the science of (in around and about) storytelling

if you tell a story and it has a particular effect on you and the ppl you’re telling it to, and you tell it often and the effect is easily and obviously repeatable, as well as useful and beneficial to all, then you’re likely to end up feeling that, since the telling has a value to it, the tale has a truth to it

elizabeth k’bler-ross – born an identical triplet in zurich, died last august in arizona, aged 78 – told several such stories, as a result of her lifelong work caring for the dying: i think the amount of truth in the tales varies, but the variation highlights a sharp dilemma within the interface between the scientific world and the world of the healer

the first story is this, the distillation of the five stages of dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance… in her 1969 book On Death, she argued that not all of us experience all five, but that everyone goes through at least two. I don’t know if this claim constitutes science (let alone truth), but the fact that the five stages have entered popular-TV clich’ territory certainly attests to their ordinary-language usefulness, helping us map where we are not just facing our own mortality, but in situations of bereavement, loss and just disappointment — in other words, what science would have to do to overthrow this diagram as fact, is supply not just a better fact scientifically, but a practice that was just as helpful when it came to healing (or, perhaps, more to the point, to dealing with situations when healing is no longer an option)

the second story wasn’t hers: it was very old indeed – starting in the early 70s, she began researching near-death experience to gather evidence for the afterlife

third, she started to describes angels and voices and children’s imaginary playmates as “spirit guides”, actual real people now dead who are returned to advise us on life and how to cope when it comes to a close, a close which (she increasingly insisted) was no such thing anyway, merely a transition stage to a different kind of life

throughout all this – this decline of a thinking mind, some would argue – she continued to work caring for the dying, helping popularise the hospice system to america

opponents of her legacy have several very hard battles on their hands:
i. they have to demonstrate that the lifelong practice of care for the dying, with all the anecdotal wisdom that accretes, has become a codification of care in a bad rather than a good way
ii. they have to work out what they want to think about the concept of denial is (ron rosenbaum at slate, linked above, makes merry me-decade quips and asks if it isn’t time for the “denial of denial”: but you could just as well argue, surely, that EKR’s increasing commitment to the idea of life-after-death was an enabling denial on her part)
iii. if EKR turned to ancient myth, legend and superstition to argue that, before the modern age, people had developed pragmatically effective systems of coping with death, and indeed flourishing, only to commodify it, to turn it into a codified and sentimentalised industry of faux death-facing, modern medicine has (still) to answer the charge that it is, itself, an intensely commodified industry of faux rationalism which had – self-evidently – failed to come up with methods of coping or caring that people wanted to give themselves over to
(not least bcz the experiments necessary to make scientific distinctions in this area threaten to abandon some patients in the experiment to the cruelty of the bad care which science, advancing after the fact, would only subsequently abandon) (if ppl running hospices are doing so fuelled on beliefs you yourself are more than a bit suspicious of, you still have to admit that THEY are the ones doing work YOU might well balk at, and be daunted by: in which case, horse-forcourses and whatever-gets-you-through-the-night etc)

(i guess my feeling here is that – as EKR would no doubt herself have said – this is an unresolved conundrum, which is to say, an unfinished story) (which is to say, death is NOT the end, except just not quite the way EKR interpreted this…)