Reinventing the five stages of grief

The author of 'The Saturday Night Widows' on why we need to update our ideas of grief.

Women laughing, friendship

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What kind of support do people need to cope when they’re grieving the loss of a loved one? A new book suggests it may not be a shoulder to cry on.

In an interview with Time magazine, author Becky Aikman talks about her unique experience of grief after the death of her husband. It’s an experience she writes about in her memoir, The Saturday Night Widows.

Aikman makes the argument that conventional ideas about grief are outdated, unsatisfying to those in a state of grief, and need to be reinvested with the real-life experiences of those who’ve suffered a painful loss.

The first cliché Aikman tackles: you should talk about your pain. According to Aikman, the idea that people in a state of grief need to vent their sorrows over and over again, to “wallow” in their sadness in a sort-of officially sanctioned pity-party is faulty.

In fact, she argues, research suggests there are healthier and more productive behaviours to encourage or pursue.

“[T]hose who study actual people find that most people are naturally very resilient and it’s good to focus on positive things and look forward and it’s actually harmful to dwell extensively on painful memories,” Aikman tells Time.

Additionally, Aikman says that applying the old model of the Five Stages of Grief a la Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is a mistake. Those stages may apply to a person who is facing down their own mortality, says Aikman, but they just don’t fit the widow’s experience, an experience that she says fluctuates between emotional highs and lows.

Those ups and downs, she says, are “pretty intense at first and over time they get farther apart and less extreme.”

What becomes clear from Aikman’s interview, however, is that living — having fun, laughing, meeting new friends and trying new things — is an essential aspect in moving on from bereavement rather than dwelling on sorrows and losses.

So convinced of the merits of this kind of approach, she started her own widow’s group to create opportunities for women to experience the joys of life while still feeling comforted by the presence of those with similar experience.

Her advice to people who want to offer support to a friend or loved one dealing with grief: don’t back away or shy away but don’t ask them to express their pain either.

“Whatever that person seems to be wanting to talk about, let them do it…People have to accept that they might say the wrong thing, but it’s not your fault. It’s better to try than to disappear.”

What’s helped you overcome grief in the past? Tell us in the comment section below.


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