Tragically, people die every day, often in ways too gruesome and horrific to fully comprehend. The barbaric beheading of two journalists by ISIS. The all-too-preventable and overwhelmingly sad deaths of the young men from Bucks County. Ruth Madoff loses one son to suicide, and another to cancer, while her husband is imprisoned for 150 years. The families of the passengers on the Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared. Joan Rivers, after what should have been a routine medical procedure.
Often, one of the first themes to emerge from a heartbreaking loss is the subject of closure. As if there were such a concept.
Death is an abstract notion that is almost beyond comprehension. You're there, fully alive, and then you disappear forever. It's such an unfathomable concept that religious explanations suffice for many who believe, "It ain't over 'til it's over." Afterlife. Reincarnation. Heaven. Eternal life. All of these are possibly true, but they serve to help the survivors believe that death is not the end. And maybe they're true.
Ever since American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross published her five stages of grief in 1969, most people have come to believe that everyone goes through the same five stages in invariant order. When you're done with one stage, you go on to the next one, the previous stage completely resolved.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It is so much a part of the zeitgeist that few even question its validity.
It's 100 percent baloney. The authors of The Grief Recovery Handbook, Russell Friedman and John W. James, correctly state that no two people, and no two experiences of loss, are the same.
This is true of any invariant hierarchy. Think Erik Eriksen's "Eight Ages of Man" - and he meant men - which starts with Trust vs. Mistrust as the task of the child from birth to age 2. Then, having completed that step, you go on to the next stage. Really? No one has trust issues after age 2? We deal with them, in various ways, all our lives.
As with Kubler-Ross, Eriksen just made these theories up. No data, no randomized sample, no control group.
Michael Shermer, in a 2008 edition of the journal Scientific American, put it brilliantly. Human beings love tidy, simple steps. From Freud on, the public has embraced any handy-dandy formula. Social psychologist Carol Tavris succinctly described all developmental life stage work as "toast." There are too many variables in the human experience; the early theorists were predominantly white men, from Europe or the United States. What was their collective wisdom of the life experiences of the Trobiand Islanders?
Nevertheless, we love patterns and order. The world is chaotic and often unpredictable. Whether religion, science, or made-up science, we look for answers so we can sleep at night and find meaning.
But we never get closure.
Psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe, in their 1967 treatise on the 43 most stressful life events, rated death of a spouse as the most stressful. Far be it from me to question their extensive quantitative analysis, but really? I would rate the death of a child higher, as most people who experience it never really recover. No matter the age, there is something so unsettling about an out-of-sequence death.
My mother died in 1985, at the age of 59; my grandmother was 82 and had already lost her husband. Nana was never the same after the death of her youngest child. She died 11 years later, having retreated into dementia that I believe was partially caused by Mom's death. For years, when I visited her, she thought I was my mother - and we looked nothing alike. I think it was partially a wish to keep her daughter with her.
As we grieve, we never fully get over or forget those most important to us. The pain lessens as the years go on, but the circle of our lives has been irrevocably interrupted.
Encouraging people to get over a loss in a prescribed manner and in a short time frame doesn't help. If love is forever, so, too, is loss.