My sister and I had considered ourselves best friends since we were children. As young women, we shared an ambition for more independent lives, to know the world beyond small-town Texas, and we were united in our determination to succeed. We were inseparable. So it was shattering when, about 15 years ago, our friendship suddenly dissolved. It was as deep a sadness as I had ever felt, made all the more difficult because I had no idea what had caused the breach. Family ties held―brief conversations at family gatherings―but the intimacy of friendship, the shared secrets and holidays, slipped away. Attempts to repair the estrangement only seemed to make it worse. It took years to give a name to the emotional response I felt over the loss. I recognized it when my mother died some years later: grief. Just as I grieved the loss of my mother, I had grieved the loss of my sister’s friendship.
Loss is as much a part of human existence as breathing. It is an everyday event: a lost wallet, earring, investment opportunity. In most cases, we ponder what might have happened, get a little agitated, then quickly move on. But then there are losses that can’t just be shrugged off―voids that trigger a powerful kind of emotional response, like the one I had over my sister. Chances are, you’ve felt like this, too, if your home was somehow destroyed, you lost a job or a beloved pet, or your marriage ended in divorce. Maybe your health was devastated by a chronic illness or you experienced the death of a loved one.
Whenever a loss suddenly and irrevocably changes the course of your life, breaking the line from the past you cherished to the future you counted on, the complex feelings of pain you experience can all be classified as grief. “The basic core of grief,” says Holly Prigerson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “is wanting what you can no longer have.” Yet grief is not a standard, one-size-fits-all response to life’s woes. Your reactions will probably differ with every loss you experience―sometimes unpredictably. (The death of a beloved pet, for example, might floor you more than the end of a marriage.) And how we each exhibit grief―emotionally, psychologically, physically―is as varied as our DNA. In fact, research overwhelmingly shows that there is no single, optimal way to grieve a loss, despite our ingrained expectations. Other findings are reassuring, too: The majority of us manage to heal, and many even find a positive outcome to our sadness. “Grief can be a bittersweet beauty,” says Robert A. Neimeyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Memphis. “It’s not something to be banished. It is a human experience to be lived, to be shared, and to be understood and used.”
Searching for Answers
Here’s what many of us assume grief to be: a sharp sense of sadness that diminishes in intensity as time passes. There should probably be crying. And the whole thing should probably fade almost entirely at some point, depending on the loss. (Maybe a month seems right to you for grieving a lost job; a bit longer for a pet or a home; perhaps a year for the death of someone close.) If we don’t display some sense of sadness, the thinking goes, we risk a full-blown grief response exploding upon us sometime down the road. When it plays out differently, we can compound our sadness by questioning our response: What does it say about a person if she doesn’t cry? Do moments of real joy in the face of loss mean repressed feelings? Has the distress gone on for too long?
Blame popular theories, at least in part, for the confusion. Since 1917, when Sigmund Freud published his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” clinicians have viewed grieving as a temporary―if painful―passage that could and should be navigated as quickly as possible. The goal was to put whatever you had lost behind you, break all bonds with it, and work through the grief until you had returned to some preloss equilibrium. “Old attachments had to be completely severed before you could invest energy in new relationships or activities,” says Camille B. Wortman, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, in New York.
More recent theories describe a series of stages you have to pass through when grieving a loss. The most prominent of these stage theories was defined by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her groundbreaking book On Death and Dying, first published in 1969. Although Kubler-Ross’s work describes the emotional responses of terminal patients to their imminent deaths, her theory has, over the years, come to be applied to grief that is the result of all kinds of loss. The first reaction is denial: “No, not me. This cannot be true. It must be a mistake.” From there, anger, often directed at everyone and everything around the person. Then bargaining: “If I make a real effort at reconciliation, I’ll get my marriage back.” Depression is next, as the reality of the loss settles in. And, finally, acceptance. To cope successfully with your grief, according to such theories, you must experience, resolve, and move through each of these stages in sequence. Only then have you fully “recovered.”
