damage. Grief is not a matter of time. If you are still sad after an X number of months, it doesn’t mean anything except that you are still sad. I realize some people get stuck in an unhealthy situation where they shut everyone out for long periods of time, but long periods of mourning don’t mean you are stuck in an unhealty situation.

      Most articles like that are geared for people who have never lost someone they were deeply connected to. We who have lost someone don’t need to be told how we feel. We know.

      One thing they never mentioned, but so often people who don’t grieve for long the loss of their spouse, will completely fall apart when a pet dies. That grief has to come out somehow, regardless of studies that show otherwise.

      Your story is a good example of what I was talking about — you functioned and functioned well during a terrible time. You did what you had to do. I have such admiration and respect for what grieving women have managed to accomplish.

  5. careann Says:

    When someone writes from a position of authority, we like to believe their knowledge is authentic. It doesn’t sound like that’s the case with the writer of that article. What an infuriating waste of research money! The one true comment is probably that everyone experiences grief differently, from the perspective of their relationship with the deceased and their own individual personality. I can tell you that I recognized in hindsight that I experienced all of Kubler-Ross’s documented stages of grief when my 19 year old daughter died. I can also tell you that I have never been able to talk about it, either in a group or privately … I didn’t want to repeatedly scrape the scab off such a painful wound … although I did write in my journal. And now, fifteen years later, while I still have deep regret that she’s gone, I’m not sure my feelings qualify as grief anymore. In retrospect I can see where I was and how far I’ve come, but I didn’t see any of it during the actual journey.

    Granted my relationship to my daughter was totally different than it would be to a spouse. And maybe that reason alone is why the writer of the article should have kept his inaccurate findings to himself (herself?).

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Carol, we need to find another word than grief for the long term effects of having lost someone important in our lives. I’m not sure that what I am feeling is strictly grief, either, at least not the way most people think of grief. But it’s not “not grief” either, since I do still have upsurges of tears and sadness and loneliness. But most of the time I’m just . . . me.

      • careann Says:

        I agree, Pat. Semantics aside, we always miss the one who is gone, but our emotions aren’t quite as raw as time passes and we carry on ‘carrying on’.

  6. Deborah Owen Says:

    I think some people feel it is a duty to grieve. (No reflection on anyone here.) Guilt is an overriding feeling that can cause such a reaction. They might feel, “Am I grieving enough? What will people think if I laugh? Will they think I didn’t love __________ enough? That I should be grieving more?” And other such nonsense… which doesn’t feel like nonsense to them at all. There is no one answer for any person. Regardless of how many people care about them, pray for them – the decision is theirs. And yes, to an extent, it is a decision. I’ve seen people who absolutely wallowed in grief and thought it their patriotic duty to do so. I’ve seen others move on rather quickly. It’s one of those valleys that one must enter alone. Usually, they come out the other side with God’s footprints next to theirs. The valley is a meeting place for God and man/woman/child. Not grieving for your daughter does not distract for the love you had/have for her. Maybe you’ve sealed grief inside by not talking about her. Maybe it’s time to do that now. Merry Christmas.

    • careann Says:

      Deborah, if your reference to “not grieving for your daughter does not distract… etc.” is in response to my comment, you have misunderstood me. I grieved significantly at the time, but it was fifteen years ago. I meant that while I still regret that she is gone, I have moved on past that stage of active grieving. I don’t mean that I never dealt with the grief. I certainly wouldn’t take over Pat’s blog to discuss old feelings anyway.

      • Deborah Owen Says:

        Oh, I know you grieved, and I can see that you’ve moved on. That’s how it should be, but I think Pat’s blog is here to discuss old feelings – among other things. Pat knows that a lot of my comments refer back to my mother when my brother died. At this time of year, she’s visiting with him more than with me. I admit that this is a purely observational point of view, but there are proper ways to grieve… and there IS some amount of choice. > When the living needs the griever more than the dead needs them, my personal opinion is that it’s time to lay the dead to rest and be with the living – at least for that moment. I’m saying, the grieving shouldn’t depart from this life to be with someone who isn’t there when people who ARE there need them more.> I try to help Mom by talking about my brother, but she quickly degrades those beautiful memories into things that he did wrong. I tell her to talk about him all she wants, but to keep it on the good side, and by doing so we honor his memories, but she’s a negative person who is quite happy being negative. She feels that grieving is a duty, and while grieving is certainly natural, it’s time to move on after 23 years. > I probably don’t even belong on this blog but I came to take notes on those who experience grief and try to learn how to interact with them. It’s part of my occupation, so I need to understand it better. Pat is an analyst and I find her views most enlightening. > You have my deep admiration. If I may ask, how long did it take you to find some kind of peace of mind?

