Apparently Joyce Carol Oates’ book caused quite the brouhaha mostly because one reviewer noted that Ms. Oates remarried quite quickly after the death of her husband of 40 something years. Some readers accused Ms. Oates of manipulating them with her book and not really being about anything but herself. The book is almost devoid of who her husband was.

Okay. That is what it is. It may be an open question as to whether it was just a bloodletting that managed to get published only because it was Ms. Oates or because it’s a valuable book. But the book and the fallout, for better or worse, opened up a discussion about widowhood and grieving. The problem continues to be that people, most people, have no clue about grieving and too many profess to know. And they don’t.

Along comes Ruth Koningsberg with a new book boldly and brashly (and erroneously) titled, “The Truth About Grief” and an New York Times OpEd to add a lot of fuel to the fire.

Ms. Koningsberg has written a book which “tackles” the stages of grief that are attributed to Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross. This is fine with me because I’ve been railing against people using the “Five Stages” model for years. As Ms. Koningsberg rightfully points out: Dr. Kubler Ross’ initial work about the stages was written about DYING people, not grieving people and b) people have misunderstood and misapplied the “five stages” for decades now. I applaud anyone who tries to set the “5 stages” record straight.

I absolutely agree with her that the initial work was done for DYING people and this is something completely overlooked by people who have misappropriated it to explain grief. I studied her work in 1978 in Psychology 101 and I knew that it had been misinterpreted and misapplied. I’ve said this for years.

But “tackling” the idea of stages and professing to have written a book about “the truth about grief” are two very different things. Yes, the five stages needed to be tackled, but no, this is not a book that is the “truth” about grief.

And I also agree with Koningsberg that there is no one right way to grieve. We differ on the fact that I believe there are many wrong ways to grieve or rather, many ways to not grieve which leads to trouble later on. Ms. Koningsberg relies a lot on Bonnano who doesn’t think that “not grieving” is a problem at all.

Bonnano says a lot of things that I disagree with and his insulated “studies” do not support what I have seen over the years. One thing he says is that if someone grieves acutely initially, it doesn’t bode well for their recovery later on. This is completely the opposite of my experience. My experience has been that if someone can access that deep grief, they are healing. Too often people are frightened of that intense emotion and try to keep it from rising to the top.

Many times a loss is the thing that pushes a person over the edge to deal with all the things they’ve never grieved. He talks about depression in grieving patients and how the depression that was there before exasperates grief reactions. Of course this is true for some people. But for others, myself included, being faced with a loss that you can no longer run from brings you face to face with all your unresolved grief. You recognize the “work” you have to do (“work” is a word that Bonnano/Koningsberg don’t like) and you do it. And in doing so, you clear the wreckage of all that is not resolved. In many people who have had lifelong “low level” depression, a major loss can tip them over into full blown depression and that depression will be the catalyst to finally get the help they need. By working through loss they erase both the major depression and the low level depression.

Dr. Bonnano says if a person is not exhibiting signs of grief after a loss, leave them alone, they’re fine. To me this is an irresponsible thing to say that feeds right into our dysfunction, as a society, when it comes to grief. Our society, as a whole, wants everyone to be “fine” so of course telling them to leave them alone is what people will do. But people have been doing that for years and people have been drowning in their unresolved grief. Dr. Bonnano states that you can be a healthy person without having grieved a loss. And I think this is nonsense. And Koningsberg continues the new myth.

She takes grief counseling and self-help books to task. In my opinion, there is not too much of this, there is too little. I am no longer a practicing grief counselor so I’m not saying this to fill my hours with clients. I don’t “get” anything from taking this stand. But I do know about grief and grief books and grief counseling. And there is not enough of any of it. Too many people need help and can’t even find it. Telling them they don’t need it just adds to their guilt that something is wrong with them, when it’s not.

And I object to this high level (New York Times and The New Yorker) attention to this book that purports to be “the truth about grief” when it’s anything but. It’s more dissemination of a lie that there is a “truth about grief” and that “tackling” a book on death and dying leads to that truth. It does not.

It is irksome that publications like the New York Times and The New Yorker pay so much attention to a work that can do so much harm. It’s incredible that this sort of book gets this kind of unmerited attention. The reporters who write these articles and call Koningsberg’s work “liberating” are just enabling the flawed and dysfunctional societal norm that we don’t talk about grief and don’t know how to handle someone else’s. Books like this (“they’re fine! leave them alone!”) add to the isolation of the grieving person, especially widows who feel so alone in the initial months following their husbands’ death. I invite these reporters to study John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, Colin Murray Parkes, Beverley Raphael and others and tell me that Bonnano and Koningsberg hold up against them. I can assure you that they will not.

They are wrong about “grief work.” People do have to do “grief work” to work through a loss. Too few people know about grief work or how to do it. To dismiss it out of hand is to ignore the process. Calling this book, “The Truth About Grief” is an injustice to grieving people everywhere. This book does NOT tell the truth about grief.

Koningsberg states that inside everyone they have all they need to heal from a loss. On one level this is true. Grief, as I’ve said many times, is a normal and natural process that will happen NATURALLY if allowed to. But that’s a GIANT IF.

Grief is universal across all cultures. It is a natural healing process. But like all healing processes, it has to run its course and Western culture not only doesn’t let it run its course, but makes sure it’s cut off as quickly as possible. Western culture doesn’t know how to deal with another’s grief. People simply don’t know or don’t want to know. Everything we are taught about how to deal with another’s grief says, “Be quiet. I can’t handle how you feel. I don’t know what to do. I’m uncomfortable.” Therefore grief becomes suppressed, repressed and cut off. Tamped down until it’s sitting there like a time bomb which may or may not go off. The person will slide into depression or acting behavior and no one knows what the hell is going on. I’ll tell you what’s going on: unresolved grief. Rubberstamped and blessed by our “scared of grief” society.

Our society (as she states) does not recognize the need to grieve and doesn’t tell us even what a grief process looks like. There may be a “science of loss” but that suggests that it’s a hard science. It’s not. It’s a soft science. And it includes not just loss but attachment which is an integral part of loss. You can’t talk loss unless you talk attachment. Before Dr. Kubler Ross was John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth who “got” that it all fit together. I am not a big fan of Freud but his description of grief as a “painful bit by bit letting go” is very apt. And Freud even changed his stance on some of his theories of grief after his own daughter’s death. It was, and still is, an evolving theory. But I put forth that “Leave them alone, they’re fine” is a step backwards.

While people may have the capacity to heal from grief without any help from anyone, but they don’t know how to use it. I’ve spent too much time in the past 20 years helping people understand what grief is, why it is necessary and how not to suppress it. I put forth that most of society does not know how to grieve, why to grieve, what grief looks like, or any other thing. Many components of grief such as “searching” or “disorganization” is simply not understood by most people. It HAS to be explained and people have to know they’re not going crazy.

As a graduate student, I studied videos of my fellow interns with their clients and so often I saw the clinician purposely pull a client away from their grief. It was sometimes like clockwork. The client would seem to be getting through to some kind of loss and sadness and the clinician would move down another path. When a client is accessing their long unresolved grief, the clinician should sit in empathic silence, as Carl Rogers taught, and allow the patient to find the grief and express it.

But clinicians don’t do that and often it is because clinicians are unresolved in their own grief. Their unresolved grief disallows their clients’ grief. They can’t handle it. And so the clients do not get to access the sadness deep within.

Saying “we all have the tools to grieve” is just Jack Dandy if you have a clue what that means, but most people don’t. Most people are told to buck up, “she’s in a better place”, “there’s other fish in the sea” and all kinds of other nonsense. Swimming against the “don’t feel your grief” tide is difficult and impossible when you can’t even give yourself permission to grieve.

Widows feel so alone months after their husband has passed. They don’t feel okay about “still” talking about it.

But bereaved parents find it even harder. Many isolate bereaved parents for several reasons. The first is that people do not want to be reminded that children can die before parents. No one wants to see that horrible truth. Second, no one knows what to say. No one. That is why The Compassionate Friends is such a wonderful organization. Every bereaved parent that I have ever known who sought solace and comfort from The Compassionate Friends found it there. So many say, “It saved my life.” Isn’t The Compassionate Friends something akin to grief counseling? Why would you ever tell people they don’t need it…that all their ability to heal is inside and they just have to get it. Hogwash.

When asked how one knows that one is over it, she responds, “I guess I would say when you reach an acceptable level of adjustment. That doesn’t mean that you no longer think about or miss or long for your loved one, but that you’ve returned to somewhat normal functioning.”

