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Death & Dying

by Ruth Davis Konigsberg
Simon & Schuster, 2011
Review by Beth Cholette, Ph.D. on May 24th 2011

The Truth About Grief

I first became interested in this book after reading an excerpt in TIME magazine.  Although I am a psychologist, if I hear of a tragedy involving a death, I tend to cringe as I prepare for the requisite statement which has come to follow:  "grief counselors are available."  Given my profession, this may sound odd, but I have always seen this knee-jerk response as over-pathologizing the mourning process.  Immediate offering treatment to everyone encourages the assumption that people need therapy to work through their grief instead of promoting the idea that bereavement is a common human occurrence from which most people recover naturally, without intervention. 

Initially, The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss seemed to exactly encapsulate all of my thoughts on the subject of grief and mourning.  Author Ruth Davis Konigsberg (a journalist, not a mental health professional) focuses in particular on grief guru Elizabeth Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief, which debuted in the 1969 book On Death and Dying.  As Konigsberg explains, Kübler-Ross intended these stages to apply to how individuals face their own death (i.e., in the case of terminal illness), not how they mourn the loss of others--although Kübler-Ross never particularly objected to this expansion of her theory, either. 

Konigsberg makes several noteworthy points about how the expression of grief has become more public through the years.  More specifically, mourning customs first expanded during the Victorian era, were forced to become more private with the onset of World War I, but eventually went public again in the 1960s due to several major assassinations and finally, the publication of Kübler-Ross's On Death and Dying.  As Konigsberg points out, none of the stage theories of grief (there have been several to follow Kübler-Ross) have been supported by research.  She also effectively demonstrates that many of the various assumptions associated with grief--for example, that there is no end to the mourning process, that woman and men grieve differently, and that grief is the same around the world--are basically unproven stereotypes. 

Although I concurred with all of these assertions, as I continued reading, I sensed an edge to Konigsberg's writing.  Her review of Kübler-Ross's life not only seemed unnecessary to this book but also felt like a personal attack; she describes Kübler-Ross as "stubborn and combative" (p. 88) and insinuates that Kübler-Ross stole her stage theory from an unknown psychologist BZ Cobb.  Similarly, Konigsberg's attitude towards those in the field of "grief counseling" is so obviously disapproving that she takes a derisive tone at times--even towards one of the most respected, influential researchers in the field of psychology, Martin Seligman.

In her Afterward, Konigsberg shares her belief that our culture has created more anxiety and fear about the experience of grief than is necessary.  She notes that it was her goal to show her readers that majority people are resilient and thus able to get through the experience of loss on their own.  Again, I am in complete agreement with Konigsberg here.  But ultimately, I believe that her book goes too far in the opposite direction in that it may actually dissuade those who need it from seeking help.  After emphasizing the nature of human resilience, Konigsberg goes on to say "most of us will just have to find our own way" (p. 198; emphasis mine).  This is exactly the type of attitude that those of us in the mental health profession have struggled against for years--i.e., people who truly are in the need of help wind up receiving the societal message that they should just "buck up" (or, in Konigsberg's words, "find [their] own way").

Yes, people are resilient; Konigsberg is correct that we should work harder to disseminate this information while moving away from a more pathological view of grief.  But at the same time, it is just as important not to discourage people from seeking psychotherapy--including both those with diagnosable mental health conditions and those seeking therapy simply because they want help.  The ultimate evidence of this is found within Konigsberg's own book:  one of her chief case examples of resilience is Sarah, a young woman and new mother whose husband was killed in by a drunk driver.  Although Sarah eventually remarried, a year after the death of her husband, she went to see a psychologist specializing in trauma, and she credited her weekly therapy sessions (along with a combination of alternative treatment approaches) for leading her back to "relatively normal behavior" (p. 200).  In the end, Konigsberg does her readers a disservice by de-emphasizing--and perhaps even dismissing--observations such as this one.

 

© 2011 Beth Cholette

 

 

Beth Cholette, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who provides psychotherapy to college students.