        • careann Says:

          Sorry Deborah, but I resent having you here to “take notes on those [of us] who experience grief” and will respectfully decline to carry on this conversation. I come here to support Pat, not to be analyzed.

        • Pat Bertram Says:

          Deborah, I have to agree with careann. This is not a place to be taking notes on how people grieve. The people who comment here came to support me when I could barely type because the pain was so great . They had wise things to say about what they went through, and knowing they survived, helped me survive. Some people had never talked about their experiences before, but they made an exception because my pain called out to them. Others have come because their pain was so great that they needed a place to talk about their feelings because no one else understood.

          I know you’re terrified of what will happen if you end up in our situation, but the fact is, there is no way to prepare for this eventuality. You cannot know the total shock your mind/body goes through until you have been there. You cannot know how little choice you have in the matter.

          I am sorry about your mother. Sorry that she feels grieving is a duty. Sorry that she doesn’t want your help. Sorry that she chooses to wallow in grief rather than try to embrace life. But there isn’t anything I can do about that. I’m not a mental health professional. I am merely a woman who survived hell and who always has a hand out to those who are struggling to escape the same flames.

          Not one person who has ever commented here or who I have ever talked to offline has had a choice about their grief. It was foisted on them from without. Their choice (and mine) was not to grieve but to embrace life as best as we can, and we worked hard for the peace that we gained.

    • banillabean Says:

      If I indulged myself, if I took the opportunity to grieve after my husband died — unexpectedly, like many — I think I deserved to be able to do so. Nothing patriotic about it. If someone races through their ‘grief’, hopefully it won’t find them somewhere down the journey because they didn’t ‘allow’ themselves to ‘wallow in their grief’.

      • Pat Bertram Says:

        It’s funny that people think grief is an indulgence, as if we had a choice. It hits us whether we want it or not. And even if we did choose it, grieving is still the right thing to do. It’s how we process the terrible loss we suffered.

  7. Joy Collins Says:

    I’m comforted that others have spoken up. I had stopped commenting because I also felt “observed” by Deborah and analyzed much like that article. And it made me resentful, too, to be honest. And I don’t want this to be a bashing either. Perhaps it’s a good example of what I have experienced as part of my own grief process. That others who are not going through this same experience of losing a soul mate often try to “understand” what we are going through by comparing our grief to what they believe is similar and then pass judgment. I actually had a woman tell me she understood how I felt because she had lost her dog!
    And I also agree with Pat. No one is prepared for what they will feel when a spouse dies. Nothing you read or observe prepares you for the awful emptiness and total feeling of bereft-ness. I am grateful for those who have reached out to me and I am grateful for Pat’s blog. It had helped me to feel better as I go on with this journey.

  8. Deborah Owen Says:

    My goodness… I’m totally shocked. I meant nothing but love and kindness for all.

    Pat is the great analyst and I was only trying to follow her line of thinking. That lady is a tower.

    All of us, grieving or not, is little more than a piece of a person. All are incomplete and wounded for our own reasons. We cling together through painful circumstances and try to help one another. You aren’t “study animals” to me. My heart reaches to yours… but perhaps only one widow can speak effectively to another. From the beginning, I’ve had two questions: what can I do to help? What can I say to comfort? I thought I was asking a team of experts. You don’t know how very much I want to lift you up. My words and actions have been gravely misunderstood. I’m sorry I didn’t state my case and purpose better. My deepest love goes to every one of you and I wish you the very best that you can find in life. Merry Christmas.

  9. banillabean Says:

    Oh my goodness. It was five months after the death of my husband that I came out of the nightmare when I was hit with the reality that he wasn’t coming home. Six months my eye. You THINK you becoming ‘fine’ when it hits you all over again. I guess it was just a study.


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