I am functioning normally. I still think about and miss Michael. Every day. I will always long for him. That doesn’t mean I will never get over it. I am not over it now. And the only reason that I know that I have everything I need to grieve and heal is because I am informed.

Had I avoided grief counseling or self-help book I would truly think there was something wrong with me after “all this time.” Advocating for that is NOT HELPFUL.

As Stephen Levine says, “People who have worked through their grief are the lightest of beings.” and it is true. Resolving your grief, “working through it” does heal you and open you up to so many options that people who have unresolved grief cannot get to. “Working through grief” is a necessary component to being alive and free. To tell people that it’s okay to NOT work through grief is simply irresponsible, in my opinion.

Ms. Koningsberg cites a study that reveals typical patterns in individuals’ grief and recovery. Grief is defined as a number of measurable symptoms (shock, despair, disturbances in sleep and appetite), the absence of which suggests recovery.

Ms. Koningsberg wrote an OpEd piece for the New York Times and, in the wake of that, the letters to the editor display the enormous amount of misunderstanding still out there and the misunderstanding that her book, in my opinion, contributes to.

Several readers responded to the article:

A widow writes: “As a widow, I find this concept of recovery lacking. People can recover their energy, capacity for joy and high functional ability. They may enjoy a new intimate relationship and exhibit no clinical symptoms. However, they don’t recover what was lost. The death may change them in significant ways, and while acute grief may subside, sorrow may persist.

Both the research tools and the concepts seem inadequate to describe the fullness and complexity of the profound human experience that is grief.” ~Mary Jenness Raine (NY Times Letters to the Editor)

I agree with Ms. Raine and that has been my experience. Sorrow persists. Death of the person you loved most in this world, who was there every single day, changes you. I haven’t even caught up with how much it has changed me. Some days who I am surprises even me. And I agree that the research tools and the concepts are inadequate to describe the complex experience of grief.

The next letter to the editor was one that almost sent me into orbit:

To the Editor:

It was not surprising to me to learn of the quick recovery of many widows and widowers after the death of a spouse.

Frequently a spouse has been ill or declining for some time before dying. It is very difficult to watch a loved one go through this. The remaining spouse has probably undergone a time of pre-grieving.

When the end comes, along with the sadness, there are feelings of numbness and relief. Much of the sadness has already been experienced.

Ruth Knoblauch

Dear Ms. Knoblauch: How DARE YOU. How dare you even begin to profess that you have any idea what the wife of a dying man goes through and how much grief is or is not done when he dies. “Much of the sadness has already been experienced…” ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Not even a smidgen had been done compared to what came later.

I watched my husband slowly die for 11 months and was still completely unprepared for the depth of emotion I felt when he died. Even though he was sick, even though I knew he was terminal, even though I cried every single day, there was NOTHING that prepared me for the complete and abject despair I experienced after his death.

Many times spouses that are caring for their dying loved one know they need to be in control. They need to give the medication, talk to the doctors, talk to the hospice workers, buy supplies, makes sure everything is working. It’s a full-time job. And yes you grieve while it’s going on, but when it’s over, there is a giant emptiness. A GIANT VOID filled only by the sound of your soul. Screaming.

There is more time to accept the inevitable but even now I have some days where I don’t accept it. When my mind goes back to the day the doctor gave me the prognosis and I sat there and sobbed. In my mind, now, I don’t sob. I go back and scream at him to fix it. I don’t care what you have to do…FIX IT…keep him here with me. And other days I throw a complete tantrum “I WANT HIM HERE WITH ME.” So on some days now I still struggle with accepting of an outcome that has already happened. There is anticipatory grief but there is no such thing as “pre-grieving.” Again, how dare you. How dare you minimize the experience of widows whose spouses were terminally ill.

Michael has been gone for over a year and a half. I grieve, I mourn, I cry, I feel the aching emptiness. It is not a quick recovery. Not at all. Again, how dare YOU or Ms. Koningsberg even begin to guess or quantify what I feel or felt. You can’t.

Then a writer and family therapist chimes in with this:

To the Editor:

Researchers, Ruth Davis Konigsberg says, found that the majority of older widows and widowers do not get stuck in chronic grieving. It’s only a minority who somehow can’t move on.

That means it’s time to let the public, and perhaps most therapists, know there are ways to help those who are still stuck after many months. When the griever wants to recover, he or she can rather quickly be guided into thinking about positive memories of the loved one.

