26 January 2010

Bereavement and grief

Christ, that's an off-putting title! But I've recently discovered an extraordinary example of science-denial. When you talk about bereavement and grief, most people, I think, will have some vague awareness of the theory of going through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. This is known as the Kübler-Ross model, and it has even featured in The Simpsons. I've assumed it was more or less correct, but it turns out it probably isn't.

The Kübler-Ross model was based on theory, not observation. When George Bonanno actually did some investigation, he found that most of the time, people just get over it. There's a resilience that overcomes the sadness, just as we recover from extremes of happiness. Most people, his view goes, will bounce back without any help. Sometimes they'll use jokes as a tool in this.

It makes sense in evolutionary terms, of course. Life has almost always been harder for people than it is now: plagues, wars, natural disasters must have posed enormous challenges. Even in my parents' childhood, it was relatively common to lose a sibling at a young age. That must select for people with a natural resilience.

In a similar vein, three American psychologists carried out research which suggested that most victims of childhood sexual abuse got over it. The research was denounced by the American establishment, with both houses of Congress passing motions to condemn the research. Again, it seems natural to believe that people have an inherent ability to recover from the most appalling experiences, but to say that doesn't mean that you're condoning those experiences.

Meanwhile, the widespread belief in a five-stage model means that people who don't follow it - people who go back to work a week after their father has died, saying it was, after all, inevitable - are treated as pathological.

I really don't have the knowledge to be authoritative on this. But it seems to me that popular belief (including mine, until today) is being moulded by a theory that isn't backed by any experimental evidence.

There's an interesting and accessible article about this by Malcolm Gladwell here. The wikipedia article on Bonanno is interesting, too, but badly written and unbalanced, so I won't link to it.

1 comment :

George said...

Thank you for mentioning my work; The book in which I discuss the research is "The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells us about Life After Loss" (Basic Books)

--George Bonanno