It has been nearly six months since my father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, at age 67. Though I have been mourning in my own ways, I have not felt the need to seek professional grief counseling services. I know others who, when faced with their own losses, have found some relief through counseling and support groups. I would not presume to say that one approach is superior to the other; rather, I believe it depends on the person and their unique set of circumstances.
A recent Time magazine article led me to think more about grief and, specifically, how we cope with it. In a piece entitled “Good News About Grief” in the Jan. 24, 2011, issue, adapted from her book “The Truth About Grief,” author Ruth Davis Konigsberg sets forth her case that individuals are better able to demonstrate resilience when confronting loss than was previously thought to be true. Is this good news? It depends. Her views are likely to be controversial among counselors – and those specializing in loss and grief, in particular.
Konigsberg appears to take a dim view of the stage theories of loss popularized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, describing the idea of grieving in stages as one of the myths of grief. I am not comfortable dismissing stage theory completely, nor do I think stage theory offers the comprehensive, definitive word on grief: The truth, as with so many things, may lie somewhere in-between. When my classmates and I studied loss and grief during graduate school, I recall the stage theories being offered as influential ideas in the field, but never as the final explanation, as that would have been an oversimplification of the complex subject of grief. And I remember the topic being presented with the understanding that there might be some fluidity to the concept of stages, that a grieving person need not necessarily be assumed to advance neatly through the stages one-by-one, checking them off as she or he went. I didn’t feel as though I was being indoctrinated with the belief that this was the only way to understand grief, just that it was one possible way, among others. I admit the stage theories didn’t impact me a lot personally, then or now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have relevance to anyone, anywhere.
Of all the “myths” Konigsberg seeks to expose in her piece – and I agree with her to an extent on a few points, with some qualifiers – less so on others, I think the notion of counseling being beneficial for grieving people as myth is apt to be the most vexing one for counselors to accept. While acknowledging there may be a small subset of people with “Prolonged Grief Disorder” (I think this is what my loss and grief professor would have termed “Complicated Grief”) who may be helped by counseling, Konigsberg comes across as opposed to the idea of there being any great need for grief counseling overall. She adds, “Grief counselors are, by and large, not a sinister bunch out to make a buck off other people’s misery, but they do, in the interest of self-preservation, have a stake in convincing us that grief is long and hard and requires their help.” But it could also be pointed out that authors, in the interest of self-preservation, have a stake in selling books, too. (Indeed, by the same token it would be difficult, if not impossible, to name any occupation or profession entirely free of its own interests in this regard.) And grief IS long and hard.
The central issue seems to be that too much of the conventional wisdom surrounding grief carries the consequence of pathologizing grieving people by making them feel that they require professional help when their own resources are actually sufficient. While this has some validity – our society medicalizes far too many things – I think it’s equally important not to err too far in the other direction and inadvertently discourage those who want help from seeking it, regardless of whether they fall into some diagnostic category of prolonged grief. We want to be careful, lest we promote an up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that says you must tough things out all on your own when assistance is available that might help you in a difficult struggle. There are already enough people afraid to seek counseling for fear of the stigma. \
And, I would like to think, the vast majority of counselors are predisposed to view clients holistically and not quick to pathologize. I think it is the larger culture itself, rather than counseling, that has turned normal grief into pathology, if anything has. Ironically, a good counselor would be the first to recognize that grief doesn’t always follow a predictable model and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, though there probably are some ways of coping that move one closer to the healthy goal of reconciliation of the loss than do others. Maybe there are more points on which Konigsberg would agree with counselors than she realizes.
Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina