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...When I tell people that I am writing a popular science book about grief, almost everyone I speak to assume that I will be discussing the five stages of grief. Why does this model persist despite scientific evidence that grief does not proceed in linear stages? 

Psychologists and grief experts Jason Holland and Robert Neimeyer have proposed the best reason for this persistence I have come across. They describe the five stages model as reflecting our culture’s “monomyth.” The hero’s journey, or in this case, the grievers’ journey, is an epic narrative structure we find in most books, movies, and campfire stores we have ever heard. 

You can think of any hero from Ulysses in the Odyssey to Alice in Alice in Wonderland to Eleven in Stranger Things. The hero (griever) enters an unfamiliar and terrifying world, and after an arduous journey, returns transformed, with new wisdom. The journey is composed of a series of nearly impossible obstacles (stages) to be overcome, making the hero noble when they succeed in their quest. Holland and Neimeyer put this well: “the seemingly magnetic draw of a stage-like depiction of grieving that begins with a disorienting separation from the “normal,” pre-bereavement world, and that progresses heroically through a series of clearly marked emotional trials before eventuating in a triumphant stage of acceptance, recovery, or symbolic return, may owe more to compelling coherence with a seemingly universal narrative structure than to its objective accuracy.

The problem with the monomyth is that people feel they are not normal when they do not experience a linear set of obstacles. Or they feel like failures because they have not “overcome” grief or achieved some enlightened state. Friends, family members, and even doctors may worry when there is no clear return of a wise hero.

Holland and Neimeyer conducted an empirical study that looked for the five stages and found that adaptation is not so linear or orderly. Grief distress is usually more pronounced in folks who have been grieving for a shorter period of time. But the distress includes all types of grief experiences, including disbelief, anger, depressive mood, and yearning. Acceptance is most evident among those who have been grieving for a longer period of time. Thus, grief distress and acceptance seem to be two sides of a coin, but the rise and fall of each one tends to look like waves across days, weeks, and months. 

The relative increase in acceptance as compared to the relative decline of grief distress does happen, thankfully, but over a long period of time. In the midst of this slow inversion of acceptance over distress, there tends to be a temporary reversal around each anniversary of the death, when many people experience a normal recurrence of their grief. The journey doesn’t typically have a clear beginning, middle, and end that we may hope for, or that our loved ones may hope for us, in the midst of our distress. On the wave of grief, eventually, acceptance rises more often, and distress falls off in intensity without completely disappearing.

pp. 74-75. Excerpt reprinted from "The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss" by Mary-Frances O'Connor, PhD with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarpperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2022.

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