New Ways to Think About Grief

As the nation mourns those killed in Tucson, a new look at the science of loss shows we're more resilient than we thought

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

A candlelight vigil outside a hospital in Tucson. New research on grief offers fresh insights into how we cope with loss.

The five stages of grief are so deeply embedded in our culture that they've become virtually inescapable. Every time we experience loss — whether personal or national — we hear them recited: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. They're invoked to explain our emotional reaction to everything from the death of a loved one to the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill to LeBron James' abandoning the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.

The stages have become axiomatic, divorced from the time and place of their origin. If you were to read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's On Death and Dying — the book that in 1969 gave the five stages their debut — for the first time today, you might be surprised to discover that Kübler-Ross, then a staff psychiatrist at Billings Hospital in Chicago, was actually writing about the experience of facing one's own death, not the death of someone else. It was other practitioners, having found the stages so irresistibly prescriptive, who began applying them to grief, a repurposing that Kübler-Ross encouraged. After all, there was no specific data set to contradict, no research protocols to follow: Kübler-Ross had based her theory on onetime interviews she had conducted with terminally ill patients, but she never asked them specific questions about the stages, because by her own account, she only conceived of them while up late at night after she had already been commissioned to write On Death and Dying.

The book was a surprise best seller, and Kübler-Ross became the fulcrum for the nascent death-and-dying movement. To her credit, she helped shatter the stoic silence that had surrounded death since World War I, and her ideas certainly raised the standard of care for dying people and their families. But she also ushered in a distinctly secular and psychological approach to death, one in which the focus shifted from the salvation of the deceased's soul (or at least its transition to some kind of afterlife) to the quality of his or her last days.

It wasn't long before a solution was put forth to help the bereaved as well, one promoted by an entirely new professional group specializing in the task of mitigating grief's impact. From the 1970s to the 1990s, thousands entered the field, offering individual counseling, setting up healing centers and hosting support groups at hospitals, churches and funeral homes. These counselors introduced their own theories, modifying Kübler-Ross's stages into a series of phases, tasks or needs that required active participation as well as outside professional help. Grief became a "process" or a "journey" to be completed, as well as an opportunity for personal growth. Few questioned the necessity of a large corps of private counselors dedicated to grief, despite the fact that no country other than the U.S. seemed to have one.

Our modern, atomized society had been stripped of religious faith and ritual and no longer provided adequate support for the bereaved. And so a new belief system — call it the American Way of Grief — rose up to help organize the experience. As this system grew more firmly established, it allowed for less variation in how to handle the pain of loss. So while conventions for mourning, such as wearing black armbands or using black-bordered stationery, have all but disappeared, they have been replaced by conventions for grief, which are arguably more restrictive in that they dictate not what a person wears or does in public but his or her inner emotional state. Take, for example, the prevailing notion that you must give voice to your loss or else it will fester. "Telling your story often and in detail is primal to the grieving process," Kübler-Ross advised in her final book, On Grief and Grieving, which was published in 2005, a year after her death. "You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed." This mandate borrows from the psychotherapeutic principle of catharsis, which gives it an empirical gloss, when in fact there is little evidence that "telling your story" helps alleviate suffering.

But that's not the only grief myth to have been debunked recently. In the past decade, researchers using more sophisticated methods of data collection than their predecessors did have overturned our most popular notions about this universal experience. Here are some of the biggest misconceptions about grief:

Myth No. 1: We Grieve in Stages

One of the reasons that the five stages became so popular is that they make intuitive sense. "Any natural, normal human being, when faced with any kind of loss, will go from shock all the way through acceptance," Kübler-Ross said in an interview published in 1981.

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