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.

~Becky

© 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.

 

 

Book Review: life after the death of my son; what I’m learning by Dennis L. Apple

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This book was written by Dennis Apple in 2008, 17 years after the death of his 18-year old son from complications of mono on February 6, 1991. At the time of his son’s death and also at the time of writing this book, Dennis was a staff pastor at a large church in Kansas.

I found this to be a refreshingly honest book written by a man whose son had died unexpectedly. In writing this book, the author went back to his journals written at the time of his son’s death and in the years following, using specific quotes from those journals to write about his experiences.

Typically, I have discovered, more articles, books and blogs on grief following the death of a child are written by women than they are by men. With some well-written exceptions, a number of the male-written articles and books on the grief experienced following the death of a child are written by men who are researchers or hold jobs in a professional capacity (psychologist, psychiatrist, pastor, etc.), and who have not actually walked the walk of a bereaved father. To me, I have found that an item written on the death of a child is more authentic and carries more “weight” if it’s been written by someone who has actually experienced it first hand.

Will It Always Hurt This Much?

In the first chapter, Dennis tells the story of walking into a grief support group two weeks following the death of his son. After telling the group their son had died two weeks earlier, “one of the women spoke up and said to us ‘Hang in there – the second year is often worse than the first!’ I remember thinking, If that’s true, then you might as well kill us right now. There is no way we’ll make it if it gets worse than this (p. 12).”

Looking back, I see that she was a trying to prepare us. Much of our first year was spent in a daze as we trudged through each day like sad robots…Fresh grievers don’t want to hear this truth, but it’s best to be prepared for what’s to come…When we faced the second year, the second round of painful reminders on the calendar, we knew we were in this for the long haul (p. 12-13).

Similar to the situation I encountered at a Compassionate Friends meeting when I was told, “Oh, you’re just a baby [in the grief process],” it’s a very hard thing to hear early on that this is a very long journey. No parent wants to know that it will take a lot of hard work and time to reach a new normal, especially when all they want to do is to wake up from this nightmare.

I’m torn on whether or not this is helpful to know this at the onset. I guess it depends on the people involved and the way it’s communicated – gently and with an assurance that they can make it through and that they are not alone in the journey. I remember early on trying to contact someone I knew who had lost two children in a fire. I just wanted someone to tell me I would survive, to pray with me. Although the author says it’s best to be prepared and to know this truth, he says in a later chapter that “it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how long our winter of grief would continue, because it was much longer than I expected (p. 143).”

Bereaved parents feel as though they’re on a long, sad march but have no final destination. We feel as though this overwhelming sadness will be with us forever. We’re expected to move on, yet something within us resists these expectations to move on so quickly…Bereaved parents are also learning how to play hurt, but the casual onlooker has no idea how badly they’ve been injured or how long it will take to recover (p. 15).

Our injury is made even worse by people who try to fast-forward us through our grief. They suggest we should come to some sort of closure…I borrowed a phrase from another griever whom I heard say, “People close on houses, not on the death of a child (p.16).”

Few people whose children are living understand the formidable task that bereaved parents face. Gradually, bereaved parents must face the realization that their lives, and the lives of their entire family, have been changed forever. The struggle before them is to find a new “normal” (p. 17).

Will Our Marriage Survive This?

In this chapter on marriage, Dennis writes about some of the struggles he and his wife had in their marriage dealing with the differences in the way each approached grief. He calls it the “grief dance” they were having and uses an example of two amateurs trying to dance together and badly stepping on each others toes in the process. Their separate and individual approaches to grief, accompanied by his wife’s deep and lengthy grief process, nearly caused them to separate.

In the months and years following our son’s death, there were times when we thought about going our separate ways. We still loved each other, but the grief from our son’s death was like a dirty wedge, driving us apart.

…Sixteen years after Denny’s death, we still have sore toes from stepping on each other’s feet. A casual observer could easily look at us today and think we’re both accomplished dancers as we move together as one.

It wasn’t always that way. The truth is, we simply chose to stay with each other regardless of what happened. Each of us mourned differently and understood there were times we cold help one another. Other times, we simply couldn’t (p.44).

The author talks about the differences between the way men and women grieve: “Women mourn, but men replace (p. 31).” Two weeks after the death of his son, Dennis went back to work, using work and its hectic schedule in an attempt to outrun his grief. Meanwhile, his wife was left on her own to grieve alone. As time went by, Dennis got impatient with her grief while trying to ignore his own.

Along my grief journey I have met countless men, who, like me, have tried to outrun their pain by replacing it with something else. Whenever I see this happening, I remind them of an oil filter commercial. In that commercial, the mechanic holds up a dirty oil filter and says, “You will either pay me now or pay me later.” For grievers, the message is clear: if we try to stifle, ignore, outrun our sadness, and not talk about the pain we feel inside, there will be serious consequences down the road (p.33).

…Across the years, I have encountered several men who have tried to fast-forward the mother of a dead child through her grief and suffering. If I can be of any help to another man about this, I would say as hard as it may be, please allow her to express herself through her grief without being hurried. It may be the most difficult task you have ever faced, but stay with her and allow her to drain this cup of sorrow. She suffered through the labor pains as she gave birth to the child, and now she will likewise need your support as she faces the labor pains of grieving over her dead child (p. 42).

Am I Losing My Mind?

In this chapter, the author discusses the profound way we are affected by grief – mentally, physically, psychologically. He was surprised at how long the “fog of grief” lasted for him – not just weeks, but years – and how his body was affected by the grief over the death of his son.

