Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

A Child's Life

Volume 25 Number 2
Spring 2003

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river on rocks

Kathleen Gilbert
Kathleen Gilbert
Photo ę Tyagan Miller

The Story of Grief

by Lauren J. Bryant

"We live in stories, not statistics," reads a sign in bold black letters on Kathleen Gilbert's office wall. Evidence of a life spent in stories surrounds the sign, from the books crowding the shelves, with titles like Giving Sorrow Words and Making it Through the Night, to the family snapshots scattered about, the menagerie of stuffed animals, and the cat sculpture perched on the shelf, wearing a lei.

Gilbert's gentle smile and voice evidence years of listening to other people's pain.

Gilbert is a specialist in grief and bereavement in families, especially grief over the loss of a child. She's heard the worst. Children killed in car wrecks and fires, felled by disease or freakish accidents. Unborn fetuses whose conditions were completely incompatible with life. Children lost to suicide or murder.

It's disturbing stuff, and Gilbert resisted it at first.

As a Ph.D. student at Purdue University, she swore she wouldn't study bereavement—it would be too intense, she thought. But a deep curiosity about how stress works its way through families kept pulling her toward the topic.

Grief research is nerve-wracking work, says Gilbert, now associate professor of applied health science at Indiana University Bloomington. But after 15 years, she's still at it, deep into the stories.

"Parents share with me their story, and however much it is, it is their gift," Gilbert says. Every bereaved parent she's talked to, she says, has been compelled to tell the story of their loss all at once, regardless of what initial question she asks. The stories that tumble out are no mere descriptions, Gilbert says. They are the means by which they—and all of us—give meaning to pain.

A traumatic loss tears apart our assumptions about how life is supposed to operate. We feel grief, says Gilbert, as we struggle to restore order and rebuild our world around the new reality of our loss. A child's death is an especially shocking "out-of-sequence" loss, and a death that "shouldn't have happened" does exceptional damage to our beliefs about what the world is like.

"A hole grows inside," Gilbert says. "There is emptiness. The question is, how do you reconstruct your life around emptiness?"

The hole may be stubbornly real, but we find ways to surround it with a new architecture of meaning. "People give meaning to a meaningless event through spiritual work or service to the community," Gilbert says. She recalls one devastated couple who couldn't bear to work with children, so they established a fitness center for the elderly. They named it after their deceased child.

One death, many griefs

Community connections and social support are crucial after the death of a child, but most bereaved parents instinctively turn to family first for solace. That may be exactly the wrong thing to do.

In her work, Gilbert has traced the impact of what she calls "differential grief."

"Each parent, each person, has a unique relationship with the child who has died. The loss has special meaning for each of them," she says.

In other words, although a family loses the same individual, each family member loses a different "symbolic child." One person may experience relief, while another feels only utter devastation. Each person's grief is shaped by the context of what his or her relationship with the child was like, which has profound consequences for the family.

Gilbert says disconnects in a family's experience of grief are common, and the shock of discovering that another family member, especially a spouse, does not feel as you do can easily compound the sense of loss.

As family members mourn, "some of the loss they feel may be the loss of a perception that you would behave in a certain way," she says.

Age and gender also contribute to differential grief. Children grieve differently depending on their developmental stage. And men, particularly in America, typically grieve differently than women. Largely socialized to be action-oriented "doers," men tend to spend less time expressing emotions and talking about their loss. This grieving behavior is usually labeled unhealthy, but Gilbert disagrees.

"Our models for grief have been based on women's behavior," she explains. "We've created norms that say you need to talk, to process things with other people, to be very emotional. When we say ┬men don't grieve,' we're saying that men don't respond to loss as women do, and that they should act like women for their behavior to be acceptable."

The myth of 'closure'

There is no single right way to grieve, Gilbert points out, but she is adamant about one thing: stage models for grief are wrong.

The familiar "stages of grief" were widely popularized by Elisabeth Kübler Ross's On Death and Dying, published in 1969. According to Kübler Ross, grief progresses through five stages she named denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Other authors, such as John Bowlby, developed stage models with different names, but the concept remained the same: grief involves linear stages of recovery leading to a successful resolution, what Gilbert calls "the Big C"—closure.

