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Book Review: Getting Grief Right

Patrick O'Malley's Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss is actually about the dangers of attempting to grieve "correctly," to fit grief into the one-size-fits-all template of the five stages of grief outlined by Kubler-Ross. O'Malley is a psychologist, and he gets a lot of clients who come in and tell him that since the death of their spouse/child/parent/parakeet they haven't been moving through the stages properly but got stuck on anger, or depression, or whatever, and in any case it's been nine months since they lost their loved one and the experts say that if you're still grieving after six you're probably cray-cray, so can he help them?

O'Malley has come around to the view that, insofar as help means "help them go through the five stages properly and get over their grief," he can't; most people don't grief neatly in five stages and, if the loss is big enough, lots of people feel at least occasional stabs of grief for the rest of their lives. But he can help them feel less like freaks by telling them that it's totally normal for grief to be chaotic and disorderly and to continue feeling a subterranean hum of grief long after society says you should be over it.

Now, I actually agree with a lot of the stuff in this book. I think our culture promotes a ludicrously foreshortened grief schedule, and we'd probably all be better off if we spent less time telling each other what we're allowed to feel - not even how we're allowed to express our feelings, mind, but what we're allowed to feel in the first place - and more just listening to what we actually do feel.

(I realize that "Have you considered therapy?" is often meant lovingly, and there are times when it needs to be said, but it has the sub-meaning "Your pain is so incredibly tedious that you can't expect anyone to listen to it if they're not actually getting paid." No wonder our society is so full of people who feel miserable and alone and believe to the bottom of their souls that they will only have value if they achieve success, as defined by money-making.)

Nonetheless, reading Getting Grief Right sometimes gave me the same feeling of exhaustion I get when I read, say, dietary studies, when it turns out that everything the previous generation of scientists said is wrong. Fat doesn't make you fat! Eggs are good for you after all! Margarine is in fact way less healthy than butter! Et cetera. Those old scientists got it all wrong, but you should totally believe us new scientists when we tell you carbs are evil.

And it's like, well, why? Why should I believe you this time round when you've gotten it wrong time and time again for the past hundred years? Why, in fact, should I believe psychiatrists about pretty much anything, if psychiatry as a profession finds it baffling that people, lots of people, indeed possibly the majority of people, might feel crushingly sad about the death of their loved ones for more than six months? This is a pretty damn basic thing to get wrong.

Twenty years from now, they're going to decide that carbs are fine but protein is totally making us fat, and also the by-then-orthodox method of grief through storytelling is straitjacketing us in our misery and we should actually grieve through interpretive dance or something.

This entry was originally posted at http://osprey-archer.dreamwidth.org/570334.html. Please comment there using OpenID.


I feel the same way you do about dietary news and psychological health, but I think what we're victims of in both cases is people wanting to run to extremes with small bits of new knowledge. Often the science itself isn't making huge claims, but the popular press wants to.

But apart from that, scientists have a really bad habit of being unable to see how their own biases affect their results--this is really clear in social sciences, but it's true in other areas too. This isn't to say that we can't trust science but only to say that we have every right to be skeptical about things that provoke that response. Which sounds like a circular sentence, but my point is, there's nothing magical about science that means we have to dismiss our skepticism.

That's my impression as well. I totally agree about the "everything we told you last year is wrong" issue in general. But while this might be local, in my experience therapists don't think grief must last a specific time or have specific stages. I was also specifically taught the opposite in therapist school. "You're doing emotions wrong" is a major issue in the community, but that particular version of it seems to be coming more from the wider culture than from the professionals.

I do meet a lot of grieving people who've been told that bullshit about grief, but they seem to have gotten it from pop psychology articles written by non-professionals, cultural osmosis, and non-therapists they know. It clearly descends from Kubler-Ross, but I think it's because her book hit peak cultural saturation in a sort of telephone game form, and nothing anyone said or wrote after that had anywhere near that level of impact.

