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Review of "Liberating Losses"

By Jennifer Elison and Chris McGonigle
Da Capo Press, 2003
Review by Elizabeth McCardell, Ph.D. on Aug 2nd 2004
Liberating Losses

 DABDA: this is the formula taught to medical students and grief counsellors the world over, since these five stages of grieving were identified in 1969 by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. This advance in thanatological literature did much to illuminate what had become an embarrassing situation for dying patients and their families alike. Death in our society, after all, has been a somewhat awkward life event, treated in subdued tones behind closed doors. With the advent of research and the institution of counselling sessions for those who have suffered the death of a friend, spouse, parent or child, the five stages of grieving have almost become the bench-mark for the emotional process of facing death.  Non-traditional responses to death have, contrarily, included relief and sometimes, even, joyfulness. Instead of welcoming these positive responses, many researchers and clinicians view non-traditional grievers as exhibiting denial.

The authors Elison and McGonigle of Liberating Losses (p. 80) put it this way:

The field of grief therapy has been dominated by a few well-known researchers who have seen non-traditional grievers as not quite right. Rather than ask whether the griever might have good reasons for feeling relieved, grief studies have tended to come from the viewpoint that there is a "right way" to grieve, because it's the way most people grieve. This point of view has disenfranchised many perfectly healthy people.

This is the lynchpin of this book; the point of departure from more traditional books on the death response.  The title Liberating Losses is itself refreshing. Using autobiography and other case studies, the authors contest this common thesis as well as the dominant theories about the nature of relationship and attachment. At the heart of the Kubler-Ross inspired thesis about grief lies the idea developed by the British psychologist John Bowlby who developed in the 1960s the concept of attachment.  He believed that a baby by being cuddled and comforted formed an attachment to her parents because they were the source of security, thus developing in her an emotional attachment and a love relationship. The crying and searching response of the baby when separated constituted, for Bowlby, the grief response.  The lack of grief response was seen by Bowlby as a sign that the person was psychologically incapable of forming attachments because of suppressed emotion.

From the sense of security in the emotional attachment of infancy comes the love response of adulthood, according to this theory. The relationship of a friend, lover, or spouse recapitulates the infant-parent attachment so that their death predicates the loss of emotional security. If the person did not grieve in the way expected, then suspicion was cast upon the person, or at very least, upon the nature of the relationship. As Elison and McGonigle point out, this rather simplifies the complexity of human relationships. It also diminishes the capacity of love to extend beyond infantile attachment. May not someone love another without needing them for security? May not a relationship fluctuate between love and hate? May not a person die in stages and that a final cessation of being be greeted with relief and not grief?  Maybe the loved one died after a lengthy illness (as in the case of McGonigle with regard to the loss of her husband after fifteen years with a debilitating illness), or the situation where one's spouse dies suddenly after an argument, or in Elison's case, after she told him of her intention to divorce him. One may indeed have felt deep love in all cases, but the release from a profoundly difficult situation may well elicit plain relief rather than grief.

There is considerable social pressure brought upon those who experience relief, rather than grief – such is the pressure of the social expectations encapsulated in the DABDA concept – so that they may go on to wonder about the authenticity of their own responses. Perhaps there is something wrong with them, perhaps they ought to feel pain.  Perversely, such a response to social conditioning has been read by some psychologists as indicating a deficit in identity and self-esteem. Others suggest that the silence of a response or plain relief hides inner turmoil.  How hard it is, therefore, to be honest about one's emotions and how liberating it is to read accounts documented in this important book where such emotions are freely expressed. Losses can be liberating. Relationships can journey further than the simple love=attachment theorem. These messages should form the starting points for further research in the fields of thanatology and relationship studies. Highly recommended.


© 2004 Elizabeth McCardell


Elizabeth McCardell, PhD, Independent scholar, Australia.

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