"'Closure,' says Gilbert, sketching invisible quote marks in the air, "basically means you stop acting sad. You're supposed to be done."

The stage model's promise of a positive outcome has profound appeal, according to Gilbert, because we like our stories to have beginnings, middles, and especially, ends. After the bombing in Oklahoma City or the destruction of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers in New York, for instance, grieving families have been depicted as brave, patriotic, and resilient citizens moving on from their loss. But what if those feelings don't fit?

Grief is far more complicated than any stage model can suggest, says Gilbert. In fact, trying to harness such complex feelings into a sequential, linear pattern may do more harm than good. People may expect that grief will lessen in an orderly fashion when, especially for parents of deceased children, grief often worsens over time or recurs, dramatically and painfully, years after the loss.

Gilbert remembers a mother whose preschool-age daughter died in a car accident. After a horrible first year and a horrible reaction on the first anniversary of the accident, Gilbert says, the mother began slowly to feel better. But years later, on what would have been the child's 16th birthday, the mother was nearly catatonic with sorrow, unable to function at all.

When the child was alive and her mother would give her a bath, Gilbert explains, the two would plan the little girl's Sweet 16 party while the mother shampooed her hair. When that birthday arrived, says Gilbert, "the mother had reached the final moment in the life she and her daughter had planned. She had nothing left." It was devastating loss all over again.

Grief is like a river, not a ladder, Gilbert says. When you suffer a loss and experience grief, you enter that river for good. It's not a steady stream: There are raging rapids of boulder-sized heartbreak and shallow pools of peace, where you get a chance to enjoy what's around you. But you are always on the river; there is no going ashore to return to a life without loss.

Stage models have been useful in promoting the idea of grief as a process, Gilbert says. But it's not a process that can be "finished"▀it's a lifelong effort, as we rewrite our own story and the stories of our families to include loss and grief.

"After a loss, the undertone of sadness becomes a part of who you are, just as the deceased person is a part of who you are," Gilbert says. "The sadness that they are not an active part of your life any longer can strengthen you as a person. Loss can open up a new part of you that you can then share with other people."

The researcher's feelings

Gilbert's experiences with stories have brought her to the firm conviction that storytelling is integral to research. It's not only the stories interviewees tell that are important; it's also the story the researcher constructs as she hears and interprets the words.

Researchers struggle to balance the presence of emotions in qualitative research▀research that relies not on statistics to generate its findings, but on the researcher's involvement in the lives of her subjects through methods such as observation and interview. "Emotions influence what you have heard and seen," Gilbert says. "How do those emotions affect you as you represent your findings?"

She recently edited a book on the topic, called The Emotional Nature of Qualitative Research, which she says was inspired by a dream. While interviewing bereaved parents, Gilbert explains, "I was doing great during the day, but at night I had a series of dreams in which my daughters progressed from being vaguely threatened to seriously in danger to the point where my older daughter's body was found in a dumpster. I remember every detail: The building was brick, the dumpster was in an alleyway, the ground was wet, and I recognized her body by a mole on the back of her leg."

The dreams stopped, but the realization that her emotions were deeply involved in her daily research stuck with Gilbert. In her view, recognizing the role of emotions adds credibility to her work. "There has to be an emotional honesty in what I write," she says. "Emotions are a way for me to connect with what people are trying to tell me. I'm a filter, not a camera."

Gilbert has plans for two new projects guaranteed to be emotional: one is a replication of her first study of married couples who had lost a child, but this time with gay and lesbian couples who anticipated having a child to raise and lost that child. Her second project idea concerns the therapeutic role of traditional women's handicrafts, such as weaving and sewing, in grieving.

She acknowledges that these new projects, like her previous work, will be hard: "Talking to these people will be sad. People will cry."

She doesn't enjoy watching participants suffer, but she appreciates their gifts. "To me," Gilbert says, "their stories so affirm the power of love."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.

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