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Writings and links to other works by Donnali FiField


The bereaved have to cope with their loss--and with the pressure to heal.

By Donnali Fifield

Therapists speak of grief as a healing, purposeful, cathartic process ending with resolution if a person grieves fully. I began to doubt this idea when seven members of my family, including my father and twin sons, died in a variety of circumstances within the space of two years. My twins died of prematurity in 1990. Two months after my second twin, William, died, an acquaintance stopped me in the street. She asked me about my "healing process." She meant no harm, but I was riled by her assumption that I would, or should, start recovering so soon.

Many people used this language with me. Some even referred to the stages of grief. I started to dread the words recover, heal, let go, move on. These phrases--platitudes--set up overwhelming demands on me to feel, at a time when I was most vulnerable and powerless, that I should be active in patching up my pain. I saw the same emphasis in the recovery books. The books advised that it was necessary to work at grief in order to heal. Meditations, exercises, and workbook programs aren't bad in themselves; they're helpful as techniques and can guide mourners through volatile emotions, but once their concepts cross over into a mainstream belief in recovery, they put an insidious strain on the bereaved.

By codifying the steps of a proper and purgative mourning, grief theory inadvertently turns a major life experience into a task to be accomplished. On top of grief, I felt I had to measure up to standards tinged by the work ethic and by a premise of emotional conquest. And since my pain didn't stop, I also had the extra guilt of thinking that I wasn't trying hard enough, or that I had some shortcoming that kept me from recovery. Loss, though, entails more than disturbed emotions. Gone are innocence and received ideas about life. The theory of a cathartic grief doesn't broach, let alone heal, these deeper consequences of loss, which make life afterwards so painful.

Another yardstick I had to contend with was the time limit placed on grief. Within days of my first twin's death, people started to urge me to put it behind me. Both Wendell and his brother, William, deserved grief. So did my father and the rest of my family, but after each death I was immediately told that I had to get past it and move on with my life. I had the stress of having to overcome grief, and the worry that I was taking too long to do so.

Part of the reason for this pressure, I believe, came from the prevalence of therapy, which has an ambiguous attitude towards grief. The grief books implied that there was a timetable for recovery. Psychologists said that grief was normal, but also communicated that it needed to be dealt with and treated if recovery didn't take place. The medical origins of therapy shaped its thought and language. Prolonged grief was deemed pathological. The idiom of disease provided the framework for how therapy considered grief. And consequently for how I did, since the terminology, which cast grief as a kind of illness that required intervention and cure, permeated through the books.

The specter of a time frame for recovery--and of mental disturbance if I didn't achieve it--added to my anxiety. In one textbook for obstetrical nurses, I read that the acute period for the death of a baby lasted about six weeks. Mine, I knew, wasn't over, and it had been more than a year since my babies had died. I also sensed a time-bound expectation whenever reporters, newspapers, or magazine articles used those two lethal little adverbs: still and even, as in "still haunted" by a death or upset "even months later."

Eleven years later, the death of my twins continues to affect every day of my life. During the first years, I blamed myself for not recovering. The real culprit: the now-conventional interpretation of grief as a vehicle for personal growth and healthful, completed healing. The idea of closure was only a theory, but it had infiltrated my thinking, and everyone else's, becoming accepted as true.

The current view of grief results from the popularization of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' studies on dying patients and how they come to terms with death. In her analysis, the terminally ill first deny their condition, then get angry, make some bargain to rescind their diagnosis, and after this magical pact fails, become depressed before reaching the final stage, acceptance, when they reconcile themselves to death. The stages coincide with the progress of their illness and are impelled to a conclusion by the finite interim before death. I question whether this pattern always holds true. Some people, I imagine, feel more relief than resignation, others may rage to the end, most probably die raging and hoping and accepting, all at once.

Kübler-Ross' five-stage theory offers reassurance to the dying by recognizing that anger and depression are normal. Its culmination in acceptance, though, subtly creates pressure, imposing a standard for a right way to die; the dying have to make a psychologically virtuous farewell, with every word said, every issue resolved. Now that the theory has become ingrained and transposed to apply to grief, this same double-edged aspect confronts the bereaved: Grief theory confirms the appropriateness of anger and depression, but ends up policing what we feel.

