Kathryn Britton, MAPP '06, former software engineer, is a coach working with professionals to increase well-being, energy, and meaning in their work lives (Theano Coaching LLC). She is also a writing coach, facilitator of writing workshops, and teacher of positive workplace concepts at the University of Maryland. Her own books include Smarts and Stamina on using positive psychology principles to build strong health habits and Character Strengths Matter: How to Live a Full Life. Full bio. Kathryn's articles are here.
Editor’s Note: Memorial Day weekend is coming up. In the United States, Memorial Day is officially a day for honoring military who lost their lives in active service. But over time, it has become a day for remembering all deceased relatives and friends, whether in the military or not. Today’s article honors Memorial Day by exploring the human experience of grief and mourning. It will be followed on Memorial Day itself with an article about post-traumatic growth that may occur after losing a loved one.
Last year, I wrote about the sudden loss of a friend in a car accident and what I learned about helping the family. Earlier this month, my daughter suffered a similar loss of a very close friend. Let me call him M. She’s known M for more than half of her life. They never lived in the same city, but they visited each other often and had frequent two-hour phone calls in which they talked about everything — they used to call them “phone dates,” even though they were never romantically attached. M came to her high school graduation, so the rest of us had a chance to get to know him. He was a lovely man. There is a rent in the fabric of my life as well as in hers.
I wonder if I’m right that grief tends to be cumulative. It seems that mourning for M brings my grief for my lost friend back to the surface. But it’s not continuous. My daughter worried about whether there was something the matter with her, that she didn’t feel continuously sad, that she could laugh not just about funny memories of M, but also about other things going on in her life. I’m glad I’d read George Bonanno’s book, The Other Side of Sadness, because it reshaped my thoughts about how mourning happens.
Kiss Goodbye to Two Common Ideas
- That grief is necessarily hard and time-consuming work that must be done thoroughly or people will be haunted later by delayed grief. We owe this idea to Freud and his psychoanalytic descendants. According to Bonanno, “The newer studies that looked into the question of delayed grief, using reliable and valid measurements, found absolutely no support for its existence.” So if you are adjusting to a loss, don’t worry that you are leaving something important undone. Bonanno says that people who appear well-adjusted soon after a loss are almost always healthy years later.
- That we all need to go through the same stages of grief in the same order. This one we owe to Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who extrapolated from her work with people facing their own deaths. She concluded that there are five distinct stages of bereavement (which I won’t name here, since we are kissing the model goodbye), that each stage was an essential part of mourning, and that people need to work through the issues of each stage before moving on to the next.
I got a text message last year from the daughter of my friend wondering whether people HAVE to go through an anger stage. She wasn’t, and she wondered what it meant. Should she try to feel angry?
There is little in the way of empirical evidence to support the idea of stages of mourning, and there’s really no reason to suppose that people face the loss of other people the same way they face the loss of their own lives. Even worse, the model leads to fairly rigid ideas about how one ought to mourn. If people don’t go through certain stages, they wonder if they’re doing it wrong. Other people may wonder about mourners and view them with suspicion or assume that they are avoiding work that needs to be done.
Isn’t it amazing how firmly entrenched these ideas are in the way we talk about loss? One of the things I like about modern psychology is that it investigates common ideas to help us figure out whether they are common wisdom or common mistakes.
Bonanno describes mourning as an oscillation between sadness and other emotions, often positive ones including love, humor, curiosity, and awe. That’s my experience. I think of the sadness of grief as waves that rise, crest, and then roll away, sometimes at surprising times and with huge intensity. But in between, I have done a lot of laughing, telling stories, and remembering the quirky marvelous things about the person that is gone.
Emotions, both sad and happy, tend to be very short term. But people have the perception as they experience sadness that it will go on forever.
What’s the evolutionary utility of sadness? Sadness comes following a loss that we can do nothing about. Sadness turns us inward, slows things down, and gives us a chance to adjust to the new state of the world without the loved one in it. In studies where people are made intentionally sad, they tend to be more accurate about themselves, their abilities, and their performance, and they tend to view others more thoughtfully and with fewer biases. Sadness may feel like living in slow motion.
When we are lost in reflections about what we no longer have, we may forget to take care of ourselves. It may just seem like too much trouble. Dacher Keltner and Bonanno both point out that sadness makes us look sad, which stimulates the people around us to take care of us.
What About Positive Emotions?
But it’s not just sadness. We have positive emotions as well. We laugh at stories about goofy things our loved ones did, we remember them with love, we discuss their positive qualities with awe, we have new experiences with other mourners that bring positive emotions. People used to think that positive emotions in the face of grief were a sign of denial (one of those Kübler-Ross stages). In their bereavement research, Bonanno and Keltner found that the more people laughed and smiled during the months after losing a spouse, the better their mental health evaluations over two years of bereavement.
Perhaps it’s like coming up for air. Perhaps, also, it lightens the atmosphere around them making it easier for other people to stay by them. So perhaps positive emotions help keep their social connections with others going. As a friend of a bereaved spouse and bereaved parents, I certainly want them to have all the sad time they need. But I also find it a relief when we can laugh together.
So instead of five solid stages, think of grief as an oscillation between sadness and other emotions, often positive. The oscillation can occur frequently over the course of a day. The sadness lets us adjust to the loss. The other emotions allow us to engage with the world around us.
Bonanno found that there is no single pattern that explains why some people are resilient in the face of loss and others aren’t. He did observe two things:
- People tend to idealize the lost one. That’s understandable: gifts tend to loom larger when we know we can’t have them.
- Resilient people tend to get comfort by remembering. When they can think and talk about the relationship, they realize they haven’t lost everything – the memories abide. Perhaps that’s why so many customs involve collecting cues – pictures, stories, eulogies – to keep memories of the lost person vivid.
My first thought about the loss of M was that a hole had been torn in the human fabric now that this bright, warm, gentle person no longer exists. But there’s also a reweaving that goes on. Friends came to the Memorial Service that hadn’t seen the family for 10 years. My daughter was feeling the loss of her phone dates with M when another friend offered to keep such calls going. Will it be the same? No. But perhaps there will be a new relationship that will enrich both their lives. Besides, they will be able to help each other keep reigniting the memories of M.
Bonanno, G. (2010). The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. Basic Books.
Keltner, D. & Kring, A. M. (1998). Emotion, Social Function, and Psychopathology. Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 320-342.
George Bonanno on the value of grief and grieving