What drives these people forward? What holds the others back? And why do some mourners recover from grief quickly—much more quickly—than others? Psychologists who study these questions note that there is no single factor that predicts who copes well and who does not. Many variables, from your personality to your social world to your levels of stress before the loss, play distinct roles.
A new study, though, hints at an answer. There is a specific way many people can, no matter what their circumstances may be, transcend despair and distress.
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Researchers Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School wanted to know how people cope with extreme loss. In the study, published in February in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they found that some mourners are more emotionally resilient than others, and those who overcome their grief more quickly all have something very important in common. Following the loss, they performed what the researchers refer to as “rituals” in the study. But these were not your typical rituals.
When many people think of mourning rituals, they think of public displays of bereavement such as funerals, wearing black for a certain period of time, or religious customs like “sitting shiva” in Judaism (a period of seven days when the bereaved are visited by guests). Though the substance of these rituals may vary—Catholic Latinos view crying as a sign of respect at funerals while Tibetan Buddhists see it as a disruption—public mourning rituals occur across nearly all cultures.
Norton, the lead author of the study, first became interested in this line of research after reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. The book details the public mourning rituals, often tied to clothing, of Confederate widows during the Civil War.
“Reading it, I thought maybe there is something here,” he told me, “that helps them cope in a meaningful way.”
To determine what that “something” was, Norton and Gino asked 76 research participantsin their first study to write about a significant loss they experienced, like the end of a relationship or the death of someone they love. They also asked the participants to explain how they coped with the loss and to describe any rituals they did.
The researchers were surprised by the results. Many of the rituals reported were not the public ones that inspired Norton. Rather, they were private rituals. Only 15 percent of the described rituals had a social element (and just 5 percent were religious). By far, most of the rituals people did were personal and performed alone.
For example, one person, following a breakup, performed this ritual: “I returned alone to the location of the breakup each month on the anniversary of the breakup to help cope with my loss and think things over.” Another person gathered all of the pictures they took as a couple during their relationship and “then destroyed them into small pieces (even the ones I really liked!), and then burnt them in the park where we first kissed.”