(All photos were taken on the Pont des Arts in Paris. Over the last few years, this bridge which spans the Seine between the Louvre and l’Institut de France has become a display of “cadenas d’amour” or love locks. In June of 2007, a month before his death, Parker sat with friends on one of these benches and played the djembe during the city-wide Fête de la Musique. Our boys wanted to be right here on the afternoon of our wedding anniversary last week.)
I once watched a documentary that wrenched my mitochondria clean out of joint.
It was in the early summer of 1991, and I was heavily pregnant with what was to be our second child, Claire. The documentary was about birthing practices in general, which, given my belly, I found fascinating. But one segment – it might have lasted only five of the total sixty minutes – showed live footage of a medically forced birthing experience in rural Russia. The footage froze my breathing mid-gasp, freeze-drying the images on my mind forever.
Why I am writing about them here as we continue our discussion about grief?
Because I thought daily of these very images from this documentary in that excruciating phase of weeks and months over the first year or so after our son Parker died. I know there is a fundamental lesson about grief here, that there is a reason my mind went again and again to the images from this documentary.
You’re now wondering about that documentary.
They’re shadowy, the images in my memory. The lighting is poor, the camera hand-held, the palette composed of varying shades of dirt and bleakness. There’s a narrator, a deep, plodding English-speaking female voice, who filters parts of the running dialogue between English-speaking researchers and their translation of Russian doctors.
The setting is in a clinic of sorts. The pregnant mother, a sturdy woman in a sort of grayish shift, has been brought into a delivery room at the top of the hour. A voice notes that she is in active labor. The voice also notes that the clinic has a rigid schedule. The woman is visibly inebriated, barely able to bear her own weight on her naked legs, and is hoisted by two attendants to the colorless birthing table. The narrator’s translation from the personnel explains that this drunkenness is normal, desirable: the hospital workers have administered large doses of hard liquor. Enough vodka preps the woman for what’s to come.
The woman mumbles as the two professionals try to get her to lie flat on her back. Her legs flail in discomfort. An attendant bends the mother’s knees then straps her feet firmly in place, soles on the cold tabletop.
The woman moans and writhes, protesting incoherently in drunken pain. Someone gives her more alcohol and holds her arms down. She’s already been in labor for a few hours, a person in white explains, but now that she’s good and sloshed and on her back, the labor’s slowed down, gone sluggish. With a schedule to respect and other mothers lined up to deliver, the attendants need to help things along. They will now demonstrate what they routinely do in case of a labor that lags behind textbook rhythms.
One attendant stands at the foot of the table and grips the woman’s feet firmly while the other, a large person, a man I think, stands at the top of the table and, leaning his full body weight his elbows, rams them under the delivering mother’s breasts and across her ribcage, pressing downward on the mountain that is child beneath her skin. The man leans even more forcefully, jamming the lump of child downward, narrating steadily that the rocking pressure forces the baby’s head into the cervix, inducing dilation.
While pushing and shoving, he explains (over the increasing concern and voiced objections of the observing researchers, over the delirious agony of the mother) that while it might appear cruel, the method is efficient. It keeps things on a reasonable schedule. And you’ll see, someone says, we’ll get that baby out.
The woman on the table, drunk and powerless, cries out like an animal.
The researchers have gone silent. The camera cuts.
Grief over the death of my child has itself been a sort of labor. Like the laboring that culminates in a birth into life, grief has been a long, painful, transformative labor into another kind of birth. Another birth into another life. My son’s. My family’s. My own.
Like birth, the labor of grief has been supported by caregivers. They have been with us.
But this grief-labor metaphor has strict limits.
Grieving death has been a far more protracted labor than giving birth. And there’s simply no comparing the startling, intense but limited pain of birthing with the mind-blowing and bone-crushing physical and psychic pain of spirit and mind that have accompanied grief. Grief has ripped a full dilation into my soul. For a very long time it even changed the way I walk.
Gingerly. Like the whole world was made of egg shells and laced with landmines and could crack open at any moment, swallowing me or worse those I love into it. Just like that.
Grief, unlike labor, cannot be clocked, measured or gauged. It does not follow a predictable anything, while labor has consistent and successive phases.
But hold on. You’ve heard about the stages of grief. Folks talk glibly about being in denial about something as mundane as losing their cell phone, about getting stuck in the anger stage after something as non monumental as missing a job promotion, and I heard someone comment on a friend who had been “grieving” that her car broke down, “Thank heavens she’s finally willing to take it to the shop. At least she’s finally in the acceptance stage.”
Let me offer a bit of background on these stages, their origins, and their unfortunate misapplication.
