The Secret Life of Grief

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. 

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."

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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."

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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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