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Wednesday, July 3, 2013 11:18 pm

Not a mourning person

My girlfriend died in a car accident four months ago, and I fear I’m not grieving the way I should. I was really broken up at first, crying hysterically, and I miss her terribly. I often think of things I wish I could tell her or we could do together, but I’m comforted by remembering all the positive things about us and her, and I’m grateful for the time we did have. Friends are worried, saying that I need to experience grief fully and work through all the stages in order to recover; otherwise, the grief could come back to bite me. I worry that I am suppressing stuff, but I have no idea what. Despite what’s happened, I still like my life and my job. I even find myself laughing at stupid stuff. Am I just in major denial? –Living

Those who care about you are worried that you aren’t wallowing in pain and despair, and they’re maybe even a little suspicious: “Come on, man, who’s keeping you company if not Misery?”

Supposedly, if you really loved somebody, you’ll grieve big, long and showy: retire from personal hygiene, refuse to leave your bed for six months, and only stop sobbing into your pillow to ask somebody to plant weeping willows so even the vegetation will be crying in solidarity. But bereavement researcher Dr. George A. Bonanno points out in his terrific book, The Other Side of Sadness, that there’s no evidence for this belief or a number of widely held beliefs about grieving, like the notion that there are “stages of grief” – five of them – that every bereaved person must go through before they can go on: “Whoops, you flunked anger. Better go back and punch four walls and get in two bar fights!”

The “stages of grief” were based on psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ observations of people who were themselves dying, not those who’d lost someone they loved. “Grieving over the death of a loved one is not the same as facing your own death,” Bonanno points out. He adds that Freud’s notion that the bereaved must do “grief work” to heal – slog through every one of their memories and hopes about their lost loved one (as if sorting a mountain of wet clothes at an industrial laundry) – is unsupported by research, and there’s even evidence that this re-chewing of memories strengthens their connection to the deceased, preventing healing.

Yet another myth is that your failure to go into Scarlett O’Hara-style hysterics in the coffee room every day means you’re postponing your grieving (perhaps until beach volleyball season ends?). In fact, the idea of “delayed grief” – grief as a darkly mischievous force determined to eventually pop up and bite you – is another unsubstantiated idea from one of Freud’s psychoanalytic minions. Studies find delayed grief extremely rare – almost to the point of nonexistence. What your behavior seems to reflect is resilience – healthy coping through putting your girlfriend’s life and death in perspective in ways that help you go on with your life. In other words, if you have a problem, it’s that your friends think you have a problem. The next time they suggest you’re grieving incorrectly, you might reassure them. Tell them you’re in the “bargaining” stage and that you’d feel much better if only they’d stock your fridge with beer and steak, and on their way out, would they mind detailing your car?

Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave., #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email AdviceAmy@aol.com (advicegoddess.com). Weekly radio show: blogtalkradio.com/amyalkon. 2013, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved.

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