In a recent issue of The Atlantic Weekly, author Derek Thompson, in a piece entitled The Secret Life of Grief, tells us about how he dealt with the death of his mother. She lived as fully as she could for sixteen months after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. She died on July 18, 2013. Thompson observes: “Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.”
Thompson also observes something else, which I very much appreciate. “For some, grief is a dull and unrelenting ache that fades – or doesn’t. But for many of us, grief is something else. Grief is resilience.” Profound and mark on!
Thompson met with George Bonanno, a grief researcher at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Bonanno, in his studies, has seemingly changed the science of grief research. He takes great issue with noted grief psychiatrists such as Erich Lindemann and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Bonanno maintains that both did faulty research and, unfortunately, explained grief for generations in completely the wrong way. Thompson writes that Bonanno believes that “Lindemann was wrong about repression, and Kübler-Ross was wrong about everything.”
Rather, Bonanno has found that grief is powerful, but it is often short-lived, and most of us are able to compartmentalize losses even if we are ashamed to feel all right “in the face of expectations that we should feel terrible.” We are, Bonanno maintains, born to grieve. Bonanno has written that grief need not be overwhelming or unending. Fact is, most of us are resilient. We are able to somehow regain our equilibrium even after a shock or being wounded by loss. We seem to be wired to accommodate losses relatively quickly in order to be able to further live productive lives.
Bonanno finds that 10% of people experience “chronic” pain – the kind that needs counseling. Another 30% of us plunge into deep sadness but gradually begin to recover. But between 50 and 60 percent of us quickly appear to be fine, despite some day-to-day fluctuations. These people seem to be able to push their emotions deep into their minds. Used to be, scientists and psychologists believed this to be a bad thing – these people might explode at any given moment in a burst of violent emotion.
Bonanno says, however, that this need not necessarily be the case. He claims that if a person says they are feeling fine, then the person is likely fine.
Bonanno, writing in one of his books, tells about Karen who lost her daughter Claire on one of the upper floors of the South Tower on September 11. Bonanno quotes Karen as saying, “There is always a little flicker there. It is a bit like the small glowing embers you see after a fire dies down. I carry that around with me, a little ember, and if I need to, if I want to have a Claire next to me, I blow on it, ever so gently, and it glows bright again.”
Perhaps grief is a normal part of life. Possibly we need to talk more about grief. But in the end, it is about how we deal with our loss, isn’t it? Does it consume us or do we, with a will to live, desire to continue on with embers in our hearts? We are able to function but whenever we need to pause and remember, we can blow on an ember and bring back our loss for a few moments.