Another myth about grief is that it’ll destroy us. People tend to bounce back after loss much faster than we previously thought. For instance, according to Bonanno’s research, for most people, intense grief (with symptoms such as depression, anxiety, shock and intrusive thoughts) seems to subside by six months.
As Konigsberg wrote in her book, other studies have found that these symptoms dissipate but “people still continue to think about and miss their loved ones for decades. Loss is forever, but acute grief is not…”
Resilience used to be viewed as either pathological or rare, reserved for only particularly healthy people, Bonanno writes in a 2004 article in the American Psychologist (you can access the full-text here). He wrote: “Resilience to the unsettling effects of interpersonal loss is not rare but relatively common, does not appear to indicate pathology but rather healthy adjustment, and does not lead to delayed grief reactions.”
There’s “no prescription or rulebook” for coping, Zucker said. There are lots of different ways to cope with grief, Bonanno said. And sometimes, coping is simply a matter of getting it done — what Bonanno calls “coping ugly.” He said that “anything short of harming yourself is probably OK if you’re struggling.”
For instance, in his research, he found that self-serving biases — taking credit for successes but not taking responsibility for failures — are helpful when dealing with loss. People may find benefits in the loss, such as “I am just thankful that I had the chance to at least say good-bye” or “I never knew that I could be so strong on my own,” Bonanno writes in his book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.
What’s effective really depends on what feels right to you. Bonanno hated the funeral ceremony for his dad. “It was making me miserable,” he said. So he went to another room and sat by himself and started rocking back and forth, humming a bluesy tune. Someone came in, he recalled, and said “I’m worried about you.” Bonanno was taken aback by the person’s reaction because this made him feel much better. After 9/11, Bonanno sought out comedy films to get his mind off of the tragedy. A German magazine that had written an article about Bonanno thought this was odd, he said.
Identifying your thoughts and feelings, expressing them in some way and perhaps sharing the process with someone you trust can be helpful, Zucker said. One way to cope, he said, is through journaling and processing what you’ve been feeling, thinking and doing. You also might talk with a loved one, or express your grief through physical activity or art. He noted that identifying, expressing and sharing can help individuals who’re experiencing the “second storm.”
People also can benefit from considering how they’ve grappled with tough times in the past, Zucker said. If you’re struggling with anxiety, what has helped you before? You may turn to new tools, such as meditation, physical activity or deep breathing.
Counseling can help, as well. However, research shows that “only people who are doing poorly [with grief] should get treatment,” Bonanno said. (Some studies have suggested that for people experiencing normal bereavement, therapy can make them feel worse.) A small percentage — about 15 percent — of people do experience complicated grief, an extreme form of grieving. Therapy is “most efficacious for people who are having serious problems,” he said. “The more effective treatments have focused on getting people back into their life and moving forward,” he added.
All experts recommend reaching out to loved ones and getting support. Some people may feel isolated and believe others don’t understand what they’re going through, Lloyd said. So support groups may also be helpful. For instance, Lloyd leads a support group a few days before Valentine’s Day.
How many times have you heard someone incredulously say something along the lines of, “Oh, her husband died just six months ago, and she’s already started dating; how could she do such a thing?” or the reverse, “It’s been six months, you should be over this already.” Accept people [and yourself] where they are,” without judgment, Lloyd said.
Again, as mentioned above, positive emotions are protective. There’s been much research to show that positive emotions and laughter are tremendously helpful when coping with loss.
Ultimately, remember that people are resilient and you have to find what works for you. Still, if you’re really struggling with grief, seek therapy.
Photo by “procrastination,” available under a Creative Commons attributive license.