Forget the five stages of grief

When I was a graduate student, I learned that Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief have been oversimplified and misunderstood over the years, and that many researchers and clinicians no longer consider the model to be the gold standard in terms of understanding how we deal with death. For one thing, the original research was based on people who were dying, not people who had recently lost loved ones; for another, grief is more like a roller coaster than a staircase for many folks, with complex emotions that come and go, cycling and echoing as the healing process progresses. The concept of moving seamlessly through a set of phases doesn’t match up with how most people handle loss.

Last week I came across this article from The Atlantic. It’s a nice blend of personal anecdote and factual information about grief, loss and resilience, drawing upon current research and rich storytelling. Turns out that 50-60% of people experience an almost eerie ability to bounce back from loss, with 30% struggling more long-term and 10% experiencing what we call “complicated” grief, which usually requires counseling.

I think resilience is fascinating. What makes some folks able to keep moving in the face of devastating loss, while others are crippled by sadness and sorrow? The answers are complicated. But I can’t help but think that one path to resilience and recovery is knowing when you’re in that 10% of folks who need help moving on from a major loss — and reaching out for professional guidance.

The notion of “the bad mother”

This is a good reminder of how unhelpful — even damaging — negative self-talk around parenting can be. I like how the author began considering her parenting decisions/reactions as skillful or unskillful, rather than good or bad. “Unskillful” at least leaves room for improvement, while “bad” leads to feelings of guilt, hopelessness and frustration. 

The good mother/bad mother dichotomy seems to be ubiquitous, although dads are not immune — there’s plenty of guilt to go around. When you’re tempted to go down the “I’m such a bad mom/dad” rabbit hole, it might be worth stopping to ask yourself why you’re labeling yourself that way. Are you holding yourself to an impossible standard? Did you behave in a way that made you feel unkind or out of control? How can you be more skillful next time?

Grieving during the holidays

The stretch from Thanksgiving through the New Year can bring up a lot of complex emotions, especially if a loved one has recently died.

As promised, here are some ideas for managing the holiday season if you’re grieving:

1. Adjust your expectations. Don’t attempt to take on your usual slate of holiday duties. Scale back. Slow down. Don’t send holiday cards if it seems too overwhelming. Skip events that you don’t feel like attending. Let go of any guilt that surfaces — people will understand. This is not to say that you should self-isolate if you find strength in being around others; just be honest with yourself, and try not to take on more than you can handle.

2. Ask for help. The people around you might be paralyzed, uncertain as to how they can show you they care. Reach out and make your needs known, if you can. Maybe you could use some help with holiday shopping, or you’d rather someone else host Christmas Eve dinner. If you feel uncomfortable making specific requests, you might talk with a close friend or family member who can delegate for you when people ask what they can do.

3. Reevaluate traditions. The very things that we love most about the holidays can lead to emotional anguish in the wake of a loved one’s death. It can be tricky to determine which is more painful: abandoning a tradition altogether, or continuing it without the loved one who has passed. Often times the best compromise is modifying a tradition in some way, or agreeing to put it on the “back burner” until next year. Make sure you talk these decisions through with your family so that there are no upsetting, spur-of-the-moment surprises.

4. Remember and honor. Creating a ritual for remembering your loved one is a step toward healing. You might make or buy a special ornament to hang on the Christmas tree, play a favorite carol, or say a prayer before a holiday meal in your loved one’s honor.

5. Keep in mind that everyone grieves differently. You might want to stay close to home for the holidays, while your child or spouse might suggest traveling out of town to get some space from the loss. You might seek out a grief support group; others may find solace in books, religious services, or solitude. The key is communication. Talk through what you need, what you can handle and what you can’t, and see if you can come to some agreement with other family and/or friends who are grieving. It may make sense to contact a therapist if you find you’re struggling to reconcile everyone’s preferences.

If you are looking for more resources, this article includes some book suggestions toward the end. If a friend or relative is grieving a loss and you’re unsure how to help, check this out.