Beware of Grieving According to Theory

Nancy B. Alston

Many people say, “Never say never.” It is a strong word to be sure, and I am going to use it in this article to emphasize what can be very harmful to someone who is grieving. In the case of anyone who is mourning the death of a loved one-trying to follow any model of grieving-is to ask for additional pain, disappointment and suffering.

Why is this so? There isn’t a counselor worth his or her salt who wouldn’t tell you that grieving is an extremely individual affair. We don’t follow theoretical models when we grieve. We grieve (or should) according to our own pace and individual needs.

Yet, many people read an article touting a specific grief model and feel they should be experiencing certain emotions or following a prescribed path. Worse yet, a support person may expect a friend or love one who is grieving, to follow a specific course.

The late psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who did so much to help the world understand the terminally ill person, has often been misquoted and misunderstood with her famous stages model for the dying. It is a five-stage affair: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It has been adopted by many as a grieving model, since the dying person is grieving his or her death. Note, however, she would be the first to say that not everyone dies (or grieves) according to Kubler-Ross.

Then what are grief models for and how can they help? Models are constructed to help us understand complex human behavior. They are useful in order to become aware of possible responses. They suggest the importance of accepting various emotions, and learning to deal with their implications.

Remember, stages models of grieving are never intended, and Kubler-Ross emphasized this, to be predictors of all human behavior when mourning a loved one. Never expect your grief to unfold according to expected stages.

We don’t go one, two, three, four, five, and find ourselves accepting our loss and coming to the end of grief. Some individuals are not in denial nor do they become angry. Others do, depending on the circumstances of the death. And, it is normal and healthy to do so, as these emotions provide an adaptive function. You may or may not get depressed. There is a difference between depression and sadness. The latter is sometimes misinterpreted as depression.

Be assured: There is a wide range of normalcy in the human grief response. See it as a normal part of the mystery of life.

Do not be overly influenced by any model of grief and feel you are not normal. Grief is a natural process; it has its own rhythm. Allow it to come and go, and return and repeat itself in various ways. Allow it to move through you. Refuse to manipulate it. Your big challenge is to let it play out.

The intensity of grief will lessen. No one can tell you exactly when. You will realize when it happens. It is your grief and your loss. You are the expert, and only you know the degree of emotional investment you have in the loved one who died. In the final analysis, your thoughts alone will determine the length and intensity of your grief.

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