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
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1818 GMT (0218 HKT)
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1209 GMT (2009 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT