“To spare oneself from grief at all costs can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.” —Erich Fromm
One way to deal with grief is to ignore it. At first, you stay incredibly busy with the details of the loss: you arrange a funeral or memorial service, you coordinate travel plans for friends and family, you deal with estates and insurance and legal procedures. When all that abates, you tell yourself that there’s simply no time to sit around feeling bad. You have to work, deal with the people in your life, and keep up with the details.
At the same time, you might notice that all the commitments that existed before the loss require extra energy and extra concentration. This increased demand means you throw yourself into all of it extra hard. When you start to feel pangs of sadness, you push right through them.
Repression is not the same as moving forward. But it’s easy to get the two mixed up. A recent Wall Street Journal article seems to conflate skipping past grief with moving forward. The “experts” quoted discuss the value of pushing yourself into new experiences, laughing, and re-engaging in the joy of life through behavioral activation (doing fun things so that you may experience the positive feelings people have when doing fun things). Some argue that sitting around feeling bad only feeds into a spiral of feeling progressively worse (Bernstein, 2014).
I have a friend who hasn’t had much luck with this approach. For a while he did everything he could to avoid slipping into the avalanche of grief and the behaviors (crying, sleeping, withdrawing) it might entail. He maintained two jobs, a doctoral research project, a romantic relationship, and an active social life. But with each passing month it got harder to do what he’d always done. It began to feel more and more like acting as if everything was fine, rather than having everything really be fine.
He ended up seeking therapy for the explicit purpose of exploring his grief. Since then, he’s reduced his responsibilities at work and has cut way back on social engagements. He’s been staying in to write in his journal and watch sad movies. For the first time since he lost his mom 9 months ago, he’s let himself really cry. At the same time, he judges himself to be doing really well.
Quoting the grief researcher George Bonanno, the author of the Wall Street Journal article writes: "The traditional model of bereavement is that there is work to do. There has never really been any evidence for that (Bernstein, 2014)."
To me, the construction of grief as “work” is flawed. So, in that sense I agree with Bonanno. It seems more necessary to free ourselves to feel than to follow any specific process. Even Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself realized that the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) that predominated the grief world from 1969 on were neither linear nor mandatory (Kellehear, 2008). But I do believe that it’s necessary to let ourselves feel negative emotion in order to get better.
Everyone seems to agree that grief is fluid. It ebbs and flows. Bonanno compares it to a swinging pendulum: the cycles of feeling better and worse can sometimes be intense.
But the idea that we can recover from grief through behavioral activation, or by actively choosing the positive and dismissing the negative, seems flawed. Doing enjoyable things may sometimes make you feel better, but it may also make you feel worse. When my friend is feeling bad at a party, he ends up feeling extra bad because observing those not grieving tends to highlight the distance between himself and others. If he goes home and lets himself cry or write, he tends to feel better.
The other danger of the behavioral activation paradigm is similar to the problem with a linear stages paradigm. There shouldn’t be rigid norms around grief. We shouldn’t expect people to buck up and do something fun any more than we should expect them to feel denial before anger. What we should expect them to do is feel what they feel and on a timeline that makes sense to them. We should be concerned if they keep tamping it down (on one extreme) or can’t function (on the other). But we should be unconcerned if they spend time feeling bad or even doing things to temporarily intensify their sadness. Grief is messy and unique, and it always feels bad. Rather than try to change its nature, we should give it the room it needs to play out.
Bernstein, E. (2014) Proactive advice for dealing with grief: Seek out new experiences, The Wall Street Journal, February 24. Accessed at http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304610404579402940770172268
Kellehear, A. (2008) Foreword: On death and dying –40th anniversary. On Death and Dying, New York: Routledge, Accessed at http://www.ekrfoundation.org/five-stages-of-grief/