In my experience, what therapists think Kubler-Ross was right about was her reporting on grieving people's emotions, but in a much more general form: many people are angry, many people bargain, etc. But there's no particular order to it, everyone doesn't feel everything, and there's no right or wrong way to grieve. The closest mainstream psych gets to anything about a specific time period is that if you're completely nonfunctional, like unable to get out of bed, after [some arguable period of time], you probably need help.
O'Malley comments that when he lost his infant son in the eighties, he compared his own grief to the stages that he'd learned in training to become a therapist and found himself lacking, so at least at that point a rigid interpretation of the Kubler-Ross model of grief did have professional weight. But that was decades ago now, so doubtless things have changed since then.

I suppose the real question is "How will the popular press get a hold of this new version of grief therapy and twist it into an unhelpfully simplified version of itself?" Although that might put too much blame on the press and not enough on the public. There is clearly a subset of people who want carbs to be the devil, grief to be neatly linear, and all sorts of other things to be far simpler than they are, and eagerly eat this stuff up when it's published.
Oh, poor guy. Yeah, I bet if therapists were going on Kubler-Ross in the eighties, that would be more than enough time for it to lodge itself into the culture by now.

Not about grief, but if I get emailed ONE more idiotic cure-all article, I will snap. In terms of physical health, literally any study that comes out will instantly mutate into "This explains and cures EVERYTHING" in the press. And then people will use it to beat their sick/grieving/depressed friends/relatives/acquaintances over the head with. It's meant well, I GUESS, but it's the opposite of helpful.

I think the base cultural issue is the idea that if something is wrong in your life and it doesn't get fixed instantly, it's your own fault because you haven't done the One True Thing to fix it. So everyone demands that you do that thing, which is whatever they happen to have absorbed by cultural osmosis or read about on Buzzfeed that morning. If you tried it and it didn't work, it's your fault for doing it wrong or not for long enough; if you say it's bullshit, then it's your own fault for not trying it.

Which ties in back to osprey_archer's remark about people asking someone in mental anguish if they've considered therapy: if something doesn't have a neat timeline (either very quick or very predictable) to happily ever after, people gets restive and anxious, and their ways of dealing with those feelings can be *very* unpleasant for the person who's ill/depressed/grieving.
I think there are times when "Have you considered therapy" needs to be said, but it depends a lot on how you say it. There's a difference between "I'm going to be here for you as long as you need me, but have you considered getting professional help also, because I'm worried I might not be enough" and "You're getting all your icky sad feelings on me and it makes me uncomfortable, please get a therapist so you can do 100% of your sad talking to them."

I 100 percent understand that you're not saying that *all* times, or all ways, of saying "have you considered therapy" are a bad thing.
I think the way that scientific findings get out to the public tends to act as a series of megaphones. Everyone needs to make the findings sound important to get published, so they get juiced up a little by the scientists, and then a little more by popular science writers, and by the time it filters down to somewhere like Buzzfeed the findings have grown from "carbs probably contribute to weight gain" to "CARBS ARE THE TOOL OF SATAN. WHO REALLY WANTS US ALL TO BE FAT FOR SOME REASON. Probably because gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins."
I sometimes feel that science is a little like explorers who come stomping ashore in a strange land going 'AND THAT IS A KANGAROO!' 'I SHALL NAME THIS MOUNTAIN Mt ME!' etc.

And everyone who has been living in that country all along looks mystified and says, well yes, of course people feel grief for a long time. Of course animals feel pain. Of course we learn in varied ways. Of course love is hard to define.

I like science and it's definitely better than the alternative, but sometimes its practitioners can seem rather alien...
I always imagine a scientist wandering around his study, pondering whether or not animals feel pain, so engulfed in his thoughts that he stumbles over his dog, who yelps and retreats to the corner to lick his sore paw and look wounded.

"But how could we tell?" the scientist thinks, steadying himself against a bookcase and gazing into the fire. "How can we ever really know what animals feel?"

Edited at 2017-02-12 09:12 pm (UTC)