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

  • Eric Thayer / Reuters

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

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    Myth No. 5 : Counseling Helps

    Grief counseling is now routinely offered in a range of settings, beginning with the places where most people die: hospitals, palliative-care units and, most of all, hospices, where a minimum of one year of counseling after a loved one's death is mandated by federal legislation passed in 1982. If family members don't encounter someone offering to help in one of those places, they surely will at one of the nearly 20,000 funeral homes across the U.S., where the industry-approved term for bereavement support is "aftercare services." There are also freestanding organizations across the country that offer a wide array of treatments. Some of these organizations are not-for-profit, but others are all for it: the Grief Recovery Institute in Sherman Oaks, Calif., has trademarked the term grief recovery and charges $995 for a three-day workshop.

    For a practice that has become so ubiquitous, it has been awfully hard to verify its effectiveness, no matter how well intentioned its advocates may be. When Robert Neimeyer, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis, and his colleague Joseph M. Currier analyzed the results of more than 60 controlled studies on grief interventions in 2008, they found no evidence that counseling helped most bereaved individuals any more than the simple passage of time. "Instead of finding that people who received counseling got better or stayed the same and that people who didn't receive counseling got worse or stayed the same, we found that everyone just got better," Currier says.

    The only instance in which counseling showed a benefit was when it was targeted at people displaying marked difficulties adapting to loss. "Given the current research, we cannot say that grief counseling is as effective with adults who are showing a normative response," says Currier, referring to the statistical norm for grief's length and intensity.

    That doesn't mean that no one is ever helped by counseling but rather that counseling doesn't, on average, seem to hasten grief's departure. In retrospect, the practice was likely popularized before there was enough solid research on normal grief to base it upon. And while counseling may have enriched a few of its practitioners, its propagation was driven more by ideology than money. Grief counselors are, by and large, not a sinister bunch out to make a buck off other people's misery, but they do, in the interest of self-preservation, have a stake in convincing us that grief is long and hard and requires their help.

    A Different, More Liberating Message

    One unfortunate result of all this mythmaking is that we've become more inflexible in our expectations of other people's grief — quite a paradox, considering that awareness and tolerance were among the primary goals of the death-and-dying movement. Instead of rushing to prescribe ways to grieve, it would be more helpful to spread a different, more liberating message based on what the science is beginning to tell us: that most people are resilient enough to get through loss on their own without stages or phases or tasks. A small minority will have a much harder time of it, and clinicians should focus their efforts on tailoring interventions for this group that are based on evidence, not assumptions. As with all social science, these new findings are not the last word, but they do give us a better sense of the different responses to bereavement and their prevalence.

    Drawing a clearer distinction between common and unusual reactions to loss might ultimately encourage those who don't need outside help and better assist those who do. That does not mean that grief could — or should — be diminished. But 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.

    As a society, we will most likely be unable to face grief without some sort of script. "No culture before has abandoned all recommendations as to how to mourn," notes sociologist Tony Walter of the University of Bath. But it certainly seems time to move beyond our current habit of using untested theories to create unnecessarily lengthy — and agonizing — models for coping with grief that have created more anxiety about the experience instead of alleviating it. Losing someone is hard enough as it is.

    Adapted from The Truth About Grief, by Ruth Davis Konigsberg. © 2011. Published by Simon & Schuster Inc.

    This article originally appeared in the Jan. 24, 2011 issue of TIME.

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