Grief and loss are not subjects we turn to willingly—but sooner or later we must. I’ve just read a new book on the subject of loss called The Other Side of Sadness, by clinical psychologist George Bonanno of Columbia University.
Among other things, it questions some older ideas about bereavement— particularly the idea that grieving goes in stages. After the death of a spouse, for example, you must presumably work your way through denial, anger, depression and finally acceptance. And many people do this.
But not everybody grieves according to expectations. The good news is that the bereaved are often more resilient than predicted. If a death is long expected, mourning may be done beforehand, and thus grief may be less severe.
Our cultures, and our mourning rituals, influence how we react to loss. The death of a child, for Americans, is usually deemed more traumatic than the death of a spouse or parent. But in Asian cultures, especially China, it’s often the spouse who is most deeply mourned. Still, the bereaved are often able to return to normal life on their own, however deep their grief may be.
How to survive terrible losses? There’s no formula. The loss of a child, parent, spouse or lifelong partner deprives you of your identity in one area of life. I know a woman whose young daughter died suddenly a few months ago—a devastating and unexpected tragedy.
“My husband and I, of course, lost not only our child but our identity as parents,” she told me recently. Still, each had a job and continued going to work as soon as they were able. That offered not only distraction but continuity. Each retained an appreciation of the small and large pleasures of life. (“I did not enjoy anything in the first few months, but I realized I would again.”)
They reached out to friends, and they turned to professional counseling as well as support groups. This, obviously, is a fine example of resiliency.
If you are bereaved or are comforting someone, the lesson here is that continuity is worth seeking. Work, friends, and familiar situations and pastimes help you realize you are still yourself. Talking about your feelings and your memories is always a good idea.
If you’re helping a bereaved friend or relative, listen carefully. Rather than offering advice, offer your ear. Practical help is more likely to be appreciated than advice. To borrow George Bonanno’s phrase, it’s possible to get to the other side of sadness.