Skip to main content

Christie's bogus 'stages of grief'

By Peggy Drexler
updated 2:49 PM EST, Sat January 11, 2014
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
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT