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