Friday, 23 September 2011

Textbook Grief and Other Helpful Models?

There are various models and patterns of grief in the textbooks.  Some are helpful and others are best left between the pages of the self-help manuals.

I’d already heard about the classic “stages of grief” before my own journey began.  Now I know it was devised by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and there are 5 different phases to go through.  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

I guess as I am currently taking anti-depressants I have reached stage four, ergo one more to go and I’ll be back to normal! As if.  

It’s not that prescriptive and from a bit of googling I have discovered that Kübler-Ross originally came up with idea by interviewing terminally ill patients about their experiences of coming to terms with their own mortality rather than those left behind and grieving.

In the beginning, when Andrew had just died, I was fearful of looking up the five stages.  All knew for sure was that “anger” was in the list and I kept waiting for it to strike.  I never have got as angry as I felt I should be and that created an issue - what if I didn’t fit into any of the categories?   Would that make my grief less valid?

Even scarier - what if I did fit into this neat and orderly pattern and I didn’t like where it was heading?  

It’s that paradox again of wanting to be normal but also having the desire to be unique.

So that’s the five stages idea dismissed.  Not just by me, there are other more knowledgeable writers on the subject who believe it can be unhelpful.

Much better is a concept by Richard Wilson that grief is like a whirlpool.  We travel along the “River of Life” and when someone dies we plunge down the “Waterfall of Bereavement” into the “Whirlpool of Grief”.  Put simply our emotions tumble in the turbulent waters going round and round sometimes revisiting thoughts we have had before.  Eventually the waters settle and continue on their way.  It is a less rigid approach than the five stages idea and I particularly appreciate the picture language.

Strobe and Schut, some other well respected and learned people I am sure, came up with the notion of “Dual Process”, the general principle being we can experience both sadness and joy in grief.   However I don’t know whether I am coming or going with this one as I bounce between “loss” and “restoration”.  Anyway don’t we all oscillate between good days and bad whatever we are going through?  It doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly earth-shattering theory.

Another idea used for describing grief is to think of it as a ball in cup.  I haven’t managed to find the author of this model but it works like this.  Your grief is the size of a small ball and your life is a cup.  In the beginning the ball completely fills up the space, however over time your grief, the ball doesn’t get any smaller but your life expands.  The cup grows into a bowl and then bigger still into a bigger bowl.  Tea cup, breakfast bowl, small mixing bowl, larger mixing bowl, washing up bowl.  (The five sizes of bowl to accommodate the 5 stages of grief perhaps?)

This sort of makes sense in that it doesn’t diminish your grief and loss for the person but honestly how much can my capacity increase?  I am already so busy and my life is full where are the extra hours in the day coming from to allow me to expand my horizons and fit more in?

Of course it could work on the same principles as the TARDIS but that is far too complicated a concept to pursue.

No I have decided we need a completely new way of looking at grief and how to explain it.  So I have come up with my own model based on the popular children’s book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen, beautifully illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. 

I apologise at the start to anyone who hasn’t read this classic, maybe you would like to pop to the library now and get a copy because there will be SPOILERS to the plot…

This book was a favourite of the boys when they were small and more importantly one Andrew loved to read to them and often quoted when we were out for a walk.

The basic plot is that a family are out on a bear hunt and on the way they encounter a series of obstacles.

We’re going on a bear hunt.
We’re going to catch a big one.
What a beautiful day!
We’re not scared.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.
Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!

That’s grieving in a nutshell.  You can’t go over it!  You can’t go under it!  You can’t even go round it!


It’s something I am constantly learning.  There is no quick fix.  Tick all five stages, you’ve passed the test and can move on as good as new.  You can read all the theory and understand all the models but you have to experience the day to day living without your loved one.  All the inevitable ups and downs of dual process or swirling whirlpool however you wish to label it.

Let me tell you the hurdles that have to be faced in the bear hunt story because they conjure up some great images that also help describe the bereavement process.

Long wavy grass that goes swishy swashy as they sweep through.  It marks like thin paper cuts, niggling and painful to touch leaving tender scars that may fade but are a constant reminder of the journey.

There’s the splosh splash of the deep cold river.  It’s difficult to walk through normally.  All of a sudden your life has a surreal quality about it and when you have negotiated the river you are left feeling uncomfortable and weighed down by too much excess baggage.

You dry out from the water and find thick oozy mud as the next challenge.  It clings and squelches and my favourite word of the book squerches .  Like the water it is hard to get through and slows you down.  You can’t run or hurry in squerchy thick mud.  Each step is an ordeal.

Then there’s the big dark forest that causes you to stumble and trip.  It’s the unseen branches that snag your clothes and pull you back.  Great tree roots that hamper your progress and make you fall down.  With every tumble you have to get back up however hard it may be or you become lost.

A snow storm closes in, sounds to me like last winter all over again.  It batters you from all sides, howling tormenting wind.  Memories, regrets, swirling “what ifs”.

Finally there’s the cave and inside you find the bear but once you confront your fears you don’t really want to be there so you rush back home and hide under the duvet.

These are the many stages or obstacles you have to face in grief but feel free to mix and match and because this is a children’s story not a textbook this model is not to be taken too seriously!

Right at the end of the book on the final page is the bear plodding slowly back to his cave along a moonlit beach.  He had chased the children back home and when they wouldn’t let him in he wanders home alone.

That’s when I always felt most sad.  I remember reading the story to my youngest son and when we got to that page I said, “Aww, poor bear he only wanted to play.”

Eventually my young son would be repeating my words and we both had sympathy for this much maligned character.  I wonder how the author and the artist saw him?

And maybe that’s what’s grief’s about too, wandering on your own, feeling lost and alone, thinking no one understands. 

In the end you just have to "go through it" and hope when you get to the other side you are in a better place to cheer on the next person and encourage them to carry on.

1 comment:

  1. Love the Bear Hunt model (such a fab book!) :-)

    Not sure any of us ever “get to the other side” although we can learn to live alongside the bear I think !
    Blessings to you and your boys,
    Craig and Ellie