In the midst of terrible loss, we still have choices about where to direct our attention.

Ron Soderquist

There is something that I talk about on here, in my book and on my blog about what Elizabeth Harper Neeld calls “The Turn.” The time when you know you have to make a decision to move on or to at least turn your attention and energy into doing that.

There comes a time when you’re able to do that, but not until you have grieved and started to heal. There is no slap-dash solution for everyone who appears “stuck.” Some people are stuck and some are simply not done yet.

I’m a grief counselor. I’ve done my grieving for Michael BY THE BOOK and I have tried to make The Turn, and sometimes I go and then I turn back. I’m not done yet. I don’t even know how close I am to being done.

I think “The Turn” sometimes happens in stages. I know that one time I broke up a serious relationship and sat around and journaled, constantly, for months. One day I said this is enough. And I went outside and went for a walk and I was done. The Turn. Completed in about an hour. I had to make that cognitive decision. I had to say “ENOUGH!” and go live my life. I’ve seen that resolve a few times in my grief process over Michael…but I don’t stay there. One day I will. Today is not that day.

“Guiding people to the positive memories of the loved one” sounds like “just think a happy thought and you will be happy.”

The end of grief does not work like that. Getting unstuck does not mean just thinking positive thoughts. People who are stuck, many times, have not worked through their grief and yes, they need to make a decision about it, but first it’s necessary to see if that is where they are. What is the definition of “stuck”?

As a grief counselor I have met people who are stuck. But it’s an individual thing and what they need to get unstuck is also an individual thing. The “positive memories” cure just isn’t for everyone. I think of my positive memories all the time. With Michael that’s all I ever had. The man loved me unconditionally. He never made me cry. He was funny and charming and always there for me. My memories are positive. My gratitude to him and for him is eternal. What memories are NOT positive? When do they stop hurting?

Acceptance is what you find after a long search for peace. Part of that acceptance is integrating your loved on into the fabric of your being. It’s being able to think about good times and smile. Think about being loved and feeling warm.

But that doesn’t mean that grief does not revisit or that all someone needs is a nudge to positive memories. Simplistic. One size does not fit all and people should not be nudged to “think a happy thought.” Nonsense.

And from a widow:

To the Editor:

Please remove these statistics from my psyche. I feel the same offense as when, two years after my husband’s death, someone told me to “get over it and move on.” Move on?

Grief is a private affair, borne alone. How one experiences it and reconciles oneself to it depends on the individual. There is no prescription.

It was my love I lost and my life I had to live. I took my time. And the truth is I will never “get over it.” Statistics are absurdly irrelevant to the journey one travels alone.

Claudia Carr Levy

Thank you Ms. Carr Levy. Your last sentence is one that is anchored in truth. Statistics mean nothing in your personal journey. At all. No one knows what Michael meant to me and how his loss has affected me.

I lived most of my life without anyone really loving me or being there for me. When I met Michael I was 39 years old and okay with my life. When he came into my world I still spent time with my friends, my hobbies, my interests as did he. I am, and have been, an incredibly strong and independent person. But still the loss of him shattered me. Broke me into a million little pieces. Because he did love me and he was there for me. And he was my partner and my best friend. And I miss him with every fiber of my being. He took ill in September 2008 and died in August of 2009. Should I be over it? Maybe. But I’m not. If I had not openly grieved losing the most wonderful person I had ever known, Dr. Bonnano would say I was healthy. And Dr. Bonnano would be utterly wrong. Dangerously wrong. In the first few weeks after Michael’s death I tried to hold it together to do work and every night wanted to throw myself into the path of a coming train. One thing that Joyce Carol Oates talks about is the thoughts of suicide that follow. Without expression of my grief, I probably would have pitched myself off a roof.

Have I worked at being over it? From day one until now. I don’t run from my grief, I don’t deny it. I know when I’m having a “bad day” and I let it run its course. How much more is left? I don’t know. I still have to go through so many things. I have to touch so many things that he was the last person to touch. Some days I feel up to it. Other days I feel like running down the road screaming.

I’ve wanted to turn THIS blog into a book with sections added on grief (clinical/book knowledge) and cancer and cancer families. I tried to read the first few entries and couldn’t. I’m not there YET.

