The Secret Life of Grief

Bonanno's work, which has redefined the science of grief research, revealed that Freud was wrong about work, Lindemann was wrong about repression, and Kubler-Ross was wrong about everything. The deepest grief is powerful, but sometimes short-lived, and most of us are wired to compartmentalize our most heart-breaking tragedies, even if it makes us feel ashamed to feel all right in the face of expectations that we feel terrible.

We are, both tragically and indispensably, born to grieve. The Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has compared our brains to rudimentary emotional thermostats, working to hold a baseline in extreme conditions. Bliss and tragedy swirl around us, but fundamentally, we are hardwired to reset. As Bonanno wrote in his book, The Other Side of Sadness:

"The good news is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending. As frightening as the pain of loss can be, most of us are resilient. Some of us cope so effectively, in fact, we hardly seem to miss a beat in our day-to-day lives. We may be shocked, even wounded by a loss, but we still manage to regain our equilibrium and move on. That there is anguish and sadness during bereavement cannot be denied. But there is much more. Above all, it is a human experience. It is something we are wired for, and it is certainly not meant to overwhelm us. Rather, our reactions to grief seem designed to help us accept and accommodate losses relatively quickly so that we can continue to live productive lives."

One of the stickiest myths about loss is that it requires extensive processing– that, in a Puritan sense, short-term pain is long-term gain. To the contrary, Bonanno has found that those who seem to be "working" hardest with their grief often report the hardest coping—not only in the first weeks, but also in the first years. "The more people engaged in their most intense emotions, the longer they would be grieving," he said. In a revelation that surprised even him, “it was laughter and smiling that led to quicker recovering."

George Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness

Bonanno doesn't pretend that smiling is a magical elixir or that laughing will cure the hardest-suffering patients. Grief isn't a single track, he’s found, but a long private journey that splits along three rough paths. Ten percent of us experience "chronic" and relentless grief that demands counseling. Another third or so plunges into deep sadness and gradually begins recovery. But most of us—"between 50 and 60 percent," Bonanno said—quickly appear to be fine, despite day-to-day fluctuations. Scientists used to consider these patients tragic actors, shoving their feelings into the core of their bodies, where they would only explode with volcanic violence in dreadful ways later in life. But this, Bonanno says, might be the biggest myth of all. "If you think you're doing okay," he said, "then you're doing okay."

"I'd look to the ancient Asian cultures," he said, pouring me a tiny glass of green tea from a copper pot in his office. "They have the idea that the person isn't really gone, that the afterlife is porous, and that you can still have a relationship with that person."

Years after Bonanno’s father died, he was in China with his family, studying rituals of grief, where he took part in an ancient custom of burning paper offerings in a temple for an ancestor. Bonanno visited a store that sold paper shoes, paper houses, and even life-sized paper people. "It was incredibly cathartic," he said. "You spend a lot of time thinking about their life, what they were really like."

"What did you burn for your father?" I asked.

"Gold bullion," he said. "He was a working-class guy, didn't get much of an education, didn't like anything rococo. He was down to earth. I thought, with gold bullion, he could finally relax. 'Here's gold, Dad, do whatever you want with it!' It struck me as the right thing to do."

* * *

"Derek," my dad said toward the end dinner, "tell them about China!"

Food is my family's religion, and restaurants our sacred temples, so to celebrate what would have been my mom’s 64th birthday, our closest friends filled out the back room of a Spanish taperia in D.C. to toast her. This suggested story, however, was not an obvious way to celebrate her motherly qualities.

When I was 19, my mom, dad, and I went to China. Over the course of a few days in Beijing, the left side of my face stopped moving. I had contracted Bells Palsy, a temporary paralysis of the facial nerve. A hypochondriac, I was certain that I was dying. My mom, however, seemed to consider my broken face hysterical, lightly mocking my crooked smile in photographs in Shanghai, and laughing uproariously when wine dribbled from my slack mouth onto my pants in a five-star restaurant.

Weeks later, my face and dignity healed, I confronted her: Why had she taken such a cavalier approach to the sudden paralysis of her son’s face?

"I was worried," she replied, not sounding worried.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I asked.

She answered with a look—defensive, bemused, adoring. "I couldn't fix your face," she said with a laugh. "Why would I tell you how worried I really was, when all that would do is make you more worried?"

For the 16 months after her diagnosis, I returned the favor. We never spoke of the food she couldn't eat, the thick hair she couldn't grow back, or the weight she couldn't keep. Instead, riding home from New York once a month and bounding onto her bed, I'd serve a feast of happy stories harvested from a life spent trying not to worry. I cried often, but privately, in the stairway at work, on the train behind a pair of sunglasses, and in my apartment, indulging a memory behind a locked door. But I only lost it twice in front of her, both times trying to say the same thing: What makes me saddest isn't imagining all the things I’ll miss, but imagining all the things you’ll miss. The wedding dances, the wine-fueled parties, her birthday cards, each emblazoned with ludicrously incorrect ages. For Mom, who drew kinetic energy from every drip of living, as if by photosynthesis, and braved the winter of life with spring in her heart, smiling like a sweet little maniac all the way to the end, cancer was such cosmic robbery.

Two weeks ago, transcribing Bonnano's interview in a coffee shop in New York, I was typing this passage:

"In the Asian cultures, the idea is that the person isn't really gone. You honor them. You appease them. You can still make them happy, elsewhere."

Tears burned in the gutters as I reread those words. "You can still make them happy." It would be so nice to think so. But for those of us who cannot believe in God and afterlives, this is just one of the things you lose forever when you lose a person: the ability to make them happy.

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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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