Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Myths about Grief - You DON'T need to "let it all out"

In the wake of the Tucson shootings, TIME magazine has an interesting article "Good News About Grief" that debunks some popular myths espoused since Kubler-Ross's "On Death and Dying" (sorry you can't read the article on line)

Without a doubt Kubler-Ross did wonderful work and helped us at least talk about grief, death and dying.  But it also tended to stuff people in a box and tell people how to grieve.

I was happy to read one of the myths debunked - the idea that you HAVE to express your grief.  In fact studies have showed than expressing negative emotions can actually prolong your distress.  Nor is there any evidence that people who get counseling or go to grief groups are helped any more than those who do not.    

I know people worried about me when my husband died because I did not emote publicly.  Or even privately.  I really did resist crying much because I was afraid once I started crying I would never stop.  And I did believe that I was doing something "wrong" by "repressing" my emotions; I half believed that something terrible would happen, that maybe some day I'd go crazy or something, but I didn't care, to me giving in to the the emotion would take me down a dark hole I feared I would never get out of - a prospect so frightening that I was more than willing to risk the danger of "repression"

Nor did I go to counseling.  Nor did I go to grief groups.  Despite the grief I got from others who thought I should.  I was part of an email grief group for a little while but I found it depressing.  I did not find sitting around talking and thinking about how unhappy I was helpful.  I had young children to raise.  I had a job.  I had other people who needed me.  I got on with life.   

And I didn't go crazy.  I got better.  After a while.

The only thing that helps grief is time.  It's horrible for a while.  Nothing can make it better.  And then time passes and it gets better.  So just let people grieve how they want to grieve.  If they want to emote, let them emote.  If they don't want to emote, don't press them to do it.  Because it doesn't matter.  Grief is horrible.  Nothing makes it better.  Except time.


  1. Once again, it's like we share a cerebral lobe or something. Just last night, I was wondering out loud whether there has been any re-evaluation of Kubler-Ross's work, especially the five stages.

    I was thinking about it, btw, because I'm reading an Alban Institute book on closing congregations. (Cheerful stuff, right?) But three essays in a row -- and I've only read four -- treats K-R's stages as one of those truths you can take for granted, and use as a model for the response of a community to the "death" of its church.

    Now, I've never been entirely convinced that individual psychology was the best template for understanding a group's responses, but what do I know? But if it is, and if clinical psych has tweaked the K-R model over the years, then there are obvious ramifications for this sort of pastoral-care textbook.

  2. Well as a sociology major and one who dabbled a bit in congregational studies...I don't understand why the push to apply psychological theory to congregations while we have pretty much ignored was sociology could add to our understanding of how congregations act. A congregation is a GROUP, not an individual psyche. Duh.

  3. There was once a common tactic in "anger management" classes to punch a pillow to get your anger out. We now know this ends up making people more angry, not less.
    This is similar to grief...I truly believe a dose of grief is necessary, but lingering too long on any negative emotion is destructive. What is that quote... there are two dogs fighting within me, one good and one evil. Which one wins?...Answer: The one I feed the most.

  4. Without passing judgement on the accuracy or usefulness of Kübler-Ross's work on grief (and it has been a very long time since I read from On Death and Dying) it seems to me that the biggest problem is not with the work itself but how it has been come to be understood and applied. Somewhere along the line the grief stages idea moved from description to proscription. "This is how you are supposed to do it." Nonsense. And often forgotten is that she notes that not everyone experiences all stages, nor do they necessarily occur in a specific order.

    I also think the notion that grieving necessarily involves wailing and gnashing of teeth, or some such, to be frankly very odd. On the other hand, I do think there is wisdom in rituals of mourning, and I wonder if our society's progressive loss of such rituals might mean a ritualization of distraught emotionalism, either public or private, as something that must be done (at least in the minds of some).

  5. What else we forget about Kubler-Ross is that her research was about the stages one goes through when they find out THEY are dying. I think that's a little different.

    And I so agree about the dearth of rituals. It wasn't long ago they were talking about it on believe it or not Beauty Tips for Ministers and she pointed out how helpful it was to be publicly identified as being in grief and then people maybe would cut you some slack.

  6. everything said here, I agree with. esp. about why we don't apply sociology more to churches. Is it because everyone feels like sort of an amateur psychologist, but we don't have as much info on sociology? but sociology insights would apply so much more.

    I think the toughest thing is for couples who grieve in different ways, and if one person does it "right"/in the way society says we ought to grieve, and the other one doesn't, there is tremendous pressure. One wants to talk about it, the other doesn't.

    and ways of grieving are not just individual, they are cultural, too.

  7. I sure understand the concept of not wanting to give in to the deep emotion. In one situation I was in, it wasn't grief, but an extremely sick child. I had to hold in my feelings because I had to drive, etc. But then I had a fight with a relative and the dam broke. I cried for hours. Maybe that was healthy. It was easier after that, not to have that dam.

    When I was grieving, another situation, my pastor kept asking me if I was letting it out. I said yes. But the problem was that the only place it felt safe to let it out was also a place/with a person who got pretty tired of hearing my sobs. But his prayers finally helped heal that tension and time helped with the grief.