Book Review: the truth about grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg

I am in the process of researching and writing a series of blog articles. In my research, I read the truth about grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss by Ruth Davis Konigsberg.

Since my current research is on the five stages posited by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying and the continued impact the “stages” theory has on grievers, I have tried to approach all readings with an open mind. I feel like I did so with this book, too.

Early on my reading, I found myself questioning the negative and sarcastic (sometimes even snarky) attitude demonstrated through the entire book. She slams counselors and others in the “death industry” as money-grabbers trying to make a buck off of people who have lost someone they loved. After giving a list of books, periodicals, grief centers, grief counselors, funeral homes and others who she seems to deem profiting off a focus on death, she writes:

Even if the movement has enriched a few individuals, it is driven more by ideology than money. Grief counselors are, by and large, not a sinister bunch out to make a buck off of other people’s misery, but they do, in the interest of self-preservation, have a stake in convincing us the grief is long, hard, and requires their help (p. 39).

In her chapter entitled “The Grief Counseling Industry,” the author starts with an absurd illustration of grief counselors debating what to do about tissues, whether handing a tissue to to a client who starts to cry will “interrupt their emotions (p. 105).”

“I’ve seen instances where when you hand people a tissue and they’re really in the flow of something that it just stops them…If you’re offering them tissues, then you’re telling them to stop crying that it’s too messy”…Finally, a solution was reached: Don’t move the tissue box next to the client but keep it visible and within their grasp at all times.

What wasn’t being debated, but probably should have been, is whether counseling people through their grief actually works (p. 106).

She goes on later in the chapter to discredit counselors and authors in the field of grief counseling, including Alan Wofelt, Therese Rando, Ann Finkbeiner and others, as if experiencing loss should preempt one from wanting to help others, writing a book on grief or becoming a grief counselor.

Having loss in one’s background could certainly be an asset to a grief counselor, but it also inevitably colors one’s interpretations and recommendations. Not only have many grief counselors experienced traumatic loss but so has almost every prominent grief expert out there…Almost every person who has written a book on grief has experienced the sudden, unexpected, and often violent death of a loved one, so that extraordinarily difficult circumstances have formed the filter through which we have come to understand loss in general…The lack of neutrality among grief professionals wouldn’t necessarily be an insurmountable problem if it were routinely acknowledged and specifically warned against…(p. 120-122).

As I have stated previously, I have found people who have actually walked the walk of this grief journey usually have more insight and helpful things to say than those who don’t. There is only so much insight one can have viewing from the outside.

In her chapter, “The Grief Disease and Resilience,” the author (a strong proponent of George Bonanno’s resilience theory and Holly Prigerson’s efforts in changing “acceptable” length of bereavement in the DSM from two months to two weeks) then takes on the topic of complicated grief.

As practitioners began to speculate about the causes of complicated grief, they focused on the specific details surrounding the death itself…This approach gave rise to several stereotypes. For example, you have probably heard that the death of a child is the hardest loss that one can experience…This certainly sounds true and makes intuitive sense, in that no parent expects to see his or her offspring, for whom their love is almost limitless, die before they do…But [psychology professor] Stanley Murrell…pointed out that as painful as losing a child is, one at least has a spouse to lean on (p. 132-135).

The last statement of this quote, in particular, shows just how little the author truly understands about how the death of a child affects the bereaved parents. As I stated in my article entitled “Marriage following the death of a child,” it is nearly impossible for spouses to comfort and support each other when they are both experiencing an equal grief.

I cannot recommend this book under any circumstances. Although it contains some legitimate history and criticisms of the “stages” model of grieving, there is not enough good information in this book to make it worthwhile reading.


© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss by Ruth Davis Konigsberg. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2011. 258 pp.

From the publisher: Ruth Davis Konigsberg first heard about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages in a high school psychology class. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, she began a career in magazine journalism and worked as an editor for New York and Glamour. She has written for numerous publications, often about psychology. Konigsberg lives in Pelham, New York, with her husband and their two children.

For another review on this book (I read this review after formulating my own), please read: Balk DE. Ruth Konigsberg’s Demythologizing Project. Death Studies. 2011;35(7):673-678. doi:10.1080/07481187.2011.579509.



This entry was posted in Book Review, Death of a child and tagged , , by Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective. Bookmark the permalink.

About Rebecca Carney - One Woman's Perspective

My name is Becky Carney. My husband, Joe, and I have been married for 44 years. We have two living children, Eric (41) and Jenna (36). We lost a baby in utero at 19 weeks in 1987. In 2002, our middle son, Jason (19), and his best friend, Alina (20), were broadsided by a drunk driver who was going at least twice the speed limit. They both died instantly. This blog is written from my perspective as a bereaved parent. I don't claim to know what it's like to walk in anyone else's shoes. Each situation is different; each person is different. Everyone handles grief differently. But if I can create any degree of understanding of what it's like to be a parent who has lost a child, then I have succeeded in my reason for writing this blog.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: the truth about grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg

  1. Hi Becky- this sounds like an awful book! Many years ago, I had the opportunity to see Elizabeth Kubler-Ross speak; she was amazing. She herself admitted to being frustrated that her stages of grief have been taken as gospel. She said she never intended them to be seen as absolutes. It was very interesting.

    Thank you so much for continuing to post. I am only 3 years in on this journey and get so much comfort from reading perspective s from those farther along. I wish there was more study and literature about losing a young adult child that talked about more than the first couple of years. Hugs to you- Andrea (my dtr died at 19 as well)

    • Hi, Andrea. I’m so sorry you are on this journey. My heart goes out to you.

      The gal that wrote this book is a good writer, technically speaking. My problem is that I found the book condescending toward those who grieve and toward those who try to help. It is neither objective nor unbiased. She presents herself as an expert in the field; however, I feel like her “expertise” in speaking about this subject has come from attending workshops and psychology classes in high school and college. She has said in an interview that this book was not based on any type of experience she had personally. She is a journalist by trade and training, and has written for about things in the financial industry, for ELLE magazine, editor for Glamour magazine, etc. I’m not sure how editing or writing for fashion magazines or financial websites makes her an expert on grief.

      That’s just my opinion, of course.

      Hugs to you,

  2. I am not sure why Ruth Konigsberg is criticising Elisabeth Kubler Ross and others like Alan Wofelt in the grief counseling field so heavily.

    I have had direct correspondence with Carol Kearn, a grief counsellor who was mentored under Elisabeth. Carol wrote a book entitled, Sugar Cookies and a Nightmare, which was about her young daughter’s death by drowning. Elisabeth had spent a lot of time with Carol and encouraged her to write the book on her daughter. When I lost my son in 2012, Carol was already retired but she sent me a crystal blue butterfly which was a Elisabeth Kubler-Ross symbolic gift. I still have that gift and treasure it.

    Carol also told me she had served as an on-site crisis counselor during the Sandy Hook shootings. She was able to address the more mystical aspects of death that can happen when death is about to occur. It is not uncommon for such events to present beforehand — a certain knowledge of impending death, even in accidental deaths such as my son’s. I was also able to have correspondence with another mother whose son had been a patient of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. I was able to hear their stories which helped me to process my son’s passing to a degree, and at that time I needed any help I could find. Especially with the unexpected events — which was difficult to find qualified writings on.

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