I was a strong and independent woman before I met Michael, while I was with him and now. I am a grief counselor who has studied grief and written on it extensively. I understand it. I understand what it takes to grieve a major loss. I’ve got all the “goods” that should have made widowhood an easier ride for me than most people.

But it’s not. I am broken into a million little pieces. I miss him every single day in ways I could not imagine I ever would or could when he was alive. Or even when he was dying. If you told me I’d still be in a tearful, mournful place now, I’d have said you were crazy. I feel okay when I’ve gone days without crying but then I have one good cry, completely unannounced. There it is.

I’m still working through. Sorry statisticians. But I am. I’m not doing this by “the book” because there is no book for this. This is my journey. MINE. And you can’t chart it with statistics or pretend to know how to dissect it. If I don’t (and I don’t), you don’t.

And a clinician:

To the Editor:

As a clinician with a specialty in bereavement, I read Ruth Davis Konigsberg’s article with interest. My work is primarily with young families in which a parent or a child has died and there are surviving children.

A widow or widower with children still has to get up the next day, and the day after that, to make peanut butter sandwiches. The landscape of grief is completely altered, as is the time frame.

I have very little judgment anymore about how much grief is enough or too much. To be a grieving parent forces resilience in the face of pain and is much influenced by “secondary losses” — of co-parenting, of income, of the myriad of roles that a partner plays in raising a family.

The article mentioned the small outcry over Joyce Carol Oates’s omission of her remarriage in her memoir of loss. What we should take away in all of this is a reminder to exercise great care in judging how long is too long — or too short — to grieve.

I have learned, in working with incredible women and men (and wise children) carrying this burden, to be very, very careful before pathologizing grief.

Lisa Zeitz

Thank you Ms. Zeitz. Thank you thank you thank you.

And finally…

To the Editor:

Losing a beloved spouse is traumatic, but at least is an event from which one can move forward, as I have seen several friends do. As the spouse of a long-term dementia patient in good physical health, one lives in a limbo, bereaved in spirit but not in fact, with no comforting statistics on “recovery” duration or true ability to “move on.”

Maybe we need more memoirs on this subject, since an explosion of Alzheimer’s is forecast for the boomer generation.

Pauline Schell

Dear Ms. Schell: I truly feel for you. When Michael was acting “weird” the few months before his brain tumor diagnosis, I feared early Alzheimers. When he was in the hospital that morning they feared it was a stroke which would render him into a vegetative state. For weeks I did not know if he would wake up. When he had outlasted his initial prognosis, my ex mother in law told me that the doctor told her mother than her father had less than 6 months to live and he lasted 9 years. In each of these 3 scenarios I felt terror. I felt the terror of he’d be here but not here. Even as the tumors took my Michael away from me, there were days he was himself. Days where my Michael came to visit me…and I clung to every minute of those days.

I agree with you that your fate is worse than mine. And as much as I miss Michael, I can’t imagine doing 20 years like those 11 months. I just can’t. My heart truly goes out to you and yes, I believe that memoirs from spouses of Alzheimers patients should be promoted. And I believe they need to be supported. There will be a lot of these patients in the future and we need to know it’s okay to grieve and it’s okay to be angry and it’s okay to say “NOT FAIR.” I hope you get all the support you need. I’m so sorry for the loss of your husband.

And to all:

I think that people need to read self-help books and go to grief counseling. My experience over the years is that too many people are not grieving their losses and that telling people that’s healthy is dangerous. We don’t have enough information about grief or enough freedom to be able to openly grieve.

Bonnano and Koningsberg are just more of the same “Don’t feel as bad as you really feel” that is unhelpful to most grieving people.

Don’t tell me how to grieve or what will propel me forward. I’ve probably read more books on grief than you ever will and worked with more grieving people than you ever will. I’ve probably written and spoken more on grief than any of you have or ever will. I don’t pretend to know an individual’s journey. I only share what I know. I only help grieving people know what the journey looks like and how best to weather the storm. I help people know they are not crazy, just grieving.

I KNOW GRIEF. THEORETICAL AND ACADEMIC. Also UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL.

Don’t think you know me.

You don’t.

Don’t try to compartmentalize a widow’s grief. Don’t try to put it on a chart. It doesn’t work.

Don’t. Tell. Me. How. To. Grieve.


Susan J. Elliott, M.Ed., J.D., is the author of “Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You” (DaCapo 2009)

She is an expert commentator for radio, television (local [NYC] and national), print and internet articles.


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