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Facts about Grief

Beyond the five stages of grief and other myths.

When my wife died in 2004, I looked for books to help me understand grief and deal with it. Most of what I found was useless, based on highly subjective speculations and anecdotal evidence, although I did find one helpful resource: Therese Rando's How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. I found it lamentable that so little of the popular advice on grief was based on scientific evidence.

So I was pleased to encounter in my local Wordsworth bookstore a new, evidence-based but highly readable review that corrects many widespread misconceptions about bereavement, Ruth Davis Konigsberg's The Truth about Grief. Here are some of the facts about grief I learned from this book.

1. The five-stage model of grief is dubious. Many people have heard of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's account of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But she never had more than a few stories to provide evidence that grief develops in these stages. More careful research has found that acceptance commonly occurs early in the process of recovery from grief.

2. Repressing emotions can be good. Konigsberg describes the important research of George Bonanno, who found that "repressive coping" works well for many people.

3. Men suffer at least as much from bereavement as women. Contrary to the popular stereotype of women as more dependent and emotional, widowers often suffer more grief than widows.

4. People recover from grief. Despite the huge pain of major losses, most people no longer have major problems dealing with life by 18 months afterward.

5. Counseling may not be beneficial. When a graduate student in my department was murdered in 2003, the university brought in counselors to talk to the faculty and students. Such counseling has become a common part of responses to disasters, but it is an empirical question whether it actually helps people recover faster and better. An extensive review of relevant studies found no evidence that counseling was more effective for most people than the simple passing of time.

Konigsberg's evidence-based rejection of many myths about grief shows the value of basing psychology on scientific research rather than on anecdotes or popular theories. Folk theories about mental states, including the ones that analytic philosophers defend on the basis of their own thought experiments and intuitions, are likely to be as wrong as the ideas promulgated by popular psychologists to sell books and attract TV audiences. People naturally seek assistance to deal with severe problems such as the grief that inevitably follows major losses, but to be effective the help needs to based on the kinds of scientific research that Konigsberg reports.

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