What Joan Rivers Taught Us about Grief
I was never a huge fan of Joan Rivers’ comedy routines — a little too coarse for my taste — but I always had a warm spot in my heart for the woman born Joan Alexandra Molinsky. She had the same glass-etching, Brooklyn accent as most of my mother’s family, with whom I shared summers in the Catskills. And, like Joan Rivers, my New York family’s idea of empathy was usually a heavenward eye-roll, followed by the expression, “Oh, please!”
Most fans of this indomitable woman know that she lost her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, to suicide in 1987 and that it took many years for her to work through her grief. The grief that follows bereavement — the death of a loved one — is among the deepest and most painful of human experiences.
For some, the burden of grief is lightened by the love and consolation of friends and family, and by the comforting rituals of mourning. Unfortunately, for others, the grief of bereavement may only be sharpened by well-intentioned but misguided “advice.” Joan Rivers captured this problem with her trademark coruscating wit, when speaking to a group of widows:
“There are two kinds of friends and both mean very well. One group doesn’t want you to grieve at all — ‘Come on, come on. It has been a week and half since you lost Joe. Get out. Enough!’ The other kind never want to see you be anything but grieving. ‘Your husband is dead only eight years, and you’re wearing a red dress?’”
Yes, Joan Rivers nailed it. There are two mistaken ideas about dealing with grief that plague our response to bereavement. One is the “Snap out of it!” approach; the other is the “Never Let it Go!” directive.
Neither view recognizes the reality of the grieving process, which may be stated roughly as follows: people grieve in all kinds of ways, and, while there are typical characteristics of ordinary grief, there is no “right” way to grieve. Many grievers might add, “There is also no such thing as ‘ordinary’ grief!” Indeed, I use that term here only because it is commonly seen in the grief literature, along with “normal” or “uncomplicated” grief.
Well-meaning attempts to “comfort” the bereaved person often make matters worse. The psychologist John Bowlby once observed, “The loss of a loved person is one of the most intensely painful experiences any human being can suffer. Nothing but the return of the lost person can bring true comfort; should what we provide fall short of that, it is felt almost as an insult.”
Comments to the mourner such as, “It was meant to be”; “He’s not suffering anymore”; or “He’s in a better place now” usually pour salt on the wound of bereavement. Sometimes, a simple hug can be of more benefit than well-meaning words.
In the Jewish tradition of shiva — the seven days of mourning that follow the death of a loved one — visitors to the mourner’s home are counseled to remain silent at first, waiting for the mourner to begin the conversation. The Jewish educator, Dr. Ron Wolfson, suggests that if you do speak first, it may be best simply to say, “I’m so sorry” or “I don’t know what to say.” The point is to avoid tamping down the mourner’s grief, as if to say, “Come on, come on! Enough already!”
On the other hand, it is deeply hurtful to “guilt-trip” a bereaved spouse or parent for enjoying life again, years after the loss, as Joan Rivers clearly recognized. Some people imagine that the loss of a spouse should be mourned “forever,” as Queen Victoria did following the death of her husband, Prince Albert. The devastated monarch did not appear in public for three years and wore black for the remaining forty years of her life. This is not what most clinicians would recognize as “normal” grief.
Indeed, though the death of a spouse is often devastating, research suggests that the most frequent response to spousal death is what Dr. George A. Bonanno and colleagues have called, “resilience” — basically, the ability to cope with the loss and “bounce back” after a reasonable period of time. Of course, what is “reasonable” will vary greatly from person to person, and should never be based on artificial time tables. Fortunately, most bereaved persons, after some months of grief and mourning, will move to a phase of “integrated grief.” This is when the loss — though never forgotten — is woven into the larger fabric of life, and the bereaved individual begins to envision new and creative possibilities.
Grief is the price we pay for having dear friends, family and loved ones in our life. Indeed, as the psychologist Erich Fromm wisely observed, “To spare oneself from grief at all costs can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness.”
Acknowledgments: My thanks to Dr. Sid Zisook for quotes from his lecture material; and to Dr. Kathy Shear for her many contributions to the literature.
For further reading:
- McFadden RD: Joan Rivers, a Comic Stiletto Quick to Skewer, Is Dead at 81. New York Times, Sept. 4, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/arts/television/joan-rivers-dies.html?_r=0
- Wolfson R: How to Make a Shiva Call. My Jewish Learning. http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/how-to-make-a-shiva-call/
- Bonanno GA, Wortman CB, Lehman DR, et al: Resilience to loss and chronic grief: a prospective study from preloss to 18-months postloss. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002 Nov;83(5):1150-64.
- Shear MK: Getting Straight about Grief. The Cutting Edge. Depression and Anxiety, 2012; 29:461-64.
- Zisook S, Shear K. Grief and bereavement: what psychiatrists need to know. World Psychiatry. 2009 Jun;8(2):67-74. (free full article at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2691160/ )
- Pies R: The Two Worlds of Grief and Depression. Psychcentral. Feb. 23, 2011. https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/02/23/the-two-worlds-of-grief-and-depression/
- Grief. Hospice Education Institute. https://www.hospiceworld.org/book/grief.htm
Pies, R. (2018). What Joan Rivers Taught Us about Grief. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/what-joan-rivers-taught-us-about-grief/