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.