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.