Grieving and Resilience

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about a book by a Columbia psychology professor, George Bonnano, called The Other Side of Sadness (2009).  This book received many endorsements from the academic community claiming revolutionary thinking about how the bereaved experience and adapt to the loss of a loved one.  His main point is that the majority of those who grieve are able to handle their loss on their own, without professional counseling, because human beings are “naturally resilient.”

“The good news,” he writes, “is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending.”  Since [loss] “is a human experience… we are wired for it.”  Positive experiences can have an “affirmative impact not only on other people and may actually help the bereaved recover more quickly after the loss.”

As a therapist with many years of experience specializing in helping the bereaved, I found his findings and conclusions simplistic and unenlightening.  I have counseling many people through loss of their loved one – widows and widowers, parents and children, siblings, lovers, and friends.  How each person handles their loss is unique –in terms of the relationship they had with their loved one, the circumstances of their death, and the time it takes to recover.

What is more important to me is what the bereaved do with their grief. We acknowledge that losing a loved one changes most of us.  Our lives can never be the same.  We have to “relearn the world” (Attig, 1998).  In my book, The Five Ways We Grieve, (just released in its second edition in paperback), I asked questions based on my own experience of losing my parents at an early age:

  • How does the loss of a loved one transform those left behind?
  • How do they honor their loved ones?
  • How do they stay connected through memories, activism, or spiritual beliefs?
  • What happens to those who have not resolved their grief?

The majority of those I interviewed demonstrate how resilient survivors act – how they make meaning of their loss in ways that provide them with more empathy, more appreciation for life, and often a new sense of purpose.

I have learned much from academic research such as Professor Bonnano’s.  But as a clinician, I believe that my clients are the best teachers.

Susan Berger 2011

Susan Berger

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Susan A. Berger, LICSW, Ed.D. has extensive experience counseling individuals confronting the death of loved ones and other life changes. Drawing on research results and anecdotes gathered from the bereaved over the past ten years, Berger examined how a person’s worldview is affected by major loss. She wrote her book, The Five Ways We Grieve, finding your path to healing after the loss of a loved one, (Trumpeter Books, 2009) to assist professionals, and survivors and the general public understand the lifelong impact of loss on the bereaved. She founded The Center for Loss, Bereavement, and Healing in Framingham, MA, a clinical practice, helping individuals, couples and families cope with life stresses. She also provides workshops on her unique approach to lifelong grieving to professionals, such as physicians, psychologists, social workers, nurses and hospices, as well as presentations to community groups. She has published articles in professional and trade publications, as well as many media, including The Washington Post on mental health, substance abuse, health and human resources topics. She has also been cited nationally in numerous print and broadcast media, and has spoken at many conferences and workshops throughout the country. Previous experience includes academic appointments at Emmanuel College, Northeastern University, Merrimack College, and MassBay Community College. Dr. Berger earned her Doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as well as a Master’s degree in Social Work and a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy from Boston University. To enhance her expertise in the area of loss and bereavement, she earned a Certificate in Thanatology (Death, Dying & Bereavement) from the National Center for Death Education at Mt. Ida College in Newton, MA. Dr. Berger has volunteered as a hospice volunteer working with the dying and bereaved families. She is herself the survivor of early parental loss.

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  • Geraldine Salvatorelli says:

    I look forward to reading your book. My mother died in a head-on collision in 1980. I began to write memoir. I’m comfortable with sadness but have a terrific sense of humor as well. I stopped writing when my father reached 85 (he’s 93 now and just entered a nursing home in January) and I began the period known as “watchful waiting.” I did my job so well, I saved his life. Now my stories are focused around that period and the events that constitute watchful waiting. I was fascinated to learn from the NCAA (Natl Caregiver’s Assn.) website that the depression I’m experiencing can be categorized as grief. I have been loosing my father in stages. And I have not been able to let go of my stories. Even with agents interested. More grief. Recently I learned one reason for that could be that I want the stories to change the past. I heard some truth there. I’m almost ready. http://www.Geraldeena.com

  • Deb Kosmer says:

    Excellent article. My experience mirrors yours. I have worked in bereavement and social work for ten years and seen the benefit people recieve. Your last statement that it is the clients who are the best teachers is so very true. debrakosmer@gmail.com