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The Myth of Prescribed Grief

"You should be over it by now." "How long has it been, aren’t you finished grieving yet?" "You shouldn’t be dwelling on it." "Haven’t you been through all the stages of grief by now?" "It’s been a year, you should move on."

As bereaved people, we are all used to hearing platitudes: well-intentioned friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. all want to offer their sympathies, and this is their idea of support. But, as we know through experience, grief isn’t prescriptive; it doesn’t have a timeline or a set pattern; there is no benchmark to see if we are doing poorly, average, well or excellent against some prescribed formula or table. Grief is unique to the person experiencing it due to the unique nature of the relationship that’s been lost. Two people of the same family who are bereaved will have different grief experiences, because their relationship with the deceased was different. We don’t just lose the person, we lose the role they had in our lives and the identity that they gave us: mother, sister, daughter, niece, step-mother, aunt, friend, infinitum.

So where does this idea of "getting over" our bereavement come from? It stems from Freud – he suffered from the loss of his daughter, and although he acknowledged that he grieved for her his entire life, he nevertheless published in his professional work that you "get over" the death of a loved one. As the godfather of psychotherapy, his word was gospel, and this became ingrained in Western society. It’s ironic that these two opposing positions were never questioned. Given half a chance, I’d love to chat to him and ask him why he espoused one thing in his professional life and acknowledged the complete opposite in his personal life! Unfortunately, that wasn’t meant to be.

This mantle was continued and superimposed on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s studies from her book On Death & Dying, (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone), 1969. Kubler-Ross wrote the book as a result of her studies and work within palliative care. She was appalled at the way people were treated at the end of their lives and campaigned for better, more humane treatment. Her book was not about grief, per se, but about the five stages of "grief" that patients encountered at the end of their lives; i.e. they were "grieving" for their life before it ended. So whilst Freud and Kubler-Ross’s work was pioneering and still incredibly important and relevant, some elements have been elicited and misconstrued to perpetuate the myth that everyone who is grieving moves through these five stages and then it ends.

The stages that Kubler-Ross identified are:

  1. Denial

  2. Anger

  3. Bargaining

  4. Depression

  5. Acceptance

While it’s true that some people will experience all of these emotions as a reaction to the death of a loved one, not all will, and if they do, not all will do so in this sequential order. Grief is much more complicated than these five stages and encompasses the intellectual, psychological, behavioral, spiritual, physical, emotional, practical, and social aspects of our lives. This effectively means that we all have an individual grief experience in any combination of feelings, thoughts and actions. Every bereavement we experience will be different but may encompass any or all of the above.

In my experience, the most common emotions following bereavement are guilt, anger, anxiety, regret, and, obviously, overwhelming sadness. What emotions you feel will be dependent on the nature of your attachment to (I will write a blog about attachment theory at a later date) and relationship with the person you lost, and will also impact how long you grieve for your loss. So how long does grief last? How long is a piece of string? Following the death of a loved one, we mourn for them in our own socially acceptable way and in whatever way feels natural to us, irrespective of theories and ‘steps’. If we are unable to express our feelings regarding our journey to those around us, it might be helpful to just tell them that we are currently in the process of adjusting to our loss, rather than "getting over it." We build our world around the loss of our loved ones while still maintaining the relationship within our hearts and minds and honoring their memory. It takes as long as it takes.

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