The Secret Life of Grief

My mom’s cancer and the science of resilience
(Arkadiusz Benedykt/flickr)

Someone laughed. It might have been my sister, dad, grandmother, or one of the dozen friends and family members arrayed around that bed in my parents' room. Before we cried, said goodbye, and fanned out in separate cars to begin our private journeys of grief, something was said, at the moment she died, in a summer evening's half-light. And somebody laughed. Maybe it seems strange, but I like to remember it.

* * *

I come from a long line of mama's boys. My dad is a mama's boy, my uncle is a mama's boy, and my grandfather's mama's-boy-ness was practically clinical, according to family tradition. So, really, what choice did I have in the matter, born at the confluence of all this maternal devotion, except to be helplessly devoted to my mom? When I was a kid, I adored her in a way that made people with perfectly adequate mother-son bonds think, there is a boy who needs more friends in life.

Jewish mothers, however, will sooner cut off a pinky than apologize for cultivating religious devotion in their children. Realizing that she had invented a human who would believe everything she said, my mom lied to me constantly about her most mortal enemy: her age. Through her late 30s and into her early-40s, she told me she was 27. The years would climb; her age would not. I believed her, not only because I was a supremely gullible kid, but also because I preferred to think that she, too, was a kid, passing undetected through the land of adults. Even before I knew too much about death, I wanted her closer to me on this side of life.

One day, when I was 8, my younger sister Kira got the hunch that mom was making stuff up. Secretly digging through our mother's wallet, Kira found the incriminating ID and brought it to me.

"Mom is not 27," she said, displaying the evidence, radiating with a cruel glee. "She's 43!"

The words shattered my dumb little ears. I promptly burst into tears. 

The rest of the story is a memory of other people's memories, but according to the folklore, I ran downstairs and hid in the basement. My mom looked around the house until she discovered her distraught son, curled up in a ball, weeping. "I am so sorry I lied to you all this time,” she said, still lying, probably.

Through a staccato of tears, mucus, and traumatic convulsions, I mustered an explanation. "I'm not mad because you lied to me,” I said. “I'm mad because you're old."

* * *

Eulogies ought to begin with a laugh, I decided, so this is how my eulogy began: with the story of how I learned that parents grow up, too.

My mom died on July 18, 2013, of pancreatic cancer, a subtle blade that slips into the host so imperceptibly that by the time a presence is felt, it is almost always too late. Living about 16 months after her diagnosis, she was "lucky," at least by the new standards of the parallel universe of cancer world. We were all lucky and unlucky in this way. Having time to watch a loved one die is a gift that takes more than it gives.

Psychologists call this drawn out period "anticipatory grief." Anticipating a loved one's death is considered normal and healthy, but realistically, the only way to prepare for a death is to imagine it. I could not stop imagining it. I spent a year and a half writing my mother a goodbye letter in my head, where, in the private theater of my thoughts, she died a hundred times. In buses and movie theaters, on Connecticut Avenue and 5th Avenue, on crosswalks and sidewalks, on the DC metro and New York subway, I lost her, again and again. To suffer a loved one's long death is not to experience a single traumatic blow, but to suffer a thousand little deaths, tiny pinpricks, each a shot of grief you hope will inoculate against the real thing.

A boundless black terror is how I imagined life without my mom. The history of grief, or what we know of it, is written by its greatest sufferers and ransacked with horror stories, lugubrious poetry, and downward-spiraling memoirs plunged in sadness. For some people, the death of a loved one is truly life-stopping, and I worried it would stop mine.

Then, in the weeks after she died, something strange happened. I did not plunge. Life did not stop. Instead, I felt something so unspeakably strange, so blasphemous, that I wondered if I could talk or write about it, at all. I felt okay.

Even stranger, I discovered, is that I wasn't strange, at all. Despite the warnings that grief would drag me through the prescribed five stages and discard me in a darker place, bereavement researchers have recently learned that we've been wrong about loss for centuries. 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.

* * *

If George Bonanno's office were discovered underground by a group of archaeologists, they would think they'd found a tomb. Volumes about death and mourning fill the wall-sized bookcase. Terra cotta figurines, excavated from Chinese burial sites, line the shelves, facing inward. At the center of the room, there is a full-size standing skeleton.

One afternoon in October, I visited Bonanno, perhaps the most renowned grief researcher in the United States, at Teachers College, Columbia University, to talk about his research. His lab might be trailblazing, but the mission is classically conservative. By studying grief like any other psychological condition, he has exposed the history of bereavement research to be a thread of fables.

For centuries, grief has lived a secret life, hiding in plain view, even from our experts. Sigmund Freud coined the phrase "the work of grief," and ever since, there has lingered an idea that mourning is homework to do before we move on. The first systemic study of grief in the United States, by the Harvard psychiatrist Erich Lindemann, in 1942, described a horror show, marked by restlessness, hostility, hallucinations, and an overwhelming preoccupation with the dead. Lindemann had gathered a group of bereaved people—many of whom had lost friends in a recent night-club fire—and recorded his observations, motivated by the conviction that traumatic loss was a medical problem. Grievers who seemed normal in the weeks after, he claimed, were victims of dangerous repression. 

Twenty years later, in the 1960s, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of loss would tattoo themselves onto the collective conscious of Americans. Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-born psychiatrist, interviewed patients at a Chicago hospital about the experience of dying. She devised a theory of five periods, from anger to acceptance, with each stage serving an essential part in the mourning process. Her book, On Death and Dying, became a national bestseller, but it wasn't just a mess of shoddy science. It was shoddy science based on people who were dying, not people who were grieving. 

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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