First, the so-called Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
These concepts are the brainchild of Swiss-American clinical psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who was trained classically, meaning she studied Freudian psychoanalysis. Before understanding Kübler-Ross, one has to look closely at Freud. In his seminal work, Mourning and Melancholia, Freud revealed his personal biases, and these biases have shaped virtually all of western thought regarding bereavement and grief.
What did Freud believe?
Freud did not believe in any existence beyond the grave, in life as eternal. Therefore, he claimed that the sole objective of grief was detachment from the person passed. This stance literally defined grief theory for generations. As one researcher explains:
Freud’s theory stressed “letting go” of the past and the relationship with the deceased; he emphasized withdrawing energy from the deceased, the forging of new relationships, and a “getting on” with life in the present. Successful “grief work”, then, involved three successive and inter-related phases: understanding and accepting the loss; withdrawing one’s attachment to, and identification with, the deceased; and resuming one’s emotional life and the establishing of new relationships. For Freud, the continuation of a bond with the deceased was interpreted as living in the past, and it was doomed to fail for, in the end, the loss must be acknowledged and the attachment relinquished.
If you believe as I do in life as eternal, you might find this classical approach to grief less than helpful.
Freudulent, let’s say.
Kübler-Ross’ work, though based on Freudian hypotheses, was not focused on the experience of bereavement, nor did it presuppose death as the ultimate end, as had Freud’s. Instead, her theories dealt with the adjustment a terminally ill patient makes in coming to terms with her own impending death.
The Stages theory as presented in Kübler-Ross’ book On Death and Dying (1969) was met with criticism as well as praise by her peers. Critics found the claims too rigid and definitive, and argued that not all patients in palliative care experience all five stages and certainly not always in the tidy succession Kübler-Ross claimed.
What happened, though, was that following the popularity of Kübler-Ross’ writings and lectures, others adopted her Stages of Grief, misapplying them to the experience not of anticipating one’s own death, but of surviving another’s death.
Clearly, anticipating one’s own death and outliving another’s are two radically different experiences. Nevertheless, the Stages of Grief theory had taken firm root, and a whole generation of a grief theory sprouted from that trunk.
Kübler-Ross never corrected the misapplication of her theories, and built a worldwide career lecturing and writing on death and dying. She was immensely popular and no doubt greatly helpful to many, breaking ground in the world of hospice and palliative care. What happened in her later life (affiliation with a spiritualist cult, acting as a channel for communication with the dead) cost her her reputation and I don’t have the heart to go into that here. But her mark, in the form of the theory of the Stages of Grief when applied rigidly and to the experience of bereavement, remains.
I (and others, unlike myself, who are the true academic authorities in the field) argue that it should not.
Why, you wonder, should some theory about grief matter?
Because the theory is stubborn, and even if we aren’t aware of it, we are subconsciously influenced by it and are using its language to the detriment of our bereaved friends. Freud would have said the faster you can get over, get through, get past the connection with your deceased beloved, the healthier you are. And the Stages of Grief theory carries with it a tacit belief that grief can be charted and clocked and moved through as one moves down a kind of to-do list. The emphasis – and this is where we might inflict injury if we are not informed and sensitive to our language – is on pushing that grief baby out.
“You need to put this behind you.”
“I hope you can get to some closure on this.”
“It’s time to move on.”
“We want to help you get over this.”
“It’s been three months, you know, and you’re still. . .?”
“Don’t you think it’s time that you. . .”
“I had an aunt who grieved at least five months. Man, it was bad.”
“Do you need just a little time, maybe a couple of weeks off from work before you’re back to 100%?”
Imposing a timeline on another’s pain is not helpful.
And for the overwhelming majority of the bereaved – even those with no previous inclination to spiritual things – detaching from the deceased is not the objective of grief.
Simply put, we can forget deadlines.
Clinical findings tend to trickle slowly into what becomes public knowledge, so what most people don’t realize is that the Stages of Grief theory particularly when used to describe the experience of grieving the death of a loved one has long since been eclipsed by two other major trends in grief theory.
One I will call the Resilience trend. Its leading voices are George Bonnano and Ruth Davis Konigsberg. I’ll get back to Resilience in a later post.
The other is as counter to classical Freudian grief theory as we can probably get. I will call it the Continuing Bonds trend. Leading researchers are Dennis Klass, Thomas Attig, Tony Walters and Phyllis Silverman. I’ll return to this research over and over again. Indeed, quotes from this established school of thought fill the later chapters in my anthology.
