Between Grief And Parenting

Grandparents with children

So, as you may know, I lost my father in December. We are all still adjusting to this new reality of a world in which he does not exist anymore. A world in which I cannot call him to keep me company on my walk back from dropping off the kids; a world in which he doesn’t call me on a weekly basis as a representative of all psychologists with ridiculous questions about human conduct.

One of the ways in which I cope with things is to read a book about it. So, naturally, after I came back from the Shiva in Israel, I ordered the book “The Truth About Grief” by Ruth Davis Konigsberg. At any other time I wouldn’t have gotten this one, if only for the title: it raises, for me at least, all sorts of questions such as “What is truth?” and “Who are you to know the absolute truth?” and so on. I was vulnerable, apparently. It’s a good read, don’t get me wrong, but for a book that challenges the “5 stages of grief” theory as having no empirical data to support it, it relies an awful lot on anecdotes and story-telling. But that’s for another time, and probably a different blog.

What I want to talk about today is two parallels I found between grief and parenting. As a fair warning, this post is going to be much more big-picture and philosophical, but I’ll be back to my nit-picky self soon, I promise. Now, from a philosophical point of view, it is interesting to find parallels in our coping with the beginning and the end of someone else’s life. Naturally, there are a lot of differences: most of the time in our culture, parents get to decide when they want to have kids (happy accidents excluded), whereas we hardly ever control when our loved ones leave us (abnormal behaviour excluded, obviously). Parents are generally held—and feel—responsible for their children, whereas feeling responsible for the dead person may be construed in our culture as perhaps slightly bizarre (although not necessarily in all cultures). However, there are two main parallels I want to talk about.

First, Konigsberg describes a pattern of “linear oscillation” in terms of emotional reactivity following the loss of a loved one. She argues, based on a study done with 19 white, high-school graduate widows (they probably graduated from high-school quite a while before they participated in the study, but my point is that this is not a representative sample of any population) that there are dramatic swings in affect immediately after the loss, and these swings subside—and the affect stabilises—over time. This reminded me of a TED talk I saw about parenting, given by the couple who created This is a talk about parenting taboos (highly recommended, by the way. The talk, not parenting taboos), and when they come to the fourth taboo they argue that what happens when you have a new baby is that your affect swings widely along with your baby’s emotions, and the swings subside as the child grows. This makes intuitive sense to me, from my personal experience. It does. However, there’s absolutely no data I can find to corroborate this “emotional oscillation theory. There’s a model called the Dual Process Model (DPM), in the context of bereavement, that talks about oscillation between focusing on the loss and focusing on restoration, and that seems to have some empirical backing (although I haven’t done a full literature review), but there’s nothing more general, and nothing about new parents. So, I propose as a theory that when people are faced with a life-changing event, at first they are reeling from the change—a period characterised by sharp and intense swings in affect. That is, they oscillate between positive and negative emotions, and the intensity of the emotions is stronger. With time, the intensity subsides, and the oscillation settles into that person’s normal mood swings. Now, I could find no research testing this hypothesis (or a similar hypothesis), but this is completely outside of my field of expertise so if you read this and you know about this sort of research, please do let me know, I think it would be fascinating work. The second parallel I want to talk about is how we rely on experts instead of on ourselves. In the grief book, Konigsberg mentions another book called “One Nation Under Therapy” (I haven’t read that one yet but it’s on my list now!). She argues, based on that book, that because we have so many professionals, we effectively outsourced our self-reliance: we rely on professionals instead of ourselves to provide us with everything from plumbing repairs to “grieving techniques”. I find this particularly true in parenting as well. The amount of parenting books is overwhelming, and even a perfunctory search will yield conflicting advice (for particularly hot-button topics, see, for instance, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and schedules for babies). But what Konigsberg says about grieving reminded me particularly of what Erika Christakis says about how we raise preschoolers: we have instructions, which is great, but these instructions miss the individual experience. I think (again, this is a theory, not supported by data) that it’s because we are profoundly lacking in role models in the modern world. Children learn best from watching others do something, and adults are probably no different. But we no longer live in close proximity to the resource of older family members who can guide us—not by telling us what to do but by doing. Because of that, we don’t know what to do with babies, and we don’t know what to do when a loved one dies. So we turn to experts. Generally, turning to science—as opposed to myth or religion—is a great advance of modern times if you ask me. But not all books are scientific, and the science that’s out there (the science that gets funded) is more about group averages than the individual experience. And so we get prescriptive: you have to go through the 5 stages of grief in order to “overcome” it. You have to read with your child in order to ensure her correct development. Now, the problem with the 5 stages is that it’s completely lacking empirical support, and also that it makes you feel like you’re doing it wrong. The problem with saying that reading with your child is important is that it for some reason leads to saying that if you don’t read with your child you’re doing it wrong, and then if you can’t read with your child (because you don’t read that well, because you work 3 jobs just to put food on the table, or whatever other reason) you just feel like you’re not a good enough parent. And the problem with this approach is that it completely ignores society as responsible for the state of children. But that’s another post for sure.

@2015 - Gal Podjarny