Prior to Denny’s death, I had no clue about the many ways a parent is affected by this kind of loss. I remember seeing the sad faces of other bereaved parents in our community but had no idea of the mental and physical pain brought on by the death of their child. The consequences of this type of death are often hidden from the casual onlooker.

Mimi Guameri writes in her book The Heart Speaks, “Doctors will tell you, broken heart syndrome or stress-induced heart failure is a medical condition…This condition seems to be caused by high levels of hormones that the body produces during severe stress, which can be temporarily toxic to the heart.” In other words, you can die from a broken heart, and these days medical science is able to observe this happening in grievers. Now when I see people in deep grief holding their chests, I realize just how vulnerable they really are. Sometimes I felt as though I would die too (p. 55-56).

Where Is God?

The death of a child can bring into question a person’s beliefs and faith, and this pastor/bereaved father is no different.

I had always trusted the words of Jesus found in Scripture: “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). However, on February 6, 1991, everything I believed about prayer was challenged when God did not respond to my most desperate prayer (p. 64).

The author goes on to talk about his belief that shock following the death of a child is God’s way of protecting us when we experience tragedy. We can’t handle everything, every emotion, all at once. People tend to misunderstand the reactions of a bereaved parent who is in shock and misinterpret it as not caring, not crying, or that the parent is doing so well. “Little do they know that the survivors are in a deep, soul-numbing state and are not able to feel the full effects of their loss – yet (p. 68).”

He also talks about his beliefs in God coming into question and his anger at hearing someone tell how a “guardian angel” had protected their loved one from harm. “I tried my best to join them in their good fortune, but inwardly I was thinking, Where was my son’s guardian angel on the night of February 6? (p. 69).”

He continued working in his profession as a pastor, all the while trying to figure out why God had not answered his prayers and whether his beliefs of God were accurate. “Gradually, I came to the place in which I accepted the fact that we live in a fallen world, a place where the rain falls on the just and unjust…It may seem as though God has forsaken you, but He is still there with you, even though the fog may hide Him for a while (p. 76-77).”

I Don’t Want Him to be Forgotten

Losing a child is in a class by itself…We expect to see our children grow up, get their educations, marry, and have their families. We look forward to seeing our children’s children so we can enjoy the role of loving grandparents, take them to Disney World, carry their pictures with us, show them off, and brag (p. 82).

While others we know, including our child’s friends, move into new life adventures, bereaved parents are acutely aware of the myriad of events that are no longer possible, not only for their child, but for them as parents.

In this chapter, the author lists multiple ways to honor and remember a deceased child – scholarship funds, planting trees, sending greeting cards, commemorative bricks, and many more. The one thing a parent – especially us mothers – fear is that our child will be forgotten. We are the keepers of the memories. It is our job to make sure our child is not forgotten.

His Birthday is Coming Up

The first missed birthday was a nightmare, and I had assumed it would be rough. What surprised me was how future birthdays and holidays also affected me…I found myself wishing we could somehow skip these family times and simply stick to a yearly calendar without holidays (p. 98-99).

In this chapter, the author discusses the difficulty of birthdays, death days and holidays. He also discusses the “sneak attacks” of grief that happen when we least expect them, along with suggestions on how to deal with them.

When griever has one or several of these painful grief attacks crashing into his or her mind and emotions, it causes a pressure to build up, not unlike the steam pressure that builds up in a pressure cooker. When this happens, it’s important to find someone to whom you can confide about your internal pain. When someone chooses to be your companion and truly listen to your pain – without trying to fix you – you can begin to find relief and decrease the internal pressure (p. 112).

An editorial side note: As one of ten kids and pastor of a large church, the author mentions several times about the incredible support that they had. In writing this section, as well as other places where the he talks about support or finding support, I realized that I have come to this conclusion: As difficult as it is for a person who has never experienced the death of a child to realize how difficult it is to walk the daily walk of a parent whose child has died, it is equally difficult for a person who has had support in their walk as a bereaved parent to truly understand what it’s like to NOT have such support. The notion that everyone has or can find adequate support in their grief journey is an assumptive, erroneous one. I wish it were otherwise and that every bereaved parent had or could find adequate support, but I know firsthand that it’s not.

I Love My Church – But Sometimes It Hurts to Be There

Although the author talks about the incredible support he had, he also felt that “it was a place where we were misunderstood and wounded as well (p. 118).” His wife had a very difficult time being in church, partly because the all the families represented something that was no longer possible for her. The use of “encouraging” scripture to try to cheer them up, ignoring the pain, the “at least you will see them again” comments, and many other wounds opened his eyes to ways the church could better respond to those who deeply grieve.

Quite often I hear Christians use scripture to infer that because we have the confidence and hope of heaven, we should not grieve like the rest of the world. While it’s true that we grieve differently, scripture does not teach Christians to smile and bravely face our losses. It simply reminds us of the difference between our grief and the grief of those who have no hope (p. 121).

In those early days of my grief journey, I had several minister friends, asa well as members of the church, who seemed uncomfortable with my grief and sadness…It seemed they often used scriptures to try and cheer us up. One scripture in particular that was used…was I Thess. 5:16-18: “Be joyful always; pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

They would tell us to be joyful and give thanks for Denny’s death and to praise God in all circumstances. Some of my minister friends told me, “Christians with a strong faith will come through this faster.”

I listened to them and secretly wished they would finish what they had to say and move on – out of my presence. The people who said these things were never people who had lost children. Those who had lost a child knew better…It’s as though these people are the grief police, not wanting us to express our feelings of sadness. They want us to buck up and get over it (p. 123-124).

The author goes on to explain how the experiences in his church helped open his eyes to ways to minister to the grieving, instituting practices within the church that were adopted on a long-term basis.

