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Some thoughts on trees... and grieving

"Our grief is as individual as our lives."

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Occasionally, when I'm out walking in the woods, I come across a pair of trees that have grown in such a way that their boughs are intertwined. They appear to be involved in an agonisingly slow dance, as they mould their shapes together. The growth of each has been largely defined by the other. Each has a form which reflects their relationship. Sometimes they appear to share the same roots. Others just appear to have been drawn to each other and then commenced their dance. On a few occasions, I have seen situations where one tree has died, damaged by animal, weather, disease or more likely human interference. Where this is the case the remaining bough appears to wrap itself around the memory of the tree that was once its partner. In its shape it holds the memory of the life they shared. It is wrapped around something which is no longer there; but neither is it entirely gone, because a space remains which bears its shape.

I suspect for many of us this is what loss looks like. After years of growing with and being moulded by our relationship to someone (of something) we end up without them, yet our being holds the shape of their existence. Finding a way of living when such a major part of your life, a presence which influenced your growth as a human being, has gone is the challenge of grieving.

A Swiss-American called Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was probably the first to develop a unified theory of how we grieve. She was an extra-ordinary woman. She was the first to clearly document the emotional experience of people who were dying and she helped establish the hospice movement. She basically invented the idea of ‘dying with dignity’ and helped train the first professionals dedicated to palliative care. Her lasting fame is, however, inextricably linked with her valuable but less-than-perfect theory of ‘Stages of grief’. Published in 1969, it quickly crossed into mainstream consciousness. If you know any theory of how people respond to loss, this will be it. It describes grief as coming in five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. (If you want a quick and hilarious summary, try ‘The Simpsons’ version, in which Homer experiences all 5 stages in 30 seconds!)

Kubler-Ross’ theory was developed after years of listening to the experiences of the dying and their loved ones. Her work originally focused on people facing their own death, but it also could be applied to how others dealt with loss. It was ground-breaking, but imperfect. Initially, the theory described five sequential stages but she later realised that some people didn’t experience the stages in order. Then the theory was further adapted to recognise that not everybody goes through each stage. If you think about it, that leaves us with a list of possible emotional responses to loss, which is useful, but no longer a definitive guide.

Others have adapted or built upon the original model. Mardi Horowitz identified four stages: Outcry, when we express – or suppress- our response to loss; Denial and intrusion; where we distract ourselves so thoroughly in other activities and thoughts that we don't think about the loss, but this distraction is interrupted by periods where the loss is felt very strongly and acutely and possibly feelings of guilt as we realise the pain of loss is no longer constant; Working through, where we combine thinking about and feeling our loss, but also start to figure out new ways to manage without the lost relationship and Completion, where memories remain but the feeling attached to the loss is less painful and no longer regularly interferes with our life, although it can surface strongly at times such as anniversaries and birthdays.

Over the years, lots of different models have emerged, most of them in response to Kubler-Ross’ original ideas. There is the ‘Dual process’ model, there are the ‘Four tasks of mourning’, I could go on. All of them have value, but I think it’s fair to say that none of them are definitive.

The idea of sequential stages has now been widely rejected, as Russell Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute explains ‘no study has ever established that stages of grief actually exist, and what are defined as such can’t be called stages. Grief is the normal and natural emotional response to loss.... No matter how much people want to create simple, bullet-point guidelines for the human emotions of grief, there are no stages of grief that fit any two people or relationships.”

So why do we try to describe human experience in stages (Freud did a similar thing with sexuality)? It is probably because we are pattern-seeking, storytelling primates trying to make sense of an often chaotic and unpredictable world. And death and loss presents us with some of our biggest unfathomables. George Bonanno, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Columbia University believes we like applying stages because they offer a road-map, a way out.

‘When people are hurting, they want to know, 'How long is this going to last? What will happen to me?' They want something to hold on to.’ But he also points out that such a simplification can do more harm than good. If people don’t go through all of the stages, which appear to be true of most people, they can believe that they are grieving ‘the wrong way’. In some cases this can lead to the bereaved being encouraged to go to therapy when their grieving is entirely ‘normal’ (whatever that is!)

When you are in a room listening to someone describing their experience of loss and grief, you will spot denial, depression, anger and guilt, even if the person expressing them doesn’t. As a Counsellor, it can be useful to help the person to recognise and make sense of these emotions. Some of them, such as depression, are probably obvious. Others, such as guilt and anger can really difficult for us to get our heads around. Certainly many of us are resistant to acknowledging our anger with a deceased loved one who has ‘abandoned us’ or the world that let this happen. Of all the things to feel, we may view anger as the most embarrassing and self-indulgent… but it happens. What emotions we feel, the order we feel them in and the speed at which they come and go (if at all) is unique to each individual. And there’s no value in telling someone their experience is ‘wrong’.

Probably the worst thing we can do, or indeed say, is that it is time to ‘get over it and move on’. We can’t impose our own timeline on someone else’s grief and we need to ask ourselves who this really serves. Is it what’s best for them or are we tired of interacting with grief? Whilst the work of Kubler Ross and others has been of great value, one effect is that we can see grief as a checklist, a process with stages and an endpoint. It can make us expect ‘completion’ and resulting ‘normality’.

We run into trouble when we try to formulate the human experience. We need to remember that we are dealing with the single most complex entity in the known universe… and the interactions of that entity with other unfathomably complex beings. There are so many variables involved in being a human individual. When we try to distil them down to a series of cause-and-effect relationships, we are missing the point. If you want tidy, logical and uncomplicated, stick to stand-alone machines. Humans are tangled, complex and interwoven. We can’t be summed up in an algorithm.

A tree is a relatively simple being. It has a shape and it has an impact on the other beings it comes into contact with. Some things grow happily in the shade and shelter it offers; some use it for support; some only achieve their full potential once it is gone. When it dies, it leaves behind an ecosystem which bears its shape. Eventually new growth fills the space it left behind, but that growth needs to find a way of existing alongside things which were themselves shaped by their relationship with what once was.

When we experience loss, we remain shaped by our past experience, yet we also can experience new beginnings, not instead of, but as well as. New growth takes time. It is organic and it generally doesn’t respond well to being forced. Things grow when they are ready to grow… and as any gardener knows, growing things takes patience and care.


Books and articles

Corr, C. A., Nabe, C. M., & Corr, D. M. (1994). Death and dying, life and living. Thomson Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.

Kübler-Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). On grief and grieving: Finding the meaning of

grief through the five stages of loss. New York, NY: Scribner.


Grief Recovery Institute

Loss and Trauma Lab, Columbia University

Popular culture

Cruse bereavement care

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