Skip to main content

Christie's bogus 'stages of grief'

By Peggy Drexler
January 11, 2014 -- Updated 1949 GMT (0349 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first named 5 grief stages to help with death, says Peggy Drexler
  • She says Christie's casting himself as victim, invoking grief stages over scandal, is a first
  • Drexler: He spoke of own humiliation, sadness. Left out those affected by traffic tie-up
  • Drexler: "Seek sympathy," "blame others" are not stages, but "ask forgiveness" works

Editor's note: Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @drpeggydrexler.

(CNN) -- Esteemed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross spent much of her career working with terminally ill patients and the anxiety many of them expressed in the face of their impending death. Her experience and interactions with hundreds of them formed the basis for "On Death and Dying," a groundbreaking 1969 book. In it, she outlined the five stages she believed those nearing death endured—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, lastly, acceptance—and suggested strategies for helping them and their families cope. Her work was monumental within the field in part because the emotional needs of those dealing with death had for so long been avoided. It would not be for much longer.

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

Which is perhaps what makes New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's hijacking of Kübler-Ross' grief cycle for his own gains so egregious. As he faced the press in an unending press conference held Thursday after a scandal that jammed traffic on the George Washington Bridge for four days blew up on his administration, Christie issued a series of halfhearted mea culpas. He asked not for the public's forgiveness but for pity.

"You can only imagine as I was standing there in my bedroom looking at my iPad how sad and betrayed I felt," he said. "I'm heartbroken about it and I'm incredibly disappointed. I don't think I've gotten to the anger stage yet, but I'm sure I'll get there."

In his telling, he, too, after all, was a victim, just like the thousands of commuters—including schoolchildren--who endured hours trapped in their cars somewhere between New York and New Jersey. Just like 91-year-old Florence Genova, who died after paramedics who were stuck in traffic reached her. (Christie, while expressing regret, could not help but note, "I've also heard conflicting reports about the cause of death.")

Christie faces the music: The highlights
Christie apologizes for bridge vendetta
2013: Christe 'bothered' not angry

In fact, at his new conference, he characterized himself as "heartbroken," "sad," "humiliated," "betrayed;" referring again and again to the stages of grief he was struggling through. Oh, and did he mention he was "very sad?"

"On Death and Dying" had a profound impact on psychology and society. It led to a greater emphasis on counseling and hospice care for dying patients and their families, and inspired Kübler-Ross to devote the remainder of her years in clinical practice to the dying, including AIDS patients and children in particular. In subsequent years, of course, Kubler-Ross' grief cycle has been applied to countless other traumatic situations, including losing a job, going bankrupt and ending a relationship, all of which can carry fair amounts of grief and require coping.

But this may be the first time her work has been used as a political strategy. The situation that forced Christie to an accounting before the cameras was traumatic, but not for him. Despite his claims, he wasn't actually a victim. Nor was he convincingly contrite about either the cause or the effect of the actions that occurred at the behest of the staffers in his administration and on his watch, as he piled most of the blame on his deputy chief of staff, Bridget Anne Kelly (he described her as "stupid").

Nowhere among Kübler-Ross' stages, it should be noted, is "seek sympathy," "blame others," or "do whatever it takes to clear your name." In fact, if the governor is looking for some more situation-appropriate stages to pass through, he might consider turning to his Catholic upbringing for a guide. Among the church's steps to a good confession: Be truly sorry. Examine your conscience. Express sorrow for the sin. Resolve not to commit it again.

Lastly, ask for forgiveness.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peggy Drexler.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT