Researchers Say "Truth about Grief" Misses Essential Point

The recent Time magazine article, "New Ways to Think About Grief," counters what its author, Ruth Davis Konigsberg, considers to be five myths of grief, an obvious twist on the "five stages of grief" popularized by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross more than 40 years ago (and which is first on her list of "myths").

The article is based on Konigsberg's new book, The Truth about Grief, which has prompted scrutiny from the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), and a mixed response from ADEC Past President Robert Neimeyer, a preeminent expert on grief whose research is referenced in the Time article and in The Truth about Grief. In fact, Neimeyer and fellow researcher Joseph Currier take the position that Konigsberg's view of the value of grief counseling (see Myth No. 5, below) tells only half of the truth.

A communication by ADEC to its members, quotes a correspondence to Time from Neimeyer and Currier about the magazine article:

Konigsberg does a service to the bereaved in sharing the good news that grief therapy is hardly necessary for the resilient majority of grieving people. But she slighted the other side of coin, which is that new approaches to therapy are demonstrably effective for mourners whose losses are sudden and traumatic, or whose grief is disabling and seemingly without end. With one in seven survivors struggling to make sense of their loss and move forward with their lives, professionals who specialize in helping them do so can be a godsend.

Konigsberg explains the motivation behind her book in a brief online video produced by her publisher:

My interest in this book came out of a journalist desire to make sense of a model that doesn't seem to be serving us particularly well. My goal was to really take a close look at the theories of grief that have framed our experience and ... look at ... what the social science had to say to see how it stood up against the real research.

Here is a summary of the "myths" she identifies and counters:

  • Myth No. 1: We grieve in stages. Konigsberg's "debunking" of this proposition is based in part on a 2003 report from the Center for Advancing Health, which she says "concluded that the information being used to help the bereaved was misaligned with the latest research, which increasingly indicates that grief is not a series of steps that ultimately deposit us at a psychological finish line but rather a grab bag of symptoms that come and go and, eventually, simply lift."
  • Myth No. 2: Express it, don't repress it. Konigsberg points to research which she says demonstrates that not expressing negative emotions in grief "actually has a protective function" and that "people who did not express their initial reactions [to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011] showed fewer signs of distress later on."
  • Myth No. 3: Grief is harder on women. She found that studies show "relatively speaking, men suffer more from being bereaved. Yes, widows measured higher on depression scores than widowers, but not once women's pre-bereavement or control-group depression levels were factored in."
  • Myth No. 4: Grief never ends. Konigsberg delves into the work of George Bonanno of Columbia University and concludes, "What we do know is that while loss is forever, acute grief is not."
  • Myth No. 5: Counseling helps. This is where Konigsberg especially runs afoul of the researchers whose studies she relies upon for her claims: The outcome of the research by Neimeyer and Currier, she writes, "doesn't mean that no one is ever helped by counseling but rather that counseling doesn't, on average, seem to hasten grief's departure ... Grief counselors are, by and large, not a sinister bunch out to make a buck off other people's misery, but they do, in the interest of self-preservation, have a stake in convincing us that grief is long and hard and requires their help."

Kronenberg also wrote a Feb. 14 op-ed in the New York Times, "Grief, Unedited," based on her findings in the book.

Please also see the interview with Neimeyer by Jennifer Collins Taylor of Living Life Dying Death: