Healthy Living

Why This New Widow Is Skipping Grief Counseling

The idea that there are five stages of grief is a myth that needs to be busted.
02/09/2017 11:50am ET | Updated February 10, 2017
Courtesy of Ann Brenoff
The writer and her husband on a trip to Hawaii before his illness.

My life partner of decades died on Jan. 4, 2017, just a few weeks before my 67th birthday. But I believe I was widowed long before that day, as each new health complication he developed took him farther away from being the man I married.

I was his primary caregiver for the last year or so of his life and began grieving over losing him pretty much from when he first got sick.

Still, since his actual death, I’ve been on the receiving end of surprisingly uniform advice about how I’m supposed to grieve if I hope to successfully move on in life. I’m told that I need to follow Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief ― denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance.

Sorry, no can do. Why? Because those five steps were never meant to be taken as gospel, and frankly, they have birthed a cottage industry based on the premise that there is only one way to grieve. There’s not.

For her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Kübler-Ross studied how terminally ill cancer patients were processing their own mortality ― not how survivors dealt with the loss of a loved one. Kubler-Ross herself tried to clear up the misunderstanding, saying that she regretted writing about the stages in a way that allowed them to be widely mistaken as both linear and universal. From her work with terminally ill patients, she said, she meant to identify five common experiences, not five required experiences.

But by that time, the grief-help train had left the station, and the everlasting spin has been that if you don’t cycle through these five steps, you will be at risk of mental breakdowns down the road.

I’ve also been told there is “grief work” to do. Work? Like caregiving for an end-stage kidney failure patient was a walk in the park, and now I’m supposed to do “work” by examining every memory and reliving every miserable day of my husband’s illness?

Freud first planted the seed of the idea that moving past grief involved work, so I can’t blame Kübler-Ross for that. And Erich Lindemann, a psychiatrist who worked with survivors of the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire that killed 492 people in Boston in 1942, coined the phrase “grief work” back in the 1940s. So, it’s certainly not a new idea.

But frankly, it’s an old and out-of-date concept that deserves to be dropped from the curriculum of schools that churn out grief counselors.

“The traditional model of bereavement is that there is work to do,” says George Bonanno, a grief researcher and the author of The Other Side of Sadness. “There has never really been any evidence for that.”

Bonanno, who is also a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, is the godfather of what can be considered the “new grief theory,” which goes something like this: Resilient people recover fastest. How long you feel sad is not a measure of how much you loved someone but a measure of your own resiliency.

What’s more, losing a loved one is a trauma and in no other trauma ― rape, incest, loss of a job, a devastating illness or accident ― would any reputable counselor encourage the patient to relive the traumatizing event. Yet that’s precisely what the grief industry does.

In a 2002 study of people who had lost spouses, Bonanno found that the main symptoms of grief — shock, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, depression — had lifted within six months for 50 percent of the participants. “The majority of people can function pretty soon afterward,” he said.

Instead of five stages, Bonanno says grief is more like a swinging pendulum. You get upset and then it passes and you feel better. Repeat. In time, the periods between pendulum swings lengthens and gradually the pain subsides.

Moving Forward After Loss

When you enter a support group for widows, what you are mostly likely to find is a box of tissues on every seat. And then you are encouraged to share what you have experienced. It’s a cry-fest, says Becky Aikman, author of “Saturday Night Widows.”

Aikman, who lost her husband to cancer when she was 49, recalls how she stumbled into a grief support group about 18 months after he died. She felt ready to move on, but was unsure how to do it.

The group she picked advertised itself as “moving forward after loss,” but when she got there, the facilitator went through the five stages of grief and then encouraged everyone to share the story of their spouse’s death.

“Everyone was sobbing by the end,” she said. When she called the facilitator the next day to ask when the “moving forward” part would begin, she was asked not to return.

Her take on that interaction was simple: “There is an expectation that a proper widow maintains this cliché of Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. She doesn’t go out, doesn’t laugh, doesn’t date. The idea is that you have to do a penance almost, for years.”

Instead, what she did was form an alternative widows’ support group, something she eventually wrote a book about. The group embraced the core values of friendship, laughter and seeking out new experiences. “We laughed like crazy and are still all friends,” Aikman said. As a grand finale, the women traveled to Morocco together.

“Widow support groups can be helpful or harmful,” Aikman says. “Dwelling on the trauma keeps it present in our minds.”

I’m A Rebel Griever

I’ve decided to honor my husband by having the best rest of my life possible, by moving forward with him in my heart. I will not pretend that the last year was anything but living hell, and I will refuse to relive all of that pain and suffering under the guise of healing.

I love and miss my husband, but I am not immobilized. The only anger I feel is squarely directed at the members of the medical community who could not deliver him a gentle death. And yeah, I probably would like to see some major reforms in what passes for a nursing home in America. Working toward that goal may, in fact, be part of how I move on.

My greatest takeaway from watching my husband’s illness and death is that life is too short to waste time. Despite being sad, I can still see the kind of life I want. And it’s simply wrong-headed to believe that if someone doesn’t grieve along traditional lines, they will be emotionally crippled for the rest of their life.

Maybe it’s time we started silencing the grief-shamers instead of those who, like me, simply see another way to grieve?

Grief Portraits