Why should loss always be an occasion for emotional growth? Why must it be talked about as a catalyst for personal improvement? Bitterness is just as likely, and just as legitimate, an outcome. I would guess that most people, if they were allowed to speak freely, feel a mixture of emotions years after a trauma--more compassion, a greater understanding of mortality, envy of those who have not had the same loss, anger underneath the surface, rising up quickly whenever circumstances again take away their sense of control. The darker emotions, however, have no place in the grief experts' narrow definition of resolution. Their goal is emotional health. A humbler approach, conceding the complexity of human responses, is far more helpful.

After my children died, I saw a peer counselor for four years. Her training as a witness, the sensitive attention advocated by therapy, was her greatest gift to me. Compassionate listening is the contribution grief theory has made to the comforting of the bereaved. By listening--witnessing--she gave importance to the deaths in my family. But she recognized that she had a limited power to help, and she didn't judge me according to the moralisms of her profession. My peer counselor had become a therapist after a series of losses in her own life; so she had the humility and self-awareness to know that a trauma has lasting effects. When our sessions came to an end, I was still angry and depressed that my children had died, bitter that I had been robbed of them, hostile towards strangers pushing baby carriages. She treated these emotions with respect. They were the legacy of defeat, not reactions I had to flush out to regain psychic health.

Her attitude was unusual. The grief books I read all disparaged anger and other natural emotions by presenting them as feelings that had to be worked through and released.

In their endorsement of grief as a cleansing and reparative process, the books turned grief into a therapeutic procedure. Two ideas seemed to underlie their concept of a wholesome recovery: catharsis, or purging; and decathexis, withdrawing emotional energy from the person who has died. By being open to the emotions of grief and feeling them thoroughly, according to the books,
those left behind would succeed in detaching themselves from the dead. Then, they could move forward with their lives and give their love to new people. I haven't found disengaging to be so simple, or so ready for unimpaired exchange. The texts didn't make distinctions between the types of losses or take into account primordial feelings. I wasn't going to care about anyone as intensely as I had for my twins. Blood ties have a more profound pull than other relationships, and certain bonds are irretrievable.

I was supposed to decathect from my father and children. I already had to let go of their physical person. Death had taken care of that. Now I had to let go of my connection to them, too. What would be left? The same memory that wounds connects me to them. This seems to me a dilemma inherent in surrendering the past, which recovery literature doesn't analyze as it recommends forward-looking solutions.

Even the books' vocabulary sounds like the antithesis of grief. Their authors talk of healing by means of catharsis, purging, release--images of riddance--when every impulse wants to hold on. Since recovery theory begins with this idea, which adapts the practice of therapy to grief counseling, its conclusions naturally run counter to the immense desire to keep some connection with the dead. It doesn't recognize this need, and it offers no mechanism to maintain any kind of link that could merge the past with the present.

Had I never read these books, their philosophy still would have influenced me. Pervasive, optimistic, and dedicated to hands-on cures, popular psychology dovetails perfectly with pragmatic ideals. Self-improvement programs represent the transfer of the American dream to the emotional plane. For prosperity, they substitute personal fulfillment; for the belief that life can be controlled and turned into success, its parallel that emotions can be mastered and made healthier and happier. But after a death that matters to you, that changes your circumstances, or that has happened under traumatic conditions, life may indeed become sadder. And if grief counselors acknowledged that fact, they wouldn't add guilt to the burden of those who feel bereft.

KotaPress Editor's Note

Donnali let us first publish this essay by her in our December 2001 Loss Journal issue, and I have been impressed ever since. As I work in social services and mental health services each day, I am stunned to come across more and more "academic" therapists who refuse to listen to the experiences of the bereaved and rather carelessly disregard the voices of the bereaved as "lay people" who don't know anything. Donnali's voice is strong and clear, and I know many therapists who need to be reading more works like hers. Hope you will surf over to TimesTwoPublishing and find out more about her work!

Also look for the essay "Let the guinea pigs speak: Detaching grief from theory." Also by Donnali, now available in our Articles/Parent Support/Advocacy section. It addresses the new trends in grief therapy. A number of bereavement experts have started to reverse some of the contentions therapists have long maintained about grief, including the concept of resolution. Although this developing movement among grief professionals shows more consideration for the feelings of the bereaved than traditional grief theory, it still upholds several therapeutic criteria that are prohibitive. It suggests how the bereaved can protect themselves from any psychological theory that diverges from their experience or makes them feel worse.

A note from Donnali

The essay, Aggrieved (above), was mainly excerpted and adapted from Chapter 16 of "William & Wendell: A Family Remembered." That chapter deals most specifically with the limitations of grief theory, and the unnecessary pressures it has created for the bereaved. "Let the guinea pigs speak" is an Afterword to the Aggrieved chapter in the book.

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