The new science of bereavement.

03 May

Today marks the two-month anniversary of Julian’s death. It feels like a lifetime ago. That was the end of “old normal.” That was when my life changed forever. 

The first month was mostly numbness, shock, and deep grieving. The second month was about grieving too… but also seeking, learning, discovering. I’m a different person today than I was two months ago.

As I think back on this second month, I can appreciate how hard I’ve worked to learn about grief and to find meaning in this experience. Long talks with my mom, my friends, and my therapist has helped me honor Julian’s memory and appreciate the time I had with him. Writing this blog has helped me process my thoughts, and really understand how I feel. It hasn’t been easy to take this aggressive approach to my “grief work,” but I’ve been trusting my instincts and working through the grief.

Ironically, my challenge now is that my progress makes some people suspicious and uncomfortable. I don’t fit the picture of what a bereaved parent is supposed to look like. There are people in my life who are concerned that I’m not grieving enough.

These people, and so-called “grief experts” that have written the books I read, seem to discourage my pursuit of happiness. Comments that seem supportive on the surface, such as “You’re so STRONG,” seem to be laced with judgment. I’m warned that what I perceive as progress is probably denial. I’m accused of not “feeling my feelings.” Some comments even suggest that the amount of my suffering is proportional to my love for the one I lost — in other words, less-than-average suffering must mean less-than-average love.

The latter example is easy to ignore, because I have no doubts about the love I had, and will *always* have, for Julian. But what about denial? Is it possible that I’m not really feeling my feelings? Is it possible that any day now, I’m going to suddenly curl up in the fetal position with some new understanding of what has happened?

Despite my confidence in my process and my “grief work,” I started to get paranoid. So I obsessively began buying books, hoping that I’d finally come across something that would make me feel less unusual. Less odd. Less suspicious.

Do a search for “grief” on and you’ll get over 19,000 results. So far, I’ve read about a dozen of them. Topics have covered loss of a child, grief in general, life after death, and science. And it’s the last category — science — that gave me what I was looking for. Rather, a good friend gave me the book I was looking for: “The Other Side of Sadness” by George A. Bonanno. The subtitle is, “What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.”

This “new science of bereavement” changed everything.

This book explained why so many other books haven’t been helpful to me:

There is no shortage of books on grief and bereavement. Most take a surprisingly narrow perspective, avoiding the bigger questions. One reason is that many of the books on grief are written by medical practitioners or therapists. This is not surprising, but it does create a bit of a problem when we try to understand grief in broader terms. Grief therapists are apt to see only those bereaved people whose lives have already been consumed by suffering, people for whom professional help is the only chance of survival. These human dramas may be compelling, but they do not tell us much about what grief is like for most people.

This book confirmed that there are other people like me who have had the same frustration:

Many who volunteer for our studies make the point that they tried to read up on bereavement. They quickly add, however, that they couldn’t seem to find anything in their reading that matched their own experience.

This book validated that it is not uncommon for people around me to have the reactions that I’ve experienced:

Inherent in [books and journals on bereavement] is also the assumption that grief is more or less the same for everybody and that there is something wrong when people overcome their grief quickly or when they appear to have skipped some of the “stages” of mourning. Armed with these ideas it is easy to become suspicious when a bereaved person seems too happy or at ease. “Is this some sort of denial?” we may wonder. Or worse, maybe the person never really cared about the loved one in the first place? Or maybe, without help to get in touch with the grief, she or he will suffer some sort of delayed reaction years from now.

This book chased away my paranoia that those people might be right:

Remarkably, though, after many years of studying bereavement, I’ve found no evidence to support any of these ideas. A good deal of what my colleagues and I have found, in fact, suggest a completely different picture of grieving…. 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. Resilience doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone fully resolves a loss, or finds a state of “closure.” Even the most resilient seem to hold onto at least a bit of wistful sadness. But we are able to keep on living our lives and loving those still present around us.

The book — and the years of scientific data it is based on — supports me in my aggressive pursuit of happiness and joy:

Bereaved people are able to have genuinely pleasurable experiences, to laugh or indulge in moments of joy, even in the earliest days and weeks after loss. Most of the early literature about bereavement tended to gloss over these kinds of positive experience, which were often dismissed as examples of avoidance or denial. My research has suggested the opposite. Not only are positive experiences common, but they also tend to have an affirmative impact on other people and may actually help the bereaved recover more quickly after the loss.