Today most experts have shifted away from the idea of a prescribed series of stages toward a view of grief as a transition that people manage in their own, individual ways and, for the most part, with relative ease. “Most people go back and forth from intense states of sadness―a powerful yearning for the thing lost―to stretches of feeling fine, but not necessarily in any kind of sequential order,” says George A. Bonanno, a professor of psychology at Columbia University. And it doesn’t happen within a prescribed time frame, despite what friends, relatives, and even therapists might suggest. It turns out that, for most of us, the grieving process occurs in fits and starts. And for an especially intense loss, like the death of a loved one, it can go on for much longer than might be expected. “It’s normal to have episodes of grief for years,” says Prigerson. “It can be 30 years later and you’ll still remember how sad you were when your mom died. That’s perfectly normal.”
It can be just as normal to feel little or no grief in the face of a great loss. In a study comparing bereaved people with a group who had not suffered a loss, Bonanno and his colleagues found that slightly more than half of the bereaved showed no more distress than did those who had not suffered a loss. Of the bereaved group, the overwhelming majority did not experience any spike in distress later on, which might have suggested a delayed response. The researchers concluded that a minimal display of grief is far more common than would be expected and that the predicted negative fallout (“If you bottle it up, it will explode on you later”) is almost nonexistent.
In fact, a large majority of people―85 percent, say some studies―deal with loss well. “What that means is you’re able to carry on with the two fundamental aspects of life: work and love,” Bonanno says. Most people can concentrate and focus sufficiently to carry out required tasks. They manage the duties of their jobs and can be close and available to loved ones. And despite their sadness, they have moments of happiness. (Those for whom grief is more debilitating may need clinical help; see When Loss Overwhelms for the signs.) Paradoxically, the capacity for positive emotions in the early aftermath of a loss predicts a better overall adjustment later on. “It’s how we’re able to manage the pain,” says Bonanno, “because it’s not constant―it comes and goes. We call that resilience. It doesn’t mean you don’t grieve. You just cope with it fairly well.”
Making Sense of Loss
How do we find reason in having something or someone we love taken away? The first impulse is to confront that most basic of human questions: Why me? Why did I lose my job while my colleague in the next office did not? Why was my house consumed in the fire but not my neighbor’s? But nailing down answers isn’t the only way to make sense of what you’re going through.
Rituals can help with the early, painful stages of loss. Funerals, memorial services, throwing a wake for an old job, and divorce parties all give us a structured opportunity to just “feel whatever we feel,” says Bonanno.
Talking about your experience can help you determine your path forward. When you experience a loss, it changes your life story. Characters or possessions are added or gone. Relationships shift. Daily routines are undone. Long-held roles are altered. Before a divorce, for instance, your life was structured around many identities, one of which was spouse. Now that part of your story has to be “rewritten,” preferably in a way that doesn’t obliterate the good memories or the continuing connections. By speaking about your loss―to family members, clergy, friends, even to yourself in a journal―you can reshape the narrative.
Loss can even be a catalyst for positive growth. Stephen R. Shuchter, a professor of clinical psychiatry, and Sidney Zisook, a professor of psychiatry, have studied hundreds of widows in ongoing research at the University of California, San Diego, and many of them have reported that their experience has changed them for the better: altering their priorities, enhancing their feelings of compassion for others, and boosting their sense of independence. Part of coping with loss is to incorporate the resultant life changes in ways that allow you to heal without forgetting. The important thing to remember, notes Alan D. Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, in Fort Collins, Colorado, is that “coping with loss is not about closure. Grief is a transformative life experience, not a rush to a resolution.”
I recently came across a photograph of my sister and me. We’re just kids, two towheaded, knobby-kneed tomboys side by side under a tree on a bright summer afternoon. I found myself smiling, drawn back into all the adventures shared by those two best friends. That’s when I knew grief had run its course. You mourn. You adapt. You remember. It’s called resilience.