I Didn’t Cry This Morning

Every newly bereaved person I talk with always wants to know how long his or her pain will continue, how long his or her bitter winter of sorrow will last. It’s a natural question to ask. After all, grieving is the hardest work we do, and it’s only natural to want to know “When do I get a break from this?” The soul-crushing weight of grief is almost more than a person can bear, and we often wonder if the day will ever come when we’ll smile or laugh again. Then, when we do start to get a “break” from our pain, we often feel guilty.

…It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how long our winter of grief would continue, because it was much longer than I expected. Along the way, there have been times when I would get a glimmer of hope that we might survive it (p. 136-138).

It may take years before the green shoots of hope begin to appear in your life. Again, be patient and keep looking for them. They’ll reappear after your long winter of grief (p. 143).

The author then goes on and gives a list of 30 suggestions of where to look for encouragements of growth and healing – not crying yourself to sleep every night, going to the grocery store without falling apart when walking past your child’s favorite foods, you start noticing the beauty around you again, and many more.

In closing

The last two chapters, I’m Beginning to Live Again and A Wounded Healer?, focus on ways to find help (church, support groups, etc.), ways that the author has integrated his grief into his ministries in church and the purpose he found following the death of his son.

As I said at the beginning of this review, I found this book to be refreshingly honest and frank. Although the author talks a lot about the grief process and his own person grief journey, he also gives practical and helpful suggestions for the walk. I would highly recommend this book. As always, I suggest the reader consider what may apply to their personal lives and let go of that which may not.

(My criteria and process for reviewing books can be found here: https://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/reviewing-books-on-grief/)

~ Becky

Apple, Dennis L, life after the death of my son: what I’m learning, Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City (March 10, 2008).

© 2019 Rebecca Carney

 

 

Book Review: The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff

Written in 1977, nine years following the death of her son in 1968, The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Sarnoff Schiff is touted in the back-of-the-book description as the “classic  book for parents whose child has died – and for all who want to help them.” From what I’ve read, this particular book on grief and loss was one of the first of its kind written by a parent whose child had died and, therefore, was embraced by bereaved parents and widely considered as groundbreaking.

Book Introduction

In the introduction, Ms. Schiff emphasizes the fact that only a person who has walked this walk of a bereaved parent can truly understand what it’s like to walk the walk.

Some things are beyond describing. No matter how eloquent the words, their impact can fall flat when not accompanied by a similar experience…the emotions one feels are only believable and truly understood by a fellow bereaved parent. (p. xi)

She then gives her reason for writing the book: to give some suggestions that might help fellow bereaved parents on how to cope and an encouragement to carry on.

What we needed then was somebody who could say, “I survived the same ordeal you are now enduring. You can do it. I have some suggestions that might help.”

We would have placed a value beyond price on such assurances. We could have avoided some dreadful pitfalls had we been warned by people who had undergone the same grief we now faced.

…Parents with dead babies, parents whose sons died in war, parents who are elderly and lived to bury their middle-aged children, all have a great need to know that others have experienced the emotions they are feeling and that these others are dealing effectively with both their bereavement and life.

But just as important as knowing you are not alone is knowing you can and must learn to carry on despite this most unnatural of disasters.

The death of a child is frequently called the ultimate tragedy. I believe this is true. But it is a tragedy that must not be compounded by allowing everything around you to die also. There are other children, mates, sisters, brothers, friends, who need and deserve to see you functioning well.

This book is intended to help you regain that level. (p. xii, xiv)

Grieving

Although she gives some excellent advice, I feel like one of Ms. Schiff’s goals in writing this book is to encourage the grieving to “move on” as a recurring theme. For example, in the chapter entitled “Bereavement and Grieving,” Ms. Schiff writes:

Many of the negative patterns, unfortunately, are set during the weakest time – the most vulnerable time – for these parents. They are set during the early stages of grieving…It is during this early period, even though the pain is great, that we must begin to take the first steps out of the cocoon of mourning and back into the land of the living.

Although in no way should your grief be buried, it is important to take some positive steps. Do it slowly, trying to be gentle with yourself…It is important that no one neglect taking that first small step – and it should be a small one. That way, if you fall, it’s just a tiny way down. It won’t be terribly hard to climb back up again.

It’s something you can do. (p. 30-31)

She encourages dads to allow themselves to cry or to have lunch with friends or lead an activity, for mothers to put on lipstick or change their hairstyle. It feels as if she is trying to encourage bereaved parents to move on, to look for “something left to enjoy” that would penetrate their grief. Try something. If you fall down, get up and try again. “It’s something you can do.”

In the very first chapter of the book on the very first page, the author gives the biblical story of King David who, immediately following the death of his child, adorned himself with fancy clothes and put on a tremendous feast.

When friends asked him how he could eat with his child newly dead, he replied he had done all that was humanly possible while the boy was alive and now that he was gone, it was time to pickup the pieces of living and go on with life…The wise king had come to a truth that countless parents in pain have also found. The living must go on. (p. 1)

She also uses the example of the story of David later in the book, telling how their rabbi told this story at their son’s funeral.

He (the rabbi) made an excellent choice. He told the story of David and how he did everything possible for his son while the boy was alive, but, when the son died, David once again took up the business of living…It was a selection…[that] suggested a path to follow after the funeral — to attempt to emulate David and to take up life once again. (p.10-11)

Although I agree with her that we, as bereaved parents, can’t allow ourselves to become recluse, the whole get back on your feet and do something to get “out of the cocoon of mourning and back into the land of the living” early in the grieving process seems a bit premature. I feel that it puts undue pressure on parents to feel like they have to begin the “moving on” process as soon as possible following the death of their child, and it’s an unfair standard to impose on bereaved parents.

I feel, on one hand, Ms. Schiff is espousing a “new” (at the time) philosophy that it’s okay and healthy to grieve, while also seemingly to write from the accepted viewpoint at the time that a bereaved parent needs to figure out how to move on.

One interesting antidote Ms. Schiff gave regarding the perspective on grieving at that time:

One funeral director, who holds  a master’s degree in social work, recently went so far as to say that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, with her magnificent public stoicism at the funeral of the assassinated president, “set grieving back a hundred years. She created an example of dignity for the world that people emulated just as they emulated her dress and little dinner parties…not stopping to think that in private she cried…just as we all do.”

“Mrs. Onassis,” said the funeral director, “set a tone for grieving the people began to follow blindly — and one that became expected by onlookers. Some of my clients, bereaved parents, actually were ashamed of their own comparative ‘lack of control’ as this attitude filtered down to the general population.” (p. 16)

Communication

One other area where I feel Ms. Schiff puts undue pressure on the bereaved parents was in her chapter titled “Bereavement and Communicating.” While addressing the difficulty in knowing what to say to a parent whose child has died, Ms. Schiff writes:

It seems impossible to me to understand the cruelty of friends and family who desert parents at such a time. But in my research I found countless couples who had horror stores to relate, such as a brother, once close, who stopped calling his sister shortly after her child died, or friends who were never heard from again after the funeral.

…Perhaps the beginnings of this type of alienation lie in the awkwardness of not knowing what to say. This discomfort can create a million excuses for a friend or relative not to call a bereaved parent. One day falls hard upon another, and suddenly the friend looks around and a month has gone by without making the difficult phone call. Now, with the time lapse, along with the awkwardness comes the need for apology, and once again the evasion “too busy” to make that call takes hold. Soon, enough time has elapsed to make the problem so embarrassing that it’s simply easier to forget the whole thing.

I believe, after much investigation that, unfair as it may see, the burden for sustaining relationships rests with the bereaved parents. At a time when it is most difficult to do, they are placed in the position of having to take the initiative of making that first call, extending that first invitation…Strike a tone of friendship. Extend a friendly hand. People want to help. They just need to be shown how…By taking that first step, the danger is averted of the awkward pause that could last a lifetime…People are basically decent. My experience has shown they truly want to help. After all, it is most difficult to live with oneself knowing you have deserted a bereaved family.

But, as in may human endeavors, people need guidance. They need to be shown how. The responsibility for maintaining social relationships often comes to rest with the bereaved. We are the ones who must set the tone and pace for social relationships. If we don’t, we may find that no one will.

Contact your friends. Ask how family members are. Put people at ease by speaking freely…Invite someone over for coffee. Or suggest meeting at a restaurant for a meal.

…It is entirely possible – if not probable – that your first act of initiative will fail. In fact, you may fall flat on your face. But the second time you take the initiative will be easier until eventually you have mastered the art of communicating although bereaved. (p. 103-107)

I have to say that one thing I will never understand is how many people we thought to be good friends – and on whom we assumed we could count for support during the worst time of our lives – could have deserted us so badly and left us so alone after Jason died. Even when I reached out, I felt like I had my hand slapped away.

I realize that it is a very difficult thing to know what to do or say when a child dies. Conversation is awkward. People don’t want to do or say the wrong thing. But I entirely disagree with the assumption – even specific direction – that the parent whose child has died has to be the one reach out, to make the invitations, to take on the “burden for sustaining relationships.” With all the bereaved parent is dealing with, it’s just plain wrong and backwards.

It’s too easy a cop-out any more, in my opinion, to just say “I don’t know what to do,” and then do nothing or expect the bereaved family to give direction or reach out. Nobody really knows what to do, especially the family who has lost a dearly loved family member and whose lives have been entirely shattered. It’s all uncharted territory for everyone. We do notice who does and who does not walk with us. We notice who stepped up and who stepped away. We forgive, even without forgiveness asked, but we notice and remember.

This may sound harsh, but, when we, as bereaved parents and siblings, are at our most raw and most vulnerable, we don’t need to be deserted. People need to step up…and to continue stepping up. We may not hear them the first time – or even the second or third time – through the fog of grief or be able to respond right then, but we don’t have the energy to reach out to family members and friends and to teach them how to support us. Sometimes it’s necessary, but it should not be the norm.

There is a lot more information available now and a lot more research has been done on grief following the death of a child, as well as some very good information written about how to help a person who is grieving. One example is a book I reviewed previously titled “A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help,” by Ginny Callaway. In addition, various bloggers have written some excellent posts on ways to help a grieving friend. I feel like there is more than enough information for a friend who would like to “help,” if only one takes the time to look.

Marriage

Regarding marriage, Ms. Schiff accurately writes that it is unrealistic to expect bereaved parents to be able to support and comfort each other. The “at least you have each other for comfort” assumption could not be further from the truth. Not only could Joe and I not adequately support or comfort each other or our surviving children, neither could we, as Jason’s parents, support or comfort Alina’s parents, even though our children died in the same accident and we certainly understood to some degree the true and deep extent of their loss. I felt a strong assumption by people we knew that this should be something we could provide for each other, and, because of that assumption, some people felt that they were off the hook to step up.

Certainly having each other for comfort would be the logical solution. Unfortunately, as a number of parents whose child died have discovered, it is impossible to give comfort when you feel an equal grief. (p. 6)

On marriage, Ms. Schiff also makes the assertion that “some studies estimate that as high as 90 percent of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child.” (p.57) In my reading over the years, I have heard this statement refuted, so I performed an internet search on “peer-reviewed articles bereaved parents and divorce.” (Just a disclaimer here: Because I can’t afford to subscribe to academic sites or educational journal sites, I only have access to and use free publications, peer-review/pre-publication manuscripts, etc. I do, however, try to find reputable free publications.)