From Grief and Grace: Collected Voices on Loss and Living Onward
Contrary to the general assumption, the first days of grief are not the worst. The immediate reaction is usually shock and numbing disbelief. One has undergone an amputation. After shock comes acute early grief which is a kind of “condensed presence”—almost a form of possession. One still feels the lost limb down to the nerve endings. It is as if the intensity of grief fused the distance between you and the dead. Or perhaps, in reality, part of one dies. Like Orpheus, one tries to follow the dead on the beginning of their journey. But one cannot, like Orpheus, go all the way, and after a long journey one comes back. If one is lucky, one is reborn. Some people die and are reborn many times in their lives. For others the ground is too barren and the time too short for rebirth. Part of the process is the growth of a new relationship with the dead, that “véritable ami mort” Saint-Exupéry speaks of. Like all gestation, it is a slow dark wordless process. While it is taking place one is painfully vulnerable. One must guard and protect the new life growing within—like a child.
-Ann Morrow Lindbergh, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead, 214-15
In so many encounters we try to look away from the pain. We try to help our friends quickly process grief. We hastily look for ways to bring cheer to a child or ailing aunt. All the while, however, we act less out of genuine “suffering with” and more out of our need to stand back from the discomfort we fear we might feel. We secretly, restlessly want to move from the place where it hurts. Our evasions do not help others, of course, but rather cause them to put up defenses and drive away those who need someone to care.
-Henri Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing,69
[The children’s psychotherapist] says that one of the delusions of people in grief is that once a year passes, things will start to look up. She reminds us of what she told Harris at the outset, that grief is a lifelong process for every one of us, not just the children. As for the demarcation of a year, “Things actually get worse. You, Ginny, and Harris are now realizing the hard truth that this is how life will be from now on. One year is no time at all.
-Roger Rosenblatt, Making Toast, 152
Medical personnel, clergy, counselors, well-meaning but misguided acquaintances may tell you that you can expect to feel better by such-and-such a date, but they are wrong. No such timeline exists.. . .
Early on you will have to protect yourself against insensitive comments from blundering friends, relatives and acquaintances, some of whom should know better and others who have no idea that you are bereaved. Even seemingly benign questions such as “how are you?” or “how was your summer?” or comments such as “have a good day,” will stab you and throw you off balance.
There is a cold chill that goes through your body each time some unthinking acquaintance tells you “it’s time to get over it.” There is no “getting over it.” You will carry every detail of what happened throughout every day of your life, and you will forevermore categorize all events as occurring either “before” or “after” your child’s death.
—Ellen Mitchell, Beyond Tears, 10–11
Our culture has not been educated to acknowledge the length of time necessary to overcome a major loss. This lag of information adds to the burden on the bereaved because they themselves feel that they should have been “back to normal” long before this.
—Catherine M. Sanders, quoted in When the Bough Breaks, xv
My years of dissembling when depressed, of persuading others that I was fine when I was not, turned out to be useful in navigating the no-man’s-land between my grief and others’ queries and concerns. It took far longer to reconfigure myself after Richard’s death than I thought it would, and certainly longer than most people allow. A colleague, not someone distinguished for his sensitivity, asked me, after Richard died, to review a paper for a psychiatric journal. “My husband just died,” I found myself snapping.
“It’s been three months,” he said.
And so it had.
Time means different things to different people. To some in the BlackBerry scramble, three months is long enough. I was inhabiting a slower and more confused world, with a different experience of time altogether. I could not imagine turning from my inward life and sadness to the cold-blooded thinking necessary to do a scientific review. I wanted time to myself with Richard. Soon enough, I would have to enter into the rest of my life without him. This was a time between times, and I did not want to leave it before I had to.
—Kaye Redfield Jamison, Nothing Was the Same,149–50
By offering premature advice on how to cope, by rushing to reassure, by prodding with advice, we say much about our need for easy closure. When we barge in with such consolation, we make hurting souls into objects or projects.
–H. Nouwen, Turn My Mourning Into Dancing,70
[Mourners] may feel totally inadequate and be sure that they are going crazy because six months to one year later, people are asking why they are not over the loss already. Most of their friends and relatives will have returned to their own lives, and the bereaved may feel very alone. Neither those who offer them support nor the mourners themselves are aware that the process has only begun.
-P. Silverman, Never To Young To Know, 38
Grief takes time, and nothing speeds up the process, not even hope. Why? Because they are two different realities. I cannot press on the horn to make the car go faster: The horn and the accelerator involve two essentially different realities, however united they are in the body of the car. The same is true of grief and hope.
-G. Floyd, A Grief Unveiled, 189
Spiritual growth will be enhanced as individuals come to understand and accept the grief process, its duration, and, most importantly, its compatibility with faith and spirituality.