I’m not unique. I’m not odd. I’m not likely to slip into denial that hasn’t shown up yet. I definitely have many moments (… or hours… or days) of “wistful sadness.” I don’t blog much about my sadness, but it’s a welcome emotion for me. I recognize it as an important part of “feeling my feelings.” But ultimately I’m sad, not destroyed. In fact, each week that goes by brings me a little more appreciation for life.

I’ve completed the first two months of the “after.” I’m two months into the creation of my “new normal.” And I found powerful relief and comfort in the new science of bereavement. It showed me my truth: I’m not in denial, I am RESILIENT.

p.s. All of the quotes in this post are from the first chapter of the book. You can expect more posts about the specific insights that I learned throughout the book, and how they impacted me.
I’d love to know who visits my blog, and I’d especially like to know if you have any thoughts or comments about it. If you’d like to post a comment or just let me know you were here, click the “Comment” link below.


Posted by on May 3, 2011 in month 2


7 responses to “The new science of bereavement.

  1. Gina Benson

    May 4, 2011 at 1:03 am

    You have a lifetime to morn your loss. COngrats on desiring happiness. Life is a gift, to find happiness in it despite what you have gone through is true appreciation.

    I am a mother of 6 (four males teens). When I find life and my kids frustrating, I think of people like you who have so much more of a burden and are so strong. It makes me laugh with my kids more because I realise how little some things really matter.

    Continue your pursuit of happiness….and don’t let anyone fill you with doubts of how you feel.

  2. Jeri Dansky

    May 4, 2011 at 1:32 am

    I’m so very sorry for your loss, and I wish you continued success in your pursuit of a new normal. Thank you for sharing your process with us in this amazing blog.

    And thank you for the book pointer; that’s definitely one I’ll be reading. I’ve observed others who seem to have this same resilience in the face of loss, and it’s nice to have some evidence that this is perfectly normal.

    And finally, thank you for sharing the part about “wistful sadness.” My mom died almost four years ago now, and moments of “wistful sadness” are exactly what I feel. It’s nice to have those words to describe the feeling.

  3. Leanne (Trebilcock) Avila

    May 4, 2011 at 10:20 am

    I’ve been wondering about this very thing (others making you feel you aren’t grieving enough — as if there is a certain path/timeframe you must follow when grieving and deviations aren’t allowed) and hoping that it wouldn’t happen to you.

    Clearly you are working through your grief. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be writing this blog, reading those books, figuring out for yourself what you need and what happens next. Because that’s the thing… there is always “what’s next.” And you can’t move forward if you are stuck living in your grief. I’m glad you found some reassurance that you are not alone in these feelings.

    Continue doing what you need to do. For yourself.

  4. Darlene J Lund and Tom

    May 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm

    Emily, Leave most of those books behind…they are not for you. You have a perception of life that is equal to accepting gladness and sorrow as one of human rights. We know that Jesus wept, and was over come with grief…we know that he has our backs. When things get a little overwhelming, or out of focus, remember that Jesus cares, he calls to talk to you, to respond to you in a human way, a way that will build you up. With Love, Darlene

  5. Anonymous

    March 29, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    Hi there, I lost my husband just over three weeks ago. He was diganosed with cancer about a year before that. My own reaction to my bereavement is extraordinary, and funnily enough I also found something by Bonnano and really identified with it. John was terribly ill towards the end and suffered, the last months and especially the last days were terrible, a nightmare. The two or three days following his death also. Within days I recovered, I have actually been happy, sometimes incredibly happy. Just seeing the blue sky makes me happy. I loved my husband and could not bear the thought of loosing him and this is very puzzling. The amazing support from those around me and the wonderful (yes wonderful) funeral which celebrated his life and made me so proud of him helped. I look at his picture now and I smile, with love – I might feel a little sad, but mostly I feel the warmth of love. I feel like I am living in another space to other people and am just hoping my world doesn’t come crashing down around me.


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