One article I found states:

One particularly frightening myth about parental bereavement is the myth that suggests that a high percentage of parents divorce after the death of a child. It is hard to imagine a more painful prediction following the death of a child than the suggestion that one’s marriage is also at risk. Yet countless married survivors have been exposed to this myth in some form.

Like many myths, nestled inside is tiny kernel of information that snowballed into its current, unrecognizable form. One of the earliest books on grief and loss, groundbreaking at the time, was The Bereaved Parent by Harriet Schiff, published in 1977. It was the first of its kind, and bereaved parents everywhere found solace in the words of a woman who was also on the grief journey following the death of her ten-year-old son.

…In the book’s chapter entitled “Bereavement and Marriage,” Schiff writes, “In fact, some studies estimate that as high as 90% of all bereaved couples are in serious marital difficulty within months after the death of their child.” Schiff doesn’t cite her sources, and subsequent analyses of the bereavement research of that time do not clearly indicate where that opinion might have originated. Yet somehow this relative innocuous statement about marital strains became a divorce “fact.” People began to perpetuate the notion that 90% of all marriages end in divorce following the death of a child.

https://www.taps.org/articles/21-1/divorce

In 2006, The Compassionate Friends organization addressed this question in one of their surveys. The results found that only 16 percent of parents divorce following the death of a child, and a significantly lower percentage (4%) said it was because of the death of their child.

In a study entitled “Bereavement and Divorce: Does the death of a child affect parents’ marital stability?,” one researcher (Torkild Hovde Lyntstad) looks at the negative effects of the death of a child on marriage.

The death of a child can be an extreme stressor for the bereaved…Bereaved parents generally assume a more negative view of the world compared to non-bereaved parents…Multiple studies indicate that the grieving period can last for a very long time, even indefinitely…The results of psychological studies of bereaved couples show that bereavement serves as a major stressor in the marriage and negatively affects many aspects of marital interaction.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/263221117_Bereavement_and_divorce_Does_the_death_of_a_child_affect_parents’_marital_stability

Yet another article, “Parents Positive Interpersonal Coping After a Child’s Death,” emphasizes positive evidence of marriages surviving the death of a child.

Despite the challenging context of grieving for the death of a child, evidence shows that it is possible for parents to manage and preserve their relationship…The death of a child can lead to marital distress and divorce…however, there is also evidence of resiliency in parents’ relationship. Research has shown that not only marriages can survive the death of a child, but that this loss may even contribute to parents’ greater cohesion and strengthening of their relationship.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10826-017-0697-5

Without a doubt, the death of a child creates some major stressors on all aspects of life, marriages included, and there has been considerably more research on the subject than when Ms. Schiff wrote her book. It’s important not to assume your marriage will fail as a result of the death of a child, but it’s equally important to be aware of the pressures that it puts on a marriage and to consider strategies on how to address these pressures.

In researching this section on marriage, I have read a couple of really good articles about the stress of grieving on couples and suggested coping mechanisms, and I will review them in another post.

Siblings

One of the most difficult roles for a mother or father, when a child dies, is to continue being a parent to surviving offspring…Parenthood now becomes walking and talking and listening and hearing someone else at a time when it takes everything just to think for oneself.

Unfortunately, many surviving children suffer because their parents were unable to fulfill this responsibility, and the effects can be lifelong…A recurrent theme appears to be that the living children received precious little by way of comfort from their parents.

…Children who from infancy turned instinctively to their parents to ease hurts suddenly and in the worst possible light see another side of a mother or father…They expect solace from people who themselves need consoling.

…It requires enormous strength to deal with others’ hurts at such a time, but it is important not to allow a living child to feel alone. Use any reserve you have to take time through the initial grieving process to switch roles from the comforted to the comforter…Remember, your children are suffering just as you are suffering. They also fear the strength of their grief. (p. 83, 84, 91, 96)

In this particular chapter on Bereavement and Siblings, Ms. Schiff uses some of her personal experiences to explain the difficulties siblings go through following the death of a child. Even though she felt she and her husband had adequately supported their surviving children following the death of their son, she found out in interviews for this book that her surviving son, in particular, felt alone and unsupported in his grief. Their younger daughter had not been allowed to attend the funeral of her brother, and Ms. Schiff states her opinion that “nothing constructive can be gained by taking a child under seven to such a tragic rite.” (p. 95) As an adult, however, her daughter expressed anger at not being allowed to attend her brother’s funeral.

Entire books could be – and, since this book was written, have been – written on the subject of sibling grief. It’s difficult to cover this topic in just one chapter. Ms. Schiff gives some suggestions for talking to children of different ages and gives a list of do’s and don’ts, including asking leading questions to help children open up to talk about their grief and resisting making a deceased child into a saint, something impossible to live up to by surviving siblings.

Siblings are often called the “forgotten mourners.” Surviving siblings are asked by friends and family how the parents are doing, yet no one asks how they are doing. We were once again reminded of this recently on the anniversary of Jason’s death. Although I received some messages of support and remembrance, particularly in response to a Facebook posting, our daughter received no such messages of support or remembrance at all. This has been true from the very beginning since Jason died, and it just breaks my heart. Her grief at the death of her beloved brother was – and is – equal to ours, and she deserved – and still deserves – support that has been woefully lacking. This could be said of other surviving siblings, too, I would venture to say.

Functioning and the Rest of Your Life

The last two chapters of the book, “Bereavement and Functioning” and “Bereavement and the Rest of your Life,” are an encouragement to look beyond grief and into the future.

Functioning even at the simplest level is not easy after a child dies. In fact, it is a very frightening time. Suddenly, everyday things begin to loom large because your senses actually feel distorted…bereaved parents come to feel the whole world has come to a standstill during that initial period just after a child’s death. It is shocking to discover this is not the case. The world has gone on. Life has gone on. (p. 130-131)

She goes on to make some suggestions of how function in a world that has not stopped, starting with small tasks such as everyday chores, followed by small incremental steps “to bring something to life.”

When I began to accept the premise that functioning despite my sadness was like hiking with a heavy backpack that could not be removed, I underwent a marked change in attitude. I decided that I wanted to cope, to function, to walk through the forest, even though I was burdened by a great weight.

Mere survival, mere existence, is no longer enough for me and should not be for you.

Anyone can exist. But you have endured more pain than just anyone. You have undergone the ultimate tragedy. You owe yourself more than a shuffling-along existence. You owe yourself some surefooted living. (p. 139-140)

She concludes the book with an encouragement to not be concerned with what other people think you should do or not do, but rather to listen to your own instincts and to “concern yourself with functioning as best you can.” (p. 146)

Final Analysis

Although this book has some very good information, some of it felt a bit dated (i.e. Vietnam-era references, etc.) and the book feels like a bit like a product of its time, one when grief was thought that it needed to be “managed” as soon as possible. As I stated earlier, it’s as though the book is written as a mixture of “it’s okay to grieve” coupled with an encouragement “you have to find a way to move on.” While both of these are true, to be sure, they feel a bit too tightly compressed together in the book.

It’s important to remember, however, that at that time the generally accepted time period for grief was a few weeks to a few months after death.* Also worth noting, in my opinion, is that Ms. Schiff’s son died 1968 and that the Kubler-Ross book on the five stages of grief was written 1969, a book that took on a life of its own as the “norm” of how people should grieve or be expected to grieve. It is no small feat that Ms. Schiff wrote this book challenging some of the accepted norms of the day and speaking of her experiences as a bereaved parent. Kudos to her for tackling such a difficult subject at that time and writing this “groundbreaking” book. I feel it may have opened the door for many that followed.

As with all literature on grieving, it’s important to read this book through the prism of when the book was written and the author’s experience and point of view, taking from the text what is helpful to your life and letting the rest go. This also applies to whatever I write.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

*Rogers, Catherine H et al. “Long-term effects of the death of a child on parents’ adjustment in midlife.” Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) vol. 22,2 (2008): 203-11. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.22.2.203

 

Reviewing Books on Grief

A while back, I purchased some books on grief for the purpose of reading them and writing reviews here on my site. But, I sort of got burned out reading books on grief, the project languished and accompanying books sat in a box. When I ran across the box recently, I decided it was time to delve back into this project. Since I hope to begin soon writing reviews on some of these books, I thought I would share my book review process.

I’m old school when it comes to books and research articles – I like holding the actual, printed item in my hands as I read – and I mark up books and research articles as I read. I’ve always been one to make notes in the margins, underline and highlight things I think are important. (I think I got this from my dad; he notoriously wrote in his books and Bibles.) Keeping several pens beside me – several colors of gel or liquid ink pens and a highlighter or two – I make notes and highlight as I read. I think this process helps me maintain focus and also helps me find things later in the text.

After gathering my pens, the first thing I do before reading a book on grief is to look at the copyright date. Then, as soon as I can find the date of the event that led to the writing of the book (death of a child or loved one, date of research performed, etc.), I write that date beside the copyright date. That gives me an idea of the span of time between the two dates. I think this is especially important when writing about the death of a child. As most bereaved parents can tell you, there is a huge difference in perspective between year 1 and year 2, or year 2 and year 5. In my opinion, true perspective comes with time.

I also make notes in the front of the book as to the author’s relationship to the topic of grief. Has the author experience the death of a child? Is the author a medical expert writing on the topic? Is this book a subject of research rather than one of walking the walk? Does the author make a valid, strong connection to the reality of walking the walk of grief that he/she is trying to address?

The motivation and accurate understanding of the author is important when reading a book, especially as a bereaved parent trying to understand this difficulty walk. For example, I recently read a statement in a book about the percentage of couples who end up divorced following the death of a child. Since there was no supporting data, I did an internet research of peer-review articles on “divorce following death of a child” and printed off several that caught my interest. One article directly refuted the statement in the book, so I highlighted this portion of the article. Another article in a well-respected magazine compared the author’s experience of how her marriage was affected WHEN HER DOG DIED to a couple’s marriage survival following the death of their child. It was an astoundingly horrific comparison, in my opinion. No matter how much you love your dog, there is absolutely no basis of comparison to the death of a child. Quite honestly, I was so offended by the comparison that all I could do was rip the article to shreds in disgust. I think most parents who have lost a child would agree.

The next thing I do is to look to see if there are any references listed in the back of the book. I think this is especially important when making strong statements. For example, if a book is going to a statement that 90% of couples who have a child die end up in divorce, I’d like to see the supporting research behind such a statement. References also give me further suggestions of books to read or articles to locate.

As I read, I make notes in the margin, underline and highlight things that catch my attention – interesting items, things I agree with, things I disagree with, things I want to further research. I’ve been know to write a great big “NO” right on top of a paragraph that seems especially egregious to me.

When I’m done reading the book, I’ll go back through and re-read what I underlined or highlighted and perhaps make further notes. If there are references or unsubstantiated statements, I’ll try to do some research on my own to see what the research source says or see if I can find some research on the unsubstantiated statements (either in support of or refuting the statements). I’ll also make note of any books mentioned that I might like to read.

