Aug 30

Anxiety Vs. Bargaining in Loss Model: Claire Bidwell Smith

Claire Bidwell Smith‘s book Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief  took its roots from a magazine article in which the author had posited that anxiety should actually take the place of the bargaining stage in the most commonly accepted model of bereavement.

Even more than depression, anxiety is the response my grieving clients express a desire to overcome since experiencing loss. They describe feelings of panic and obsessive thinking about their own deaths and potential illness. They tell me about bouts of helplessness and of feeling overwhelmed by life itself, about panic attacks and moments of such paralyzing fear that they pull their cars over on the way to work.”

From an interview Caroline Leavitt conducted with Smith: “There is simply no question that loss causes anxiety. Loss is nothing but a reminder that life is precarious and that we are not in control. This realization coupled with the intense emotions of grief are the perfect recipe for anxiety. It also doesn’t help that we live in a ‘grief-illiterate nation,’ as Maria Shriver says. We often feel very alone and unsupported going through the grief process and do not know where to turn. Not having the proper support can also lead to a greater sense of anxiety.”

Smith knows from personal experience as well as professional. Her mom died of cancer during the author’s freshman year at college. Panic attacks and self-medication with alcohol became a significant part of her life. A powerful article excerpt:

My mother’s death rocked me. I was absolutely floored by it. Nothing could have prepared me for it. Not the five years we’d spent helping her combat her illness, not the talks my father had with me about her potential demise, not the school guidance counselor’s sessions. The truth was I never believed she would actually die. Because: Mothers don’t die. Bad things don’t actually happen.

I now understand that these beliefs were at the root of my anxiety. When my mother’s death disproved the two things I’d so fervently held onto, the whole floor dropped out. If my mother could die, anything, absolutely anything could happen.

Now Smith coaches grievers on understanding this aspect of the process and on learning ways to work through it. From the critique of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Kirkus Reviews:

The author notes that while the brain is processing the separation, regret, and other emotions accompanying loss, that loss is also tangible: ‘We are forced to rearrange our lives to accommodate for the absence of this person.’ In discussing that rearrangement and those emotions, Smith turns from the canonical work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross to more recent practitioners, such as Thomas Attig, who analyzes the changes that accompany loss, including, inevitably, changes in one’s own identity, a potential cause of grief all its own. 

Not everyone can be Claire Bidwell Smith’s actual client, of course. She does, however, provide a self-guided online grief program. Visit Smith’s site.

Aug 26

Sixth Stage of Grief Modeled by Joe Biden

The sixth stage of grief, finding meaning or purpose, was recently addressed by Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden at the national convention. An excerpt from his speech last week:

I know how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest. That you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.

But I’ve learned two things.

First, your loved ones may have left this Earth but they never leave your heart. They will always be with you.

And second, I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose.

This wasn’t the first time he’d said it. Having lost his son Beau to cancer, Biden wrote in Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose (2017): “So how do I want to spend the rest of my life? I want to spend as much time as I can with my family, and I want to help change the country and the world for the better. That duty does much more than give me purpose; it gives me something to hope for. It makes me nostalgic for the future.”

Following Beau’s death Joe Biden contacted noted grief expert David Kessler, who writes of this and much more in his 2019 book Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. Kessler, who co-authored two books with his mentor Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004), received permission from the Kübler-Ross Foundation to label a new stage of grief as finding meaning. Kessler, not so incidentally, also lost his adult son, a 21-year-old, several years ago to an accidental drug overdose.

Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times, reports on Kessler’s overall view of the grief stages model:

To live on after tragedy requires more than acceptance, and Kessler says he hopes the book will help correct the public’s long misunderstanding of Kübler-Ross’ stages. She never intended them as a simple, clear progression, he says.

‘All these years later the public, the media especially, still misinterprets her five stages as a map, as a rigid linear rule to follow,’ he says. ‘That would have appalled her, and it bothers me to no end. People will often complain to me, ‘you’re trying to fit our grief into five neat categories, five tidy boxes,’ but there is nothing about grief that’s tidy or neat. There was nothing about my son’s death that was tidy or neat.’

Specifically regarding the author’s presentation of the sixth stage, Publishers Weekly states:

‘Meaning helps us makes sense of grief,’ Kessler writes, speaking both as professional grief counselor and as someone who has experienced tremendous loss…Kessler shows how large acts (starting a foundation) as well as small ones (eating an ice cream sundae in memory of a loved one as a celebration) help the bereaved to create meaning in a variety of ways.

Author Katy Butler, whose most recent book is last year’s The Art of Dying Well (see previous post) states the following in praise of Finding Meaning: “Whether our grief arises after a suicide, a difficult relationship, the death of a child or newborn, even the ambiguous losses that accompany mental illnesses and addiction — David reassures us that we can find in our deep pain an opportunity to contribute to the wider human story. Grief may not end, but David reassures us that it can change shape and be a source of generosity, love and meaning.”