Last week I read two books I found rather appalling. Though supposedly on grief, neither of these books will be of any help whatsoever to people who are actually grieving. In fact they will likely do more harm than good.
Though The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss (George A. Bonanno, PhD) isn’t nearly as cynical and mean-spirited as The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss (Ruth Davis Konigsberg), both authors are tilting at windmills that simply don’t exist except within their own professional echo chambers.
One an academic researcher and the other a gotcha journalist, both doing battle with bereavement experts when in fact all they’re doing is shadow boxing with the propaganda being dished out within their own professions.
Had either of them spent any time interviewing grief support professionals with an open mind and a willingness to learn, they would have discovered that the vast majority of us have long ago left the stages of grief in the dust along with the idea everyone needs counseling.
It’s not that what these books say is so wrong. They are correct that there are no stages of grief (Lord alive, can we please put this one to rest, even EKR knew is wasn’t so), most people don’t need grief counseling and the vast majority of people are able to function in their daily lives relatively quickly following a death.
The real problem with these books is the conclusions they come to. Just because someone doesn’t go through the 5 stages, or doesn’t need grief counseling, or is functioning in their daily lives, does not mean that they aren’t grieving…and it certainly does not mean they don’t need support.
Despite Ms. Konigsberg’s assertion that those of us in the “grief counseling industry” are preying on the unsuspecting who would be doing just fine if we’d stop telling them how bad grief is, loss of a loved one and the grief that follows is one of the most difficult experiences any of us go through.
Going through it alone is even worse. Though counseling may not be necessary, people who are grieving do need support. They need the gift of compassionate hearts willing to listen and share the pain. If you’ve ever grieved you know this quality is in rather short supply.
In a culture that has largely abdicated its role in offering compassionate care to its fellow citizens, counseling professionals and volunteer group facilitators are the ones filling the gap.
As long as the friends and families of the bereaved continue to turn away in droves (and they do) and continue to say the most ridiculous and hurtful things (they do this too), people who are grieving are going to continue to turn to the people who understand and are willing to walk with them in their grief. Yes, just about anyone can do that but the sad truth is that they don’t.
By reinforcing the idea that grief is easy and short-lived, books like these do a huge disservice to the grieving by adding yet more myth to the general public’s understanding of grief.
In the end that means fewer people reaching out to be supportive, more pressure to “just get over it already”, and more of the bereaved seeking professional support because that’s the only place they can find what they need.