The Real Truth About Grief: Grief Survivor Dr. Weide Disagrees With a “Standard Way of Grieving" Based on Resilience

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Dr. Ursula Weide, a Psychologist and Fellow of Thanatology (Death Education and Counseling) with offices in Virginia and Maryland near Washington, D.C., provides her survivor’s perspective on recent grief articles in Time Magazine and the New York Times.

There Is No "Script" for Grieving

According to Dr. Ursula Weide, recent grief-related articles attempt to show a “standard trajectory of grieving right”, inappropriately citing resilience-related and other grief studies. In their efforts to replace the popular but outdated stages of grief, the authors minimize the pain of those traumatized by a tragic death. (Dr. Weide’s husband died suddenly in his forties when she was in her thirties.) Adequate knowledge of research procedures is required to critically and appropriately interpret the true value of grief studies and to avoid reinforcing societal misconceptions about the life-changing impact of tragic death.

Any publication about grief these days should begin with making one important point well established in the scientific literature: the difference between sadness (also called adaptive grief) and complicated grief following a traumatic death. Eighty-five percent of all the bereaved are sad after, for example, the death of an aging relative or a more distant friend. Sadness is integrated relatively quickly.

The remaining fifteen percent are surviving a traumatic death which has been premature; sudden; violent such as an accident, suicide, or homicide; following the illness and decline of a loved one; death in the ICU, or multiple deaths over a life time. Often overlooked even in the reputable scientific research is the age of the survivor: the younger the survivor, the more traumatic the emotional impact of the death of a spouse or partner, child, sibling, parent or other loved one. Most studies, however, have focused on older widows and widowers whose spouse died a “natural” death (whatever the definition).

Historically, grief studies have evolved from the stages theory which the professional literature has shown to be outdated. But even the current most cutting edge scientific studies, conducted not by (sic) “social scientists” but by psychiatrists and psychologists, still use criteria to measure grief dating back to the eighties and nineties, and based on assumptions about elderly bereaved spouses. Books and articles of popular literature, often citing this research to alleviate humankind’s greatest fear, the fear of death, continue to reassure us that most survivors are “resilient”, and that there is a “normal” way of grieving.

This approach completely ignores what Dr. Weide finds in her practice: traumatic symptoms and great suffering among the younger survivors, robbed for decades to come of the companionship of children, spouses or partners, siblings, parents or other loved ones. Most of Dr. Weide’s clients are young, ranging from grade-school children through adolescence into their fifties.

Current articles in the popular press even dispute the benefits of retelling (E. Rynearson, MD) and reliving some of the worst moments and feelings in the presence of an experienced, appropriately trained mental health professional. But studies by the National Institutes of Mental Health have shown that, among traumatized Iraq vets, it is not medication that helps to relieve the typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress but repeated exposure through language and imagery to the traumatic reality. Language is very powerful and has been shown by functional imaging techniques such as fMRIs and PET scans to play a major role in reducing the stress in our brains and hence in our bodies, more prone to illness under tragic circumstances.

Having to survive the tragic death of a loved one in all likelihood is the worst time in a person’s life. The recent articles in Time Magazine and the New York Times, based on confusing and inappropriate citations of “scientific” material, contribute to a sense of isolation and of not being “normal” among the bereaved and invite their unwitting environment to try to “fix” the survivors by exhorting them to be “strong” and to grieve according to (sic) “some sort of script.” Learning to live better with a tragic loss is very individual and does not fit societal expectations often created by the popular media.

More articles on complicated grief can be found on Dr. Weide's website

Watch Dr. Weide speak on Grief

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