Another study confirmed that older people do not respond in a set way. George Bonanno from Columbia University followed people before their bereavement, enrolling older couples in the study and then checking the local newspaper obituaries every day for any deaths. He found that 45% genuinely did not experience severe distress after the death of their spouse, nor did they are as time went on – 10% of the widows even showed improved mental health. People were resilient and were able to cope with the death of their spouse. Bonanno’s most recent research, published last year, confirms a lack of set pattern.
Whatever the evidence suggests, the five-stages-of-grief idea is certainly an appealing one, in the sense that it could give people hope that however bad they are feeling now, at least they will eventually move through the stages and feel better. But when I interviewed Ruth David Konigsberg, the author of The Truth About Grief, who has investigated the five stages, she told me it could also set up expectations amongst the grief-stricken that they should be feeling a particular way. “It’s reassuring for people who experience some of the emotions, but it’s stigmatising for those who don’t,” said Konigsberg. “You may feel you’re grieving incorrectly or there’s something wrong with you.”
But, as studies show, there is no “correct” or “incorrect” way to grieve: the same experience isn’t shared by everybody, nor should it be expected to. The loss is always there, but for most the grief changes over time. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to experience every stage or even that feelings will appear in that order. It might be reassuring to have a script, which shows you where you are heading next, but sadly real life experiences aren’t always as neat at the theories describing them. Life is messier than that.
You can hear more Medical Myths on Health Check on the BBC World Service.
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