Even though we are confronted with death and dying, loss and change every day, it continues to defy comprehensive understanding or explanation. The question grieving people ask, and that we constantly seek to answer is “How are we to understand bereavement?” There have been numerous attempts to explain the phenomena over the years.
Perhaps the most influential theory has been that of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross, who focused on an emotional transition through 5 stages, beginning with denial and progressing through anger, bargaining and depression before arriving at acceptance. Admittedly, such simple “step-by-step” models are appealing for their clarity, but we know they are not without numerous difficulties.
The implied suggestion of many grief theories is that the person suffering a loss simply has to go through the inevitable process, wait it out, “see it through”, on the assumption that “time heals all wounds”, and that eventually “in time”, they will “get over it”. This would seem to suggest that in the emotional aftermath of loss, bereaved individuals are essentially passive, and must simply submit to suffering through certain stages or structured grief system over a defined period of time over which they have little or no control, and in which there is not much choice.
But, while Dr Kubler Ross and others made an invaluable contribution to the field of thanatology, we can no longer try to understand the grief process ONLY by some “time line system” or “set formula”, whereby a person has to go passively through certain emotions, stages, phases or reactions in order to somehow eventually arrive at this destination we erroneously call acceptance.
We need to gain a better understanding of not only “what” people experience after a loss, but also “why” grief affects people so uniquely and individually. So, consider this foundational fact:
“We cannot understand bereavement and every individual response to it unless we recognize in what ways each bereaved person’s world has been forever changed by the loss.”
I am suggesting a different paradigm, another way of thinking about our topic. The main focus should not primarily be (as it so often is) on a person’s emotional reactions, or on their behaviours or manifestations of grief; and more specifically how we can “control” those in order to get things “back to normal”. Those who focus on these considerations are trying to “fix” a situation that simply cannot be fixed; trying to get “back to normal” something that has changed forever.
We serve people better if we focus on the significance of this bereavement to the individual rather than on the substance of their specific reaction to the bereavement. Grief is essentially a reaction to bereavement or loss. The emotions and reactions of grief should be regarded symptomatically as behaviours in response to and in protest of the need to search for meaning in what has become a new and unwelcome world.
Put simply, rather than focusing on the reactions of grieving people and quantifying their responses, we need to ask the “Why” of these reactions and understand the meaning of the loss to that individual which is being “expressed” through their respective emotions and uniquely individual behaviours. Instead of trying to get people back to “normal” by trying to resolve and rectify their emotions and behaviours, we should rather regard these reactions as a symptom of the much deeper issue, namely “My world has changed … and I don’t like it”.
In other words, any good paradigm of grief will not simply propose a futile attempt to re-establish pre-loss patterns of emotion, behaviour, or indeed life itself. Their life has changed and will never be the same again! But that does not mean it cannot be good. The challenge is how we can support the person in integrating these changes into their life as it now is, and finding how life can be meaningful even in the light of loss.
Perhaps we can illustrate it this way. We all write a script for life. Every human being constructs a unique world of meaning. We all make assumptions about how life is going to be in the course of daily living. We are sustained by the network of explanations, expectations and enactments that shape our lives with ourselves and others. These assumptions provide us with a basic sense of “order” regarding our past, awareness regarding our current relationships and predictability regarding our future.
And most of us, at the end of the script, whatever the final details, add the words … “and they lived happily ever after.” Because that is what most of us would like to think is going to happen. While the particulars may change from time to time, we all want to think that life will be orderly, predictable, and go “according to the script”.
But sometimes life does not go according to the script. Not everything works out the way we planned, and then we find ourselves struggling to come to terms with the grief of unmet expectations. Any loss can be interpreted as disrupting the continuity of this assumed narrative. When this occurs, we have one of two choices: either we revise the plot by rewriting the script and assimilating the loss into pre-existing frameworks of meaning, ultimately reasserting or justifying the viability of our pre-existing belief system; or we accommodate our life narrative to correspond more closely to what we perceive as a changed reality in the violation of our assumptive world.
When an event shakes our world and our sense of self, our natural response is to try to interpret the event in ways consistent with traditional theories and identities. We all like to think that “life is meaningful” and we often struggle to put death and other events into a context of meaning. Think about it! Many of the clichés people use are rooted in an attempt, however futile or unsatisfying, to bring some sense of meaning or explanation to an event that simply may not make any sense.
When these attempts fail and our most basic sense of “self” is assaulted, we lose our grip on all that was familiar and are forced to re-establish a new identity that will allow us to accommodate or integrate this new experience in order to preserve our sense of security in the world as it now is.
So, people need to place the loss in a context of meaning. They can do this in one of two ways. First they can reaffirm what we formerly believed about life; or secondly, they must re-establish a new belief system about the meaning of life. In other words, does this experience make sense according to what I believed about life before; or do I have to adapt my way of interpreting how life can be meaningful. The challenge is to find ways to integrate the experience into life as it now is, and to adopt new assumptions about our world which has been shaken and even violated by the loss.
The implication of this idea for caregivers, families and those seeking to support grieving people is that we need to recognize the unique and personal meanings of loss which will take us beyond clichéd expressions of support, or preconceived ideas of what a particular loss “feels like” to any given griever. The particularity of any loss should prompt us to listen intently for clues as to the unique significance of the bereavement experience for each individual.
Grief counsellors need to appreciate more deeply the extent to which losses can occasion profound shifts in the person’s sense of “who they are”. Perhaps the question is better expressed: “Who am I now” in the light of my loss; how has my world, my assumptions about life and my own identity been changed by it. Thus grieving entails not only a process of re-learning a world disrupted by loss, but a re-learning of the “self” in that world.
Loss may be inevitable, but what we DO about it is optional. We do have a choice. Grieving is something we do, not something that is done to us. Grief invites us to affirm or reconstruct a personal world of meaning that has been challenged by loss and to restore a semblance of meaning and direction in a way that makes sense, and there are a multitude of choices in that.
Thus I contend that helping people through the grief of bereavement is not simply a matter of understanding the emotions that they may be expressing. Rather it involves supporting them through a reinterpretation of “how life can be meaningful even in the light of loss”, and empowering them to define life as it now is and to find ways to make the most of what they have left.
This article is a short extract from Dr Bill Webster’s new book, “Understanding Bereavement.” Dr Bill can be reached at www.GriefJourney.com