Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Truth About Grief? Oh really?

Storms make the oak grow deeper roots.
-George Herbert

The past few decades have given birth to many loquacious books touting innovative bereavement hegemony. And recently, yet a new book was published about grief, with all the banality of yet another attempt at uncovering the mysteries of grief whilst railing against the Kubler-Rossian zeitgeist of our era. But this book came with a hulabaloo.

The author makes some broadly swathed assertions about grief from the safety of the periphery- a person who admits having never really experienced traumatic death. Merely, it sounds as if she's speaking for the initiates, the real experts. And I find the public discussions around the book disturbing.

So here is where the pedagogy of grief gets tricky; postulations and muddling by criticizing self-declared grief pundits who assert when mourners aren't doing it right; too little, too much, too long, too brief, repressed, indulgent, not expressive enough or too expressive. It reminds me of what Helen Merrell Lynd said in the book On Shame and the Search for Identity: It's relatively easy to entertain multiple possibilities of truth if one remains a spectator on the sidelines. Or what Shakespeare said from Much Ado about Nothing: 'everyone is a master on grief until it is he who has it.'

Yes. It. Certainly. Is.

Grief is a broad, vast, mysterious vessel of human emotion in response to many losses. And it can, like water droplets forming irreplicable cloud patterns, manifest in different ways for different people. And while I agree with some of the author's postulations, for example, that some people, indeed, are resilient and able "to accept", as she says, "from the beginning" (and of course, we need operationalize "accept"), she consistently fails to distinguish between traumatic deaths and non-traumatic deaths. And so does much of the public.

Some individuals aren't able or willing to "accept" so soon after the loss (if ever) and some, even well-adjusted otherwise resilient, people find themselves trying desperately to cope with the enduring, unbearable effects of traumatic death, however, and rightfully so.

For example, a couple whose two children were both killed in a car crash. Or the mother whose three children were killed in a house fire with her husband. Or the father whose daughter was raped and murdered. Or the mother whose baby died during a traumatic birth and she nearly lost her own life as well. Or the mother who accidentally ran over her toddler in the driveway. Or the father whose young son awoke with a headache and was dead hours later from a brain aneurysm. These aren't sensationalized versions of reality. These are real people, real stories. Real mourners. And the suffering is beyond this world, beyond human comprehension.

The broad swath method lacks circumspect and nuance. And it can cause individual and social harm to one of the most vulnerable populations, increasing the mythological public perception that people who were "well-balanced" before the loss will accept it readily, while simultaneously abnormalizing more intense and enduring responses (which under the above circumstances are in actuality more congruent).

Specifically, the grief that results from traumatic death... well, the darkness of that storm should not be deconstructed by someone on the sidelines. Step into the storm, if you dare. There exists the unimaginable, the experience you will never capture with words or wands or theories or regression analyses.

Certainly, bereaved parents- and the traumatically bereaved- can integrate and adapt over time. They can even transcend their losses, experience posttraumatic growth, become advocates in the community, and in a Franklian sense find meaning. However, I believe that a person standing miles from the eye of the storm should consider whether it is wise to tell those standing in the midst of its reality.

The roots that grow deeper do so precisely because of the storm's intensity. And that is the truth about grief.


Ya Chun said...

Thank you, Joanne, for being our advocate out there in the midst of it, and standing up to these bullies.

You have done so much good and made such a big difference in Chey's memory.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...


Diana Doyle said...

Beautifully written and oh so true!

Thank you for this post...Grief is as you described, unimaginable to someone who has never walked in it's shoes. And we should never tell someone how they will be feeling or that there's a timeline to it....

with love
Diana x

Christine said...

Thank you Joanne...I read the article and I read your statement..thank you for speaking for us. Thank you for sharing our side with the world..and thank you for always advocating for us, for our children, both living and dead.. thank you for making a change in the world.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Thank you Diana and Christine. Thank you for reading and thank you for being here.

Anna said...

I haven't read the book - I only read the article about the book and found that snippet irritating.

I have found in my four years at hospice the expected, "knew-it-was-coming" deaths are also difficult to accept for some.

You said it perfectly with "I believe that a person standing miles from the eye of the storm should consider whether it is wise to tell those standing in the midst of its reality."

Thank you for posting your passionate response.

Missy said...

Wonderfully written. I tried to read several broad grief books or grief like books suggested by friends. I think I'll stick to books about pregnancy and infant loss. Those books tend to "get it" when others are lacking!

Carly Marie said...

Thank You. That is all I wanted to say. xxx

Amy said...

Thank you as always for your insightful voice. I have often wondered about bereavement books, questioning the authentic nature of their "truth" if the author is not a bereaved person themselves.

I find books written from the voice of the bereaved, from those that have experienced the intense storm and raging emotions to be more helpful. Their stories, their healing, their guidance... that rings true to my heart.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Thank you Anna, Missy, Carly, and Amy for reading... Thank you.

And yes, books from the real initiates, I find, are the most poignant, honest, and relevant.

Mattie said...

Thank you.
Have you ever noticed that most find it taboo to tell others how they should parent, yet it seems acceptable to tell us how to grieve? People will talk behind a mothers back if her parenting practices are different than there own (or even dangerous) but openly tell the grieving advice on how to grieve and "feel better". Seems a bit backwards to me.

Unknown said...

Books and articles like that prove over and over that *anyone* can get a book published about *anything.*

Thank you Joanne. I really don't know how you do it. No idea. But I thank you for doing it.

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore said...

Thank you Mattie & Katie for reading. I know how very frustrating it is to have these ideas wantonly propagated without telling the whole story, the *real* truth.

Tears in November said...

Thank you so much. I shudder at the times I was told how I should feel after my son died, or the times I was told " i thought you were over that now". I have always felt, if you have not had this type of loss, you have no clue, and how could a person who has not had this type of loss tell someone who has, how and what to feel or how long. Thank you for being a voice for us.

Mirne said...

How can anyone who has not experienced grief, write about it?

Before my children died, I had absolutely no idea about grief. I was one of those people who sad nothing when a friend's baby was stillborn. Because I didn't know.

I didn't know grieving is real. I didn't know death is so final. I didn't know that speaking about the person gone is so incredibly important to the ones left behind. I didn't know, but now I do.

Heather said...

It seems so cliche, but it is so true. If you have not walked in the shoes of grief, let alone grief over the loss of a child, you have no idea what it's like to endure, and try to live with.

Unknown said...

Hi, Thank you so much for a beautiful piece of work. Please allow me to introduce myself. By profession I am a social worker with a vast experience of working with trauma predominantly in refugee communities in the uk. Many of these people have been systematically tortured and abused. In 2005 however I lost my own partner Paul as a result of murder. In 2010 I left my job to travel india and there I became a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism at Namgyal Monastery Home to HH The Dalai Lama. Since returning to the UK recently I have decided to use my skills knowledge and experience to work with those who are experiencing trauma relating to bereavement and loss. I would very much like to follow your blog and would very much apreciate if you could check mine out, Thank you Tenzin Dasal.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

Follow me on Facebook