Is there a right way to grieve?

The Shrink

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard that someone or other did not “grieve properly”, and that in order to deal with their current problems – maybe several years later – they really need to address their previous bereavement.

Such a rigid view of what grief should look like has some roots in the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who, in the 1960s, came up with her now commonly accepted five stages model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In fact her work had been based on interviews with terminally ill people, and the model was only later applied to grief, first by others and then by Kübler-Ross herself.

The appeal is clear. At times of chaos and confusion, such as the death of a loved one, it can be reassuring to think that at least you know what lies ahead of you. But the tool can turn against you. If the path of your grief diverges from the prescribed one, for instance, you may start worrying there is something wrong with you, that you are repressing something that is bound to emerge with redoubled strength in the future.

Well, it seems the model is now officially debunked. Recent studies have found that grief does not tend to follow such a predictable progression after all. It seems that the most common experience is yearning for the deceased person rather than any of Kübler-Ross’s stages. Some of those reactions may occur, but not necessarily in neat ordered phases, and people are more likely to experience a jumble of all sorts of emotions in constant flux. Furthermore, there is little evidence for a mechanism such as delayed grief: if people seem to be coping well, it’s most likely to be because they are.

But another move to over-prescribe and pathologise grief may be looming. Among the proposed revisions to the official American list of psychiatric conditions is a restriction of the duration of “normal” grief to as little as two weeks. There may be no right way to grieve, but surely a wrong way must be to try to conform to the pronouncements of experts or the expectations of others.

The Sage

Until the 19th century, some communities in India believed that a widow ought to throw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. The fact that sati, as this practice is called, was normal at the time did not make it right. Likewise, nothing follows about the rightness of any way to grieve simply because it is the norm. This is easily understood, but it is remarkable how difficult it can be to shake a conviction which is rooted in nothing more than the fact that this is how it is and has always been.

Because custom and familiarity have such a powerful effect, what seems natural is no more a guide to what is right than what is normal. Our environment influences us so much that no amount of observation about how people actually grieve could tell you what in that process is natural and what is culturally conditioned. No doubt there are many who were so steeped in sati that it did indeed feel like the natural thing to do, just as some people strongly feel that it is natural to bury the dead but not to burn them.

In grief, as in other areas of life, “right” refers neither to what is natural nor normal, but what is moral. Sati was considered a duty because it dissolved the sins of the deceased and ensured a happy afterlife. Custom and feeling would certainly have been vital in maintaining the practice, but only the morality of duties and obligations could justify it. And because they do not, it has been rightly rejected.

More legitimate responsibilities often fall on us as a result of a death, and it is how we deal with these that matters. Some are to do with decency and compassion, such as being supportive of others or not being frivolous around next of kin. Others may be cultural conventions, such as organising a funeral and wake, putting a notice in the paper and so on. Not all should be slavishly followed: ones like sati should be actively challenged. Right and wrong do not apply to feelings of grief, but to acts of grieving.

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