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The Opposite of 'Couldn't Put it Down'
on January 11, 2010
When a colleague described trying to read this book by saying "I began reading the book over the weekend and became so aggravated that I kept putting it down. Your concerns echo my concerns" I realized I was ready to post my review. George Bonanno's new book is heralded as presenting the best and latest in bereavement research. I am concerned that individuals who read this book will believe it to be fact simply because it is in black and white and especially because of the misleading subtitle referencing the "New Science of Bereavement." The opposite of a scientific contribution to the field, I see this book as unscientific and subjective, illustrating how wide the gap is between armchair academics and clinical reality. Bonanno's representation of recent developments in research does a great disservice to both bereavement counselors and bereaved individuals. Those grieving a significant loss will wonder whether they are resilient; and if they feel they need help from anyone, not just professionals, they will think it is because they are not resilient and thus inadequate in some way. A July 2007 press release by the American Psychological Association ([...]) opposed the primary theme of Bonanno's book. They stated that people suffering from grief can be helped and that flawed science led to unsupported negative reviews of grief counseling. They concluded that "there is no empirical or statistical evidence to suggest that grief counseling is harmful to clients or that clients who are "normally" bereaved are at special risk if they receive grief counseling." The APA press release described the statistical analysis forming the basis for Bonanno's stance as "fatally flawed."
No grief counselor would disagree the bereaved are more resilient than they realize. Research confirms most bereaved individuals do not need professional intervention. But I am disappointed to see the distorted picture Bonnano portrays of grief counseling. He generalizes about the entire field based on anecdotal examples, explaining why readers have found the book enjoyable and interesting. Including his own story about the death of his father, he stresses one is better off coping on their own than to seek grief counseling. Yet many reach out to a grief counselor or a bereavement support program, participating in groups, memorial events and related activities. In seeking support they learn about the grief process and how to help themselves cope with the major life changes that acccompany significant loss through death. Any grief counselor can readily cite examples of individuals who feel their grief experience has dramatically changed because of their contact with a grief counselor or a bereavement support program. They are grateful for the opportunity to learn about grief and how it affects them physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. They enjoy talking about their personal grief experiences, meeting with others who have had a similar loss, and developing specific strategies, supports and resources to help them cope. They also receive reassurance that they will get through this difficult time and be able to find new meaning and purpose in life.
Bonanno's subjective bias against the field of grief counseling is also reflected in his unsubstantiated claim (p. 105) that a "global `one-size'-fits-all approach to grief counseling" is common practice. This is in sharp contrast to the Medicare Conditions of Participation (which I suspect Bonanno is unfamiliar with) mandating that bereavement counselors in the thousands of hospice bereavement programs throughout the country individualize every plan of care for each individual they work with.
Bonanno also uses the words counseling and therapy interchangeably, which I interpret as his inability to distinguish between the two. He claims, once again without scientific basis, that "this kind of misuse of therapy has, unfortunately, become something of a common practice in the aftermath of collective traumatic events" (p. 105) and then equates critical incident stress debriefing with therapy. As a trainer and practictioner in the approach of critical incident stress management, his misunderstanding about this field is readily apparent. Grief counseling is not the same as grief therapy, and grief therapy is not the same as crisis intervention. Bonanno fills three pages of his book with inaccurate information about critical incident stress management debriefings. Our efforts to help bereaved individuals are not perfect, and we should constantly assess their efficacy as we continue to provide help to those who seek us out for education, support, and affirmation. They will in fact heal and go on to lead meaningful and productive lives that, in the days and weeks after a signficant loss,in ways they perhaps can not initially fathom. Patti Anewalt, PhD, LPC, FT -- Grief Counselor and Critical Incident Stress Management Responder