Dr. Lizabeth Eckerd is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Humboldt State University. Her research interests include grief as well as death and dying.
Dr. Eckerd: What got me interested was initially my own personal experience with grief. Back in 1993 my first husband died of cancer. I was very young. It was very unusual for someone like me to go through that. My experience was that I was fortunate and had lots of friends and loved ones who wanted to be helpful, but oftentimes people don’t know what to do when they’re put in that situation.
Kelly: Why is death and dying such a “taboo” subject in our society? Why is there so little discussion about it?
Dr. Eckerd: Well, two reasons occur to me. One is that in the U.S. we’re really focused on what we can do to fix things, and on being positive. We’re more comfortable with positive emotions and being productive. And that’s good, but when someone is grieving, people are generally uncomfortable with that. It’s not something you can just fix. You can’t just say, “Oh, well do these three things and you’ll feel better.” We’re sort of at a loss because of that.
Also I think we have less familiarity with death and dying than we used to. It’s hard to talk about what we don’t know. Families are more mobile nowadays, people live away from each other. A hundred years ago, people who were typical college age had some experience with death; now we can get into our 40s and 50s without being around it. We’re just more used to the positive things in this culture. A friend of mine mentioned that in some other cultures, a person with a recent difficult loss would be looked up to in a way. They would be respected because they’re the one going through the burden. In our society, the topic is avoided.
Kelly: You got your PhD after your husband passed away. Did you find that going back to school to study grief itself helped in the healing process?
Dr. Eckerd: My whole life plan really changed when my husband died. We had been trying to have children and I was thinking I would work and have a career. I was thinking I’d have a part-time counseling practice. When he died that all really changed. It was hard to see myself getting married right away and having kids. I ended up going back to school and taking psychology classes. I was around a lot of psychology PhDs. I thought I needed a new direction for my life, and I thought, “This seems cool.” When I went to graduate school, I knew I wanted to be a professor, and to do that you need some area of interest. And because of my own experience, I wanted to do it. I think it helped somewhat. By the time I really got involved, it was ten years since he had passed away. The hardest times were definitely behind me. I think my personal experience has helped me learn and understand all the models of understanding grief. And part of my research is interviewing people, and my personal experience has helped me connect. I’m someone who understands somewhat where they’ve been.
Kelly: You teach a class on death and dying at Humboldt State. How is it structured? What do you study?
Dr. Eckerd: It’s really interesting, it ends up being more personal than my other classes. A lot of people have experiences that bring them to the class, and we’re smaller, we get to know each other. We go on field trips. We’ve gone to funeral homes, we’ve gone to an anatomy lab to see cadavers, dead bodies, up close. We talk about fact-oriented things, like what death is, and what people die of. We talk about suicide one week, we talk about planning for end-of-life, planning one’s funeral. We also discuss wills, how people can prepare for the end of life, and different cultural practices in the realm of dying and grieving. We talk a lot about grief. People say it’s the most useful class they’ve taken, that they learn about the dying process and what that’s like. I think it’s pretty useful, because we’re all gonna be faced with grief, and we’re certainly all going to die. From research I did, only about 20% of psychology departments offer it at all. Kubler-Ross wanted to talk to people who were at hospitals about dying starting back in the 60s, and that kind of opened things up.
Kelly: In your own observation, do you think that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief are accurate, or is each person’s experience just too different?
Dr. Eckerd: I’d say it’s pretty different for everyone, but at the same time there are some patterns. From my interactions with people, they’re roughly true. I think some people have some level of shock, like the first stage, which is denial. People can kind of go numb. It’s not always worse in the beginning, it can get worse later. I remember getting ready for my husband’s funeral, and just feeling really distant. It just seemed really unreal. I was looking in the mirror and thinking, “This is me, this is happening.” Her last stage is acceptance, and the vast majority of everyone I’ve talked to has found that. The hard part is the work in between. There are other models that are as good and even better, but Ross allowed that individuals really vary in their experiences.
Kelly: What advice do you have for SevenPonds readers who may be dealing with a loss?
Dr. Eckerd: Well, for one I would encourage them to give themselves time and space. I would encourage them to not feel like they have to do everything, to not feel like they have all the same responsibilities, and to recognize that they’re hurting. A death affects you physically, emotionally, and psychologically. You can’t expect a person to do everything if they’re sick, and it’s the same with grief. Also, sometimes people can feel so different than they normally feel. They can be angry if they aren’t usually angry, and so on. I would encourage them to keep in mind that they’re really not going crazy, there are different types of reactions. I would also encourage people to find support that is actually helpful to them. There can be people all around us who aren’t helpful through no fault of their own. The people I found helpful were those who had had something close to them happen, and who knew how difficult it can be. There are also a lot of internet resources and things like grief support groups. Don’t feel like you should do it all alone.
Kelly: Thank you so much, Dr. Eckerd!