How to Cope With Loss
Each of us has lost, or will lose, something dear. And the grief that follows doesn’t come with a road map. But it’s that unknown that can help see you through.
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 What Happens 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.”