By the mid-1980s, my friend and co-author, Patrick O’Malley, had started to suspect that the stages of grief were a harmful fallacy. But as a grieving father himself, and a therapist who worked with the bereaved, what would take their place?
An excerpt from our new book, “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss.”
The year was 1986. I had grave doubts about the stages of grief but had yet to turn my back on them completely. I had nothing else to fall back on, was groping around for a way to help my grieving clients, and was still trying to come to terms with my own lingering heartache. Scott was a turning point.
At the time, it was a rare guy courageous enough to consult a shrink, and Scott was a strapping, 35-year-old construction worker. He and his father had worked side by side in the family business for eighteen years; that partnership ended the day the older man suffered a fatal heart attack. Six months later, Scott came to see me at his wife’s urging.
When he sat down in my office, he looked like he would rather have a root canal. I’m sure he thought I would light incense and break into a chant.
“Dad would turn over in his grave,” he said. “My wife and pastor said I should come. It wasn’t my idea.” “Why do they think you need to be here?” I said. “My wife says I’m irritable and drinking too much,” he said. “They both say they’re worried about me.”
“Do they have reason to be?” I said.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “But I have been hitting the bottle a little too hard since Dad died. And I’m not very focused at work.”
“I get it,” I said. “But we won’t go forward if you don’t want to, unless you’re open to at least giving this a shot.”
“That’s fair enough, I guess,” he said.
Although I had serious doubts about the stages of grief, I thought there was a chance Scott might be able to relate to them, like a blueprint on a construction site. “People tend to go through stages when they’ve had a loss,” I said, listing them. “You might be dealing with some anger and depression. That’s pretty normal. We could try to figure out where you are with that.”
Scott didn’t bite.
“Sounds like mumbo jumbo,” he said.
“Come to think of it, maybe it is,” I said.
“So now what?”
“You said your dad would turn over in his grave,” I said. “Why is that?”
“He was one tough fella,” he said. “You should have known him.”
For the next 45 minutes, he spoke nonstop.
“He came from hard times. Nobody ever gave him anything,” Scott said. “But from the time he was a kid, he wanted to own a business — and sure enough, he built ours with his own sweat and blood.”
Scott’s dad was his Little League coach. He taught his son how to hunt and fish.
“In high school, I got caught stealing some beer,” Scott said. “My dad let me sit in jail that night. The next morning, he put me out with the guys unloading cement bags from a boxcar. For a month he made me sweep floors and clean the toilets at the office. He never said two words to me the whole time.
“Then one day he comes and says, ‘It’s about time you decide whether you’re going to be a man or a thug.’”
“So you chose,” I said.
“I chose,” he said. “The beer was never mentioned again.”
I was torn as I listened. I felt a little inadequate because I hadn’t persuaded him that the stages might be useful. I was still looking for clues about where Scott was with his grief. I was tempted to interrupt him, to guide him back to his “grief work.” It was my job, after all, to get him less impatient, less angry, and to curtail the alcohol. It occurred to me that Scott was trying to avoid his feelings by telling me his story, but he would not be deterred. I had no real choice but to sit back and let him talk. He was a natural storyteller and seemed to gather momentum as the minutes ticked by.
“I’m sorry,” I said finally. “We’re out of time.”
He seemed disappointed.
“We could finish the next time,” I said. “That is, if you want to come back.”
“I guess I could,” he said.
A week later Scott picked up where he left off. He remembered how after high school, he decided to go work for his dad.
“One day 10 years later, he called me into his office,” Scott said. “I wondered what I had done this time. Instead he said, ‘It’s about time you take your proper place here. From now on, you and I will be co-owners.’ He shook my hand and told me to get back to work. It was the proudest day of my life.”
Scott and his dad had their share of arguments but always resolved them.
“We were always competing,” Scott told me, a wistful smile on his face. “Shooting the deer with the biggest rack. Catching the biggest fish. Betting on football and basketball games. The loser had to buy the first beer the next time we were in the bar. But he never kept track. He always bought the first one.
“And I remember how he was always so patient with customers,” Scott said. “As tough as he was, he had really good people skills. The customer was always right, even though many times they were just plain wrong. He and I would argue about that. I wanted to charge more when people made unreasonable demands or changed their minds about a paint color. My dad reminded me that the next job might come from the last one. ‘A positive recommendation was more important than proving a customer wrong.’”
Then Scott paused, seeming to brace himself for what came next. The telephone call. The emergency room.
“He was gone by the time I got there,” Scott said. “He was laying there with these wires attached to him. His eyes were closed. But that wasn’t my dad. He was up with the sun every day and could outwork 10 men and now . . . nothing. I felt the room start to spin, but I had to snap out of it because my mother was holding onto my arm and she was a basket case. I had to keep it together for her. I’ve always had to keep it together.”
Finally, Scott couldn’t talk at all because of his weeping. I thought, “There are no theories or diagnoses needed here. Scott is doing exactly what he needs to do.”
Telling his story was his therapy.
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