The Truth About Grief

woman looking at sea while sitting on beach

This book discussion/review about The Truth About Grief is the second blog post in my bibliotherapy and self-development series. In this series of blog posts, I will post about some non-fiction works I’m reading and what I get out of them, as well as how I think they are helpful and useful. Fiction books are also useful, so I am going to do a separate fiction series at some point. (For example, The Last Tree Town deals not only with depression and relationships among siblings and friends, but also draws light on parents’ struggles with how best to help their children.)

Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Do not take medical advice from this post or any Oak & River Books content. I encourage you to do your own search into any topic presented on the Oak & River Books blog and to join in the discussion, but please reach out to a medical professional if you have questions, need advice, or want help. My content does not replace that of a trained professional.

The Truth About Grief by Ruth Davis Konigsberg is a book for anyone looking to learn more about grief research or the history of grief. Konigsberg turns the five phases of grief on their heads – in reality, the phases weren’t originally about grief and loss and there was no scientific study to back it up.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg explores how the five phases of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) came to be so popular and oft-referenced. Humans like to have organization and making phases or stages of things helps us make sense of the world, especially the pieces of life that we don’t fully understand.

Says Frank Lawlis, “‘What sells is simplicity, making life a little more simple, so if you can give something that’s very complex and individual and unique a simple plan, it’ll stick.'” I think this simplicity isn’t inherently negative. Sometimes it’s a starting point. In terms of grief, I wonder how our grieving process would look today if those five phases hadn’t become part of our vernacular. Has it done more good than harm, or is it unethical because the original meaning got twisted and no one seemed keen to stop it?

The discussion around treatments and models was also interesting. “If a model can’t be relied upon to predict behavior for at least the majority, what purpose does it serve? Once again, psychological reassurance.”

Konigsberg emphasizes that no two people’s grief follows the exact same cycle, and that one prescribed treatment may not work for someone else even if they are both experiencing, for example, the loss of a spouse. Sometimes, it’s more practical to have a model to make adjustments to rather than making an entirely new model.

This is a book for anyone who needs the reminder that their grief isn’t wrong just because it doesn’t look like someone else’s, or because certain grief therapies aren’t working for them even if those therapies came highly recommended. Going back and forth among the phases makes us feel like we’re losing progress or are doing something wrong, when really we may be holding ourselves to a standard that is not so cut and dry.

Eventually, grieving became a gold-mine of the self-help industry.

“Entrepreneurs seized on the commercial possibilities of this mandate and opened up grief retreats, where you can get grief massages or do grief yoga. And the self-improvement shelves of the bookstore grew heavier not just with advice on how to survive loss but also grief workbooks and journals, illustrating just how prescribed our emotional behavior after the death of a loved one had become.”

Even if it’s not a clinical diagnosis, our tendency to “prescribe” ourselves a “treatment” can be seen with other topics as well – self-help books can be found on forming habits, grieving the loss of a dog, making a meditation practice, dieting and exercising, and more.

Global Perspective

It’s important to recognize that around the world, there are multiple customs when it comes to death, loss, and mourning. (This is evident in books like mortician Caitlin Dougherty’s book From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death, which is on my re-read list.)

An interesting component of grief studies is that many of those studied are widowed women, and many studies take place from a Western perspective. “As Ethan Watters pointed out in Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, ‘We are engaged in the grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of the human mind.'”

Another quote from professor Stanley Sue states, “Americans are the largest producers of psychological research. The overwhelming subject of the research is Americans. The United States constitutes less than 5% of the world’s population.”

That isn’t to say that other research doesn’t exist or that American research isn’t fruitful; this just emphasizes the need to not only recognize that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation, but also take other perspectives into account.

Differences and Social Pressures

Just as no two grief processes or customs are exactly the same, our biases about how someone should grieve can get in the way. How long before remarrying (if they choose to do so), how sad or happy they sound, how much they cry or don’t cry, etc. There also seems to be different societal expectations depending on if you are a man or a woman. (Gender fluid and nonbinary perspectives were not included, but I hope this research will one day account for all identities).

In terms of gender differences, Konigsberg shares how stereotype threat and deindividuation can have an impact.

She describes stereotype threat as a “self-fulfilling prophecy”: “In a classic example of stereotype threat, male and female college students with equivalent math backgrounds were recruited to take a math test. When participants were told that the test they were about to take had shown sex differences in the past, women scored lower compared to men. When participants were told that men and women had performed equally on the test they were about to take, there were no differences in their scores.”

Deindividuation describes someone’s sense of anonymity. “For example, in one study, men showed more aggressive tactics while playing a video game […] when they thought they were being watched. When participants thought they weren’t being watched, there were no significant sex differences, and in fact, women dropped a few more bombs.”

This kind of information relates to research, Konigsberg explains, because men who share anonymously about their grief have shown to be just as “emotive or expressive” as women.

Whether someone is a man or a woman has little predictive power about how he or she will adjust to bereavement. To view grief through a framework of gender is more likely to obscure than to clarify.”

I cannot definitively say that this book will help you in the deepest throes of grieving, but it may help you to know that your grieving is fine the way it is. It doesn’t need encouragement or to be considered proper. It is yours, and it is mine, and we are all going to do it differently.

The Truth About Grief has an index and an extensive notes section. If the topic of grief is of interest to you, a copy may be available at your local library or from your favorite indie bookseller. Here are links to the publisher’s page and Goodreads. It is also available in e-book and print from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. More information is also available at

Grieving is not only for losing a loved one, but for anything you can miss, such as when you lose your job or sell your house. Sometimes we miss things we never even had because we have built an idea of how much better life would be if we had that job, that car, that house, that lover. And that’s okay.

Think about what you do when you’re sad or disappointed. Let yourself settle into those feelings. When I was in the Navy, one of our chaplains suggested we plan during the times we feel good so we’re ready for when we’re feeling bad. When you’re feeling well, maybe make a plan for what things you can do that make you feel better, or even just okay. Sometimes, feeling just okay is the best thing for me. It can be hard, but try to let your loved ones know what you need. Practice something that can become a long-term healthy coping mechanism.

If you feel like your grief is debilitating or becoming so, please reach out for help and contact a medical professional.

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