The Good Funeral Guide Blog

Grief memoirs

Monday, 28 February 2011

There’s been some interesting discussion of grief over at the New York Times.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg, the person who demolished the 5 stages of grief model (derived from Kubler Ross), has this to say:

In the past decade, social scientists with unprecedented access to large groups of widows and widowers have learned that, as individual an experience as grief may be, there are specific patterns to its intensity and duration that are arguably more helpful in guiding the bereaved in what to expect. They have found that most older people who lose spouses from natural causes recover much more quickly than we have come to expect. In fact, for many, acute grief tends to lift well within six months after the loss.

The single largest group — about 50 percent — showed very little sign of shock, despair, anxiety or intrusive thoughts (the hallmark symptoms of acute grief) even six months after their loss. Those subjects were also screened for lethargy, sleeplessness, inability to experience pleasure and problems in appetite — the classic symptoms of clinical depression — and came up clean on those as well. That didn’t mean that they didn’t still miss their spouses, but that they had returned to somewhat normal functioning, contradicting the popular maxim of widowhood that “the second year is harder than the first.”

As for the remaining participants, about 15 percent exhibited grief symptoms that were moderately high at 6 months but almost completely gone by 18 months. For an additional 10 percent, those who were still having problems at 18 and 48 months, grief had become chronic.

There were two additional groups that had never been considered in the literature: people who were depressed before and after their loss whose troubles seemed to be a pre-existing condition (about 10 percent), and people whose depression improved after the loss (also about 10 percent), suggesting that the death of a spouse actually alleviated stress.

Loss is forever, but thankfully, acute grief is not.

Read it all here. There are some very good, trenchant letters in response to the piece here.

A second piece asks why there are so many grief memoirs being published. Megan O’Rourke responds:

We shy away from talking about death, not out of cold-heartedness, but out of fear. No one wants to say the wrong thing; and death is scary. I think this is part of why there are so many memoirs and movies about loss: they create a public space where we can talk safely about grief.

Read the whole piece here.

One comment on “Grief memoirs

  1. Jonathan

    Tuesday 1st March 2011 at 1:54 pm

    The indignation (“trenchant letters”) expressed, against the cold analysis of their plight, by people who have actually lost someone by death is heartwarming even if it misses the (dubious) point that Konigsberg reports; which is of course about trends (imaginary controlling influences that keep scientists in a well-paid job), not specific cases (devastating truth, which incidentally often involves the loss of an already low income). Thanks for that, Charles.

    As to O’Rourke and Oates, this jumps out at me from the conversation between the two:

    “…the essence of widowhood is to find a way, however desperate, to keep yourself alive. I don’t think that ritual would have been, for me, any sort of solace. There is too much irony in ritual — too much that is impersonal in a way to deflect the horror of the specific, unique death.” (Joyce Carol Oates).

    “…the mystery of all this is that lamentation is consoling instead of just painful.” (Meghan O’Rourke).

    ‘Ritual’ means, essentially, an often-repeated action, and so ‘new ritual’ is a contradiction. Old ritual can evidently be meaningless and impersonal – ineffective, ineffectual and inefficacious. Even sometimes offensive, when it’s done thoughtlessly.

    What a celebrant must look for are not simply ways to establish what will become substitute rituals – other all-purpose, one-size-fits-all party poopers to banish real feeling – but a way to eloquently speak the painful truth, in everyday language, about a specific, unique personal and communal loss, trusting in the healing power of others’ lament that is entrusted to his voice, inviting the agony that permits the joy of remembering.

    I know I’ve made this point several times on this blog, but how reassuring to have it validated by some on the other side of the lectern.

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