There are all kinds of losses in life, from great to small. Last year, I wrote of my son and daughter-in-law’s move to Seattle, a bittersweet farewell. As a parent, I was glad to see them begin the next chapter of their lives together, but ambivalent about saying goodbye.
As I type these words, the house is quiet except for the clacking of the keyboard. Quiet, but not empty; my son and his wife are asleep in the guest room. They have been visiting with us for a week. This morning, they will be leaving. I will again be sad for a day, then move on with life and everything on my list of things to do.
But what happens when the loss is greater? In bereavement, you can’t take a few days off from work or go on vacation to be reunited with a loved one. For some, there is only the hope of heaven. For others, there seems no hope at all. How do we cope? How well can we come to terms with such a loss?
Some of us have stories to tell of marriages sundered by death, and devastated spouses who never quite recover from the heartbreak. We worry, therefore, about those who seem to fall too deeply into sadness, or seem to wallow in it too long — and rightly so. Well-meaning but misguided friends may even decide that enough is enough and forcibly demand that the bereaved stop mourning and move on.
And some of us, motivated (perhaps unknowingly) by the work of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, have entertained the opposite concern, worrying about friends who seemed to move on too quickly, who didn’t seem sad enough for long enough. These, we thought, might be in denial. What they needed was to burrow down to the grief that had to be there, and move through a series of stages proposed by Kubler-Ross: from denial to anger, then bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.
But psychologist George Bonanno, perhaps the best known researcher on bereavement today, insists that there are very real problems with this way of thinking.
In the first place, Kubler-Ross worked primarily with the terminally ill, not the bereaved. Her stage model was an attempt to describe how people came to accept the fact of their own impending death, not how they deal with the loss of their loved ones. It may seem intuitively reasonable to suppose that people would deal with both losses in the same way, but the empirical research simply doesn’t support that kind of sweeping generalization.
Second, there is no question that bereavement is often characterized by a complicated mix of emotions, and states like denial and anger may be among them. But that’s not the same as insisting that the bereaved must all walk through the same sequence of stages to be well. Those in grief may have times of intense sadness and even anger or resentment, but there can also be laughter, humor, even joy.
Similarly — and this is perhaps Bonanno’s most controversial assertion — the norm in grieving is resilience. Most people, in other words, even those who experience soul-crushing days of sadness, are still able to enjoy smiles and laughter as they grieve, and return to a satisfactorily well-adjusted life on their own.
Not everyone, of course, is equally resilient; many (though not most) continue to suffer. And surely cases of real denial exist. But if Bonanno is right, we should expect to see most of the bereaved eventually getting on with their lives, perhaps sooner than expected, and despite (not instead of) their sadness. We need not suspect them of denial, nor should we push them to “get in touch with” their unacknowledged grief or anger. Such intervention, though well-meaning, may do more harm than good.
What then? Be available to talk if they need or want to. Make it safe for them to tell you their stories, good and bad. Don’t impose a model of what you think they should be feeling: just listen. And remember that neither grief nor coping is the same for everyone. Judge the process by its fruit. If your bereaved friends return to functioning reasonably well at work and at home, just be glad for them. But if they are debilitated by sadness and still unable to cope after several months, it may be time for them to seek help from an experienced professional.
I’ve dropped the kids off at the train station, and I’m back in front of the computer, finishing this post. Tears threaten to well up again as I type; yes, I miss them. What will I do? I’m already doing it: for me, writing is a way of coping.
So are activities involving power tools. And frozen yogurt.
That’s not denial. That’s life.
And tomorrow, perhaps even tonight, I will again be content to live with my small grief, while staying open to laughter and joy.