The Truth About Grief: The Myth of Its Five Stages and the New Science of Lossby Ruth Davis Konigsberg
The five stages of grief are so deeply imbedded in our culture that no American can escape them. Every time we experience loss—a personal or national one—we hear them recited: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The stages are invoked to explain everything from how we will recover from the death of a loved one to a sudden environmental catastrophe or to the trading away of a basketball star. But the stunning fact is that there is no validity to the stages that were proposed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross more than forty years ago.
In The Truth About Grief, Ruth Davis Konigsberg shows how the five stages were based on no science but nonetheless became national myth. She explains that current research paints a completely different picture of how we actually grieve. It turns out people are pretty well programmed to get over loss. Grieving should not be a strictly regimented process, she argues; nor is the best remedy for pain always to examine it or express it at great length. The strength of Konigsberg’s message is its liberating force: there is no manual to grieving; you can do it freestyle.
In the course of clarifying our picture of grief, Konigsberg tells its history, revealing how social and cultural forces have shaped our approach to loss from the Gettysburg Address through 9/11. She examines how the American version of grief has spread to the rest of the world and contrasts it with the interpretations of other cultures—like the Chinese, who focus more on their bond with the deceased than on the emotional impact of bereavement. Konigsberg also offers a close look at Kübler-Ross herself: who she borrowed from to come up with her theory, and how she went from being a pioneering psychiatrist to a New Age healer who sought the guidance of two spirits named Salem and Pedro and declared that death did not exist.
Deeply researched and provocative, The Truth About Grief draws on history, culture, and science to upend our country’s most entrenched beliefs about its most common experience.
“A liberating message: there’s no ‘right’ way to respond to a loss.”
“The Truth About Grief challenges the received wisdom about how and why we grieve and, through healthy skepticism and admirable research, brings us to a more hopeful place.”
—Judith Warner, author of We've Got Issues and Perfect Madness
“Konigsberg’s challenge to the orthodoxy surrounding death is both profound and urgent. This is one of those books that will change you forever, altering—for the better—your perspective on one of life’s most essential, inevitable tasks: grieving the loss of a loved one.”
—Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Schoolgirls
“A pithy review of our grief culture, its wobbly underpinnings and the frequently opportunistic industry that preys upon it.”
“Veteran journalist Konigsberg offers a spot-on critique of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's seminal theory. . . . [Konigsberg] writes clearly and engagingly, and uncovers a host of interesting facts….this book is well worth reading.”
"Eminently readable and intelligent."
—Claire Lambrecht, Salon
Journalist Konigsberg gives serious grief to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, her mantric theory and her many spawn.
When Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying in 1969, the country was ripe for her theory of the five stages of life's end, mainly because it touched the zeitgeist: personal transformation through self-awareness. But its one-size-fits-all approach, Konigsberg argues in this probing yet sprightly critique, was not the result of systematic research. Rather, it was the product of anecdote and reflection, and the application of its five stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance—while potentially useful, was hardly universal. "Stage theory" has intuitive appeal, since it suggests predictability and manageability. To her credit, in a nation with an avoidance of addressing death, Kübler-Ross facilitated the discussion of that difficult topic. Then the stages made a jump, from death to grief. With the cultural mood behind her, the stages became orthodoxy, "hardened into a doctrine that dictates not just our reactions but how we define the experience." Entrepreneurs seized the opportunity to create a grief-counseling industry. If you weren't willing to be tutored through grief's lengthy, arduous process, you would become an emotionally toxic time bomb—even though there is no proof for this notion. Indeed, writes Konigsberg, research indicates that Kübler-Ross's stages are not only flawed, but punishing in their prescribed duration, and controlled studies have found no consistent pattern of an overall preventive effect in grief counseling. "Probably the most accurate predictors of how someone will grieve," writes Konigsberg, "are their personality and temperament before the loss and how dependent they were on the relationship to the deceased." The author also explores our natural resilience—"the ability to achieve an acceptable adjustment to someone's death within a relatively short period of time"—claiming that it is more common than complete emotional collapse.
A pithy review of our grief culture, its wobbly underpinnings and the frequently opportunistic industry that preys upon it.
- Simon & Schuster
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Meet the Author
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.
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