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 9:27 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 6:09 PM EDT, Sat September 27, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 2:02 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 1:41 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT