Ruth Davis Konigsberg, a Senior Editor at TIME, first heard about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages in a high school psychology class. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, she began a career in magazine journalism and has worked as a editor for New York and Glamour and written for The New York Observer and ELLE, often about psychology.
Konigsberg lives in Pelham, NY, with her husband and two children.
The Truth About Grief is her first book.
Author Q & A
Q: Why did you write this book? Were you recently bereaved?
A: While I have lost people dear to me in my own life, this book did not grow out of personal experience, but rather a journalistic desire to make sense of a model for loss that doesn’t seem to be serving us particularly well. I frequently write about psychology, and my interest in grief began after reading a study by George Bonanno of Columbia University Teacher’s College which showed that widows were a lot more resilient than we give them credit for. I wrote about Bonanno’s results and other myths of widowhood for ELLE magazine, and while I was finishing that article, another study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which researchers tested the five stages of grief and found them to be inaccurate.
Q: There are no five stages of grief?
A: There’s not much evidence for them. According to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But the JAMA study found that not only are the bereaved able to accept the death of a loved one from the beginning, but they are much more likely to experience pining—a yearning for the deceased—than anger or depression, perhaps two of the cornerstone emotions in the Kubler-Ross model. Like many Americans, I’d been taught Kubler-Ross in school, and couldn’t believe that a theory that was so famous was also so wrong. What was almost as shocking was the fact that the JAMA study was the first to ever put the stages to the test, almost forty years after Kubler-Ross introduced them in On Death and Dying.
Q: But On Death and Dying is about terminally-ill people facing their own death. What does that have to do with grief?
A: That’s right, they were the stages of dying as Kubler-Ross originally conceived of them. It was other practitioners, having found the stages so irresistibly prescriptive, who began applying them to grief, a repurposing which Kubler-Ross did not object to. In 2005, she finally claimed the stages of grief as her own in her book, On Grief and Grieving. Kubler-Ross is now dead, but when I contacted her co-author David Kessler in 2007, he told me, “One of the reasons for writing On Grief and Grieving was that everyone else had already adapted the stages of dying to the stages of grief. She always knew that the stages worked for grief, but it wasn’t something that she wanted to tackle until the end of her life.” When I asked Kessler whether Kubler-Ross had done any additional research on grief, he replied, “She didn’t make a distinction between one’s own dying and grieving the loss of someone else, because dying is grieving itself. It’s grieving the life you’re never going to have. She saw them as fluid.” His description of her approach seemed too fungible and unscientific to me. I began to look into how Kubler-Ross originally came up with the stages, and discovered that they were a somewhat arbitrary scheme that she retrofitted onto one-time interviews with dying patients–certainly not how today’s researchers go about gathering data.