And then I write.

This has been a proven way for me whenever I’ve needed or wanted to read a book or article for a deeper purpose than pleasure reading – school, reviews, research, etc.

And that’s it. That’s the process I will use when reviewing books on this site…in case you were curious and wanted to know.

~Becky

© 2019 Rebecca R. Carney

“A Friend in Grief, Simple Ways to Help” by Ginny Callaway

A while back, I wrote a review of a book entitled “A Friend in Grief, Simple Ways to Help” by Ginny Callaway. The author recently ran across what I had written and thanked me for the review. I, in turn, discovered she has a website where this wonderful book can be purchased. Please visit her site at: http://www.afriendingrief.com/.

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Book Review: A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help by Ginny Callaway

IMG_0587In a gift shop, alongside books about local lore and tourist information, I recently found a book on grief written by an author who practically lives right in my own backyard, so to speak. The book is entitled “A Friend in Grief, Simple Ways to Help” by Ginny Callaway and is a Next Generation Indie Book Award winner. Since I always keep an eye out for helpful books on grieving to read and recommend, I picked it up.

The first thing I look for when reading a book on grief written by a bereaved parent is how much time has passed since the death of the child. In my opinion, a lot of perspective and practical wisdom can be gained with time. If a book is written by an “expert” (as in psychologist, etc.), I look to see whether the author’s experience is clinical or experiential. To me, it makes a lot of difference whether an author has walked in similar shoes and how long he or she walked in those shoes. This book was written by Ms. Callaway in 2011, 22 years after her 10 year-old daughter died in a car accident. She states that the book is written from her “experiences as a grieving mother and from…suggestions of more than 100 people…who have first-hand experience with the death of a loved one.” (p. 15)

IMG_0588A Friend in Grief is a small book which I found to be very well-written and very readable. Each chapter is brief, to the point, and contains specific helpful suggestions. The Content page is also helpful in that it lists each chapter title and briefly states what the reader will find in each chapter.

Ms. Callaway starts off the book with an introduction telling the circumstances of her daughter’s death, followed by the first chapter which tells the reader how this book could help. Ms. Callaway says, “Most people feel ill-equipped and awkward when faced with a friend’s grief. We want to be supportive, but we don’t know how…Our society doesn’t provide us with much guidance on how to go to our neighbor’s door…Instead, we stay behind our own door, peeking out the window, when we really want to reach out.” (p. 14) She then encourages the reader to step forward instead of stepping away. “There is a rewarding aspect in comforting your grieving friend. As you put aside your own fears and self-consciousness and put an arm around someone in need, your fears will drop away and you will feel better about yourself.” (p. 14)

In the chapter on “What to Say that Is Kind and Helpful,” Ms. Callaway says:

I always thought my words to a grieving friend needed to have a certain power, be meaningful and make everything better. I sincerely wanted to say the “right” thing, to be the one with the memorable words of wisdom to make the problem go away…The real question is: Can I really do or say anything that will make my friend feel good and make everything better? The answer is no. There are no magic words…It’s important for us to let go of these unrealistic, self-imposed expectations that keep us from reaching out when we are so needed…Our role is to be the friend, no a counselor. Friends are there without being asked, to help do everyday things and to listen. It’s as simple and as powerful as that. (p. 30)

Just a side note…I’ve pondered this difficult situation many times – that of stepping forward into grief or stepping away when someone we know has lost a dearly loved one – and I’ve sort of settled on the following theory. When someone we know has lost a loved one, we do what we know to do immediately following the death. We send flowers or a a gift or a card. We go to the funeral or memorial service. We tell the bereaved how sorry we are and that we are praying for them or thinking of them. We sign up to make a meal for the bereaved. After that, there are crucial times that set the path for our continued relationship with the griever.

The first crucial time is not long after the first few weeks. Awkwardness steps in, the initial “action” tasks are done, and then we don’t know what to do. We don’t know what to say. When the initial activity is done, what do we do then? Do we step forward…or do we step away? Do we walk alongside the griever…or do we cross to the other side of the street (or down the next aisle in the grocery store), hoping we haven’t been seen, to avoid contact? Do we disappear or do we support? It’s not easy to step forward into grief. It’s awkward. It’s not very pretty. It’s fearful. But, I think that once that fear has been conquered and the effort made, the stepping forward on a continual basis becomes a bit easier and, as Ms. Callaway says, becomes rewarding. It takes a lot of guts and it takes a dedication of time, but it can be well worth the effort. We feel better about ourselves and that becomes self-perpetuating. The result is that the griever feels loved and supported.

The opposite is true, too. When we avoid the griever and disappear, we feel guilty and bad about our behavior towards the bereaved. We know we’ve avoided them; they know we’ve avoided them. Then what do we do? We feel even more awkward and fearful, don’t know how to step forward, and that becomes self-perpetuating, too, on our part. As time goes by, it becomes even harder to break the cycle and step forward. The result is that the griever feels hurt, abandoned and alone. Perhaps if we put aside some of our “unrealistic, self-imposed expectations,” it would be easier to step forward.

This becomes self-perpetuating on the part of the bereaved, too. I’ve written extensively about how many people disappeared and how little support we had following Jason’s death. For me, I had a hard time believing that the person who called me once every three or six months to “see how I was doing” (when I didn’t hear from him or her at all in between) actually cared. I felt like I was free-falling into a pitch-black pit and there was no one there to reach out and help stop my fall. I quit trusting in friendships very much and built walls around my heart to protect it from further hurt, and I would periodically peek out from behind those walls. I think I realized those walls were not healthy, and I tried reaching out. When I did try to reach out to people I knew, it was not always successful. I sometimes felt like I got my hand slapped. I felt rejected because of my grief…and the other person’s fear and awkwardness. I would then pull back behind my walls to protect myself and my heart. It’s a hard cycle to break once it’s set.

There are other crucial times when we can choose to step forward. As I said above, I realized the walls I had put up to protect my heart were not healthy for me. When the bereaved reaches out at a later time, we once again have an opportunity to choose whether to step forward or step back. I had one friend who, months after Jason died, sent me an email to apologize for disappearing. I was so relieved that someone finally “got it” that it was hard to see people disappear from our lives. But, then I didn’t hear from her again for a long time, and that was really hard for me. I also got a letter from a gal about a year after Jason died, apologizing for avoiding me because she didn’t know what to say. I appreciated the apology, but I didn’t hear anything else from her. With so many people in the same boat – awkward and avoiding us – who was there to step forward?

Another crucial time is down the road. You have walked with your friend for a while. You are getting tired of your friend being so sad all the time, are tired of hearing the same old stories over and over again as your friend tries to work through her grief, and feel like it’s time for her to move on…or maybe you feel like it’s time for you to move on. What do you do? I ran into a fellow bereaved parent ten years after Jason died. I felt like she had adequate support following the death of her child, both immediately and the continued years. I was surprised when she told me that, now that she was ready to “do things,” there was no one left. The people that had offered support initially grew weary and tired of waiting for her to “move on,” so they had moved on themselves. Her support base had moved on without her, and she didn’t have friends to do anything with. It’s hard to be there for the long haul. If some people feel like they need to move one, hopefully there will be others who step forward.

Back to the book review…Each chapter is concise, giving helpful suggestions on what to do and what not to do in order to help the bereaved. Ms. Callaway dedicates chapters on helping a returning co-worker and how the medical community can be supportive. Some chapters, such as the one entitled “Immediately After The Death,” give a checklist of helpful suggestions, and the Resources section at the back of the book not only lists groups to contact, but also repeats these checklists.

Ms. Callaway dedicates a chapter to ways to help during the first year. She points out obvious days, such as the deceased’s birthday or a holiday, but also makes suggestions to think of the less obvious times. “Other days may be more subtle, like your friend’s birthday. Often the few days before an anniversary date or special day can be especially taxing, sometimes more than the actual day itself.” (p. 71)

The chapter on “In the Future: Holidays and Anniversary Dates” is only two pages long, but encourages the reader to be the one who notices and remembers.

For the person in pain…the grief remains…Life is still difficult and support is still needed. The year of firsts will pass, but every year thereafter, the same birthdays, death dates, anniversaries and holidays will happen again. Though the punch they pack will gradually lessen, these “special” days will always be there to be remembered and acknowledged. (p. 72-73)

Remember. Remember. Remember. Keep remembering. Tell your friend what you remember. Write down what your memories to give to your friend if you aren’t comfortable talking about them. Give your friend pictures of her child that she may not have. It makes a lot of difference. One gal sent me a card on the anniversary of Jason’s death. It meant so much to me, and I realized one year I was looking forward to getting her card. Unfortunately, that was the year she quit sending them.

Ms. Callaway’s husband, musician David Holt, finishes the book by writing a chapter for the bereaved, entitled “A Roadmap for the Grieving.” He offers some helpful suggestions to the bereaved on what to expect and how to help oneself during this time. It also is concise, but offers some good things to remember.

I would recommend this book to both the bereaved and friends. As I said at the beginning, it’s short, well-written and easily readable in one sitting. It encourages proactive behavior, giving the reader specific suggestions and reasons to step forward instead of away. I think the premise of the book can be summarized in the last paragraph in the chapter on “In the Future”: “Reaching out can feel infinitely difficult. But if you stop and think for one minute what a hard time your friend is having, it will seem easy for you to pick up a pen, make a call, or pay a visit.” (p. 73) It bears repeating: As difficult a time as you are having, it pales by comparison to what your friend is going through. Stepping forward can make all the difference in the world. If not you, then who???

© 2013 Rebecca R. Carney

Work Cited:
Callaway, Ginny. A Friend in Grief: Simple Ways to Help. Fairview, NC: High Windy Press, 2011.

If You Could Only Imagine

As Ronald J. Knapp says in his book Beyond Endurance, although he can imagine what it’s like to lose a child, he “can draw away from it and the ‘experience’…[and it] becomes a simple exercise of the mind, a large step away from the real world…But persons who have actually lost a child cannot pull themselves free…They must face this grueling, gut-wrenching reality every hour, every minute, every second of every day. There is no place to run, no place to hide (18).” (https://onewomansperspective02.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/book-review-beyond-endurance-when-a-child-dies-by-ronald-j-knapp/)

People can imagine what it’s like to lose a child, but, in the end, they can go home and hug their children. Those of us who have lost a child cannot. Good essay, though!

Life Behind My Neon Picket Fence

The following is written by a father who lost his son, but it may as well be written by me or anyone else who has ever lost a child:

You say it’s time for me to “move on” in my grief. Perhaps you’re right or perhaps you just don’t realize what you’re asking. So, why don’t you try this little exercise and maybe it will help you get a better perspective on what I am going through. To make this really hit home for you it should be practiced for at least 24 hours. The longer the better; but, we do not have that long, so we will do it for 10 minutes. Don’t blow this off as a stupid idea. It works along the same lines as blindfolding yourself to experience being without sight.
First of all, think about your child.
I want you to try to imagine the…

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