–Joyce and Dennis Ashton, Jesus Wept, 127
The traditional mourning rites [for Chinese] are clearly focused on an ongoing relationship. Then shouldn’t the continuing bond be more ubiquitous in China? And shouldn’t it also be more consistently healthy as well?
The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. In our study, the overall sense of a continued bond was more common among the Chinese than among Americans, and it was also healthier for the Chinese. . . . In general, the more our Chinese subjects experienced a connection to the deceased early in the bereavement, the less distress they felt over the long run. . . . Continuing bonds are more adaptive in a context where they are understood and culturally supported.
–George Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness, 180
Most people seem to reach a point at which grief no longer runs them; rather, they run it. Although they still feel some of the pain associated with the loss, it is no longer the driving force in their lives. There is always a place in their hearts and minds that still feels the pain of the loss and is connected to the deceased. This is not an atrophied spot, but a place where a relationship with the deceased is constructed, nourished, and sustained, changing with time. Faith and religion often provide meaning and comfort that may have eluded the mourners earlier.
—Phyllis Silverman, Never Too Young to Know, 39
As [comourners] we help to normalize this loss when we convey to parents that the goal is not to “detach” from or “let go” of their child, but to acknowledge the reality of the child’s physical death while also building new connections to the child’s spirit.
—K. Talbot, What Forever Means After the Death of a Child, 21
In many places the family of a child who dies, and the child’s friends, not only know why the child died and where he is but can check up on how he’s doing, ritually offer him gifts and blessings, and continue to play a role in his life after death.
Imagine how it might be for us if we could follow our children’s progress in some other world. Would it change how we miss them? Would it affect how we grieve? Would it help us heal? I think it would.
—Sukie Miller, Finding Hope When A Child Dies, 14
As mourners, young and old, discover that they need to find a new way of living in the world, they realize that they may have to shift the way they relate to themselves and others. In addition, since the bereaved’s relationship to the deceased does not end, mourners develop a continuing bond, keeping the deceased in their lives in a variety of ways. Thus, the work of this transition period requires that individual mourners and grieving families develop resources and capacities for dealing with changes in their feelings, in the ways they live in the world, and in their relationship to the deceased. The transition does not have an ending date because the bereaved will continue to renegotiate the meaning of the loss for the rest of their lives.
—P. Silverman, Never Too Young to Know, 32
We begin to realize, more and more fully, as we become acquainted with the principles of the Gospel, as they have been revealed anew in this dispensation, that we are closely related to our kindred, to our ancestors, to our friends and associates and co-laborers who have preceded us into the spirit world. We cannot forget them; we do not cease to love them; we always hold them in our hearts, in memory, and thus we are associated and united to them by ties that we cannot break, that we cannot dissolve or free ourselves from. . . .
For now they see the dangers that beset us; they can comprehend, better than ever before, the weaknesses that are liable to mislead us into dark and forbidden paths. They see the temptations and evils that beset us in life, and the proneness of mortal beings to yield to temptation and wrong doing; hence their solicitude for us and their love for us and their desire for our well being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves.
—Joseph F. Smith, CR, April 1916, 2–3
We are in reality, while in this mortality, aliens and strangers. We are far distant from our father’s house, living in a cold world far removed from those affections which we doubtless have experienced in the spirit world, and which we will again enjoy, if we are faithful to the trust reposed in us on the earth. . . . It is right that the ties should be strengthened between us and the spirit world. Every one who departs from this mortal state of existence only adds another link to the chain of connection—another tie to draw us nearer to our Father and God, and to those intelligences which dwell in His presence. . . . Those of us who have lost children, brothers and sisters and parents, feel an increased interest in the spirit world; the ties between such and the spirit world, have become binding, and we can contemplate, if not with delight, at least with no great sorrow, our removal from this state of existence to the next. In the providence of God it is right that these earthly ties should be weakened, to convince us that we are not in the condition that the Lord wishes us to remain in. We are here in a state of temptation, sin and sorrow, and he desires us to look forward to a better world, we who remain, feel an increased interest therein, and feel stimulated to look forward with increased joy to the time when we shall be united. . . . The Latter day Saints have hopes and anticipations, which none besides them can indulge in; because we have a knowledge of the Gospel which buoys us up under these earthy afflictions, and assures us that we shall be united with our friends again. It is not a matter of doubt or of speculation with us; but it is with us a matter of knowledge. God has given us the testimony of His Spirit, which bears witness to our spirits that we shall again be united with our departed friends after death.
—George Q. Cannon, JD, 10:369–70