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Challenging Historical Beliefs Regarding Grief

Did you ever find yourself smiling or laughing soon after the death of a loved one, and felt a sense of guilt about it? Or have you known someone who appeared to be functioning “normally” shortly after a significant loss, and felt concern that the person might be in an unhealthy state of denial of their grief?

These feelings are based on widely held historical beliefs that grief is a prolonged process of working through one’s feelings until a state of adaptation and acceptance is achieved. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, a few researchers began to closely examine the data behind these beliefs and found that there was very little scientific data about the subject of grief at all, much less evidence to support these beliefs.  Since then, ongoing research has challenged some of these ideas and created some controversy about how to view and interpret the grieving process.

An individual’s grief reaction will in part be influenced by the circumstances surrounding a death; such as the relationship to the deceased, the person’s previous experiences with death, one’s age and the age of the deceased, religious beliefs, and whether the death was sudden (perhaps due to an accident) or expected (such as if the individual had a chronic illness). Grief reactions will also vary widely among individuals and can include any number of emotions besides just sadness.

Over the course of many years of research, George Bonanno, professor of clinical psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University, has found that some people do experience prolonged periods of intense grief, while others grieve strongly at first and then their grief gradually lessens over time. He also discovered, however, that most people struggle for a shorter period of time, and then resume their usual daily routines, even though they may continue to feel the pain of loss. He uses the term “resilient” to describe this type of grief reaction, and suggests that human beings are “wired” to experience grief.  “Our reactions to grief seem designed to help us accept and accommodate losses relatively quickly, so that we can continue to live productive lives.”

During his research, Dr. Bonanno found that when grieving people allow themselves to naturally smile and laugh they experience quicker healing, while a focus on intense feelings of loss tends to lengthen the grieving process. He emphasizes that part of our “wiring” is that our emotional states can change relatively quickly, so episodes of sadness will occur and encourage us to look inward and reflect on a loss, but soon after we are able to focus outward again and not only continue to function, but genuinely experience positive emotions as well. These feelings will alternate back and forth, allowing us to process the loss while remaining connected to the world around us. Dr. Bonanno has found very little mention of positive emotions in historical literature about bereavement, which is perhaps why traditional views of the grief process evolved around an expectation of prolonged suffering.

Are there methods which can be used to help make people more resilient? Researchers are still working on this question. But there are three key components to grief which John Reese, a local retired human services professional, believes are essential to remember:

  • Do not let other people define what you should or should not feel after a loss.
  • As long as the way you grieve does not impair your ability to function, it’s okay.
  • As a friend of someone who is grieving, you need to meet them at the point of his/her experience.

Karen Kaslow, RN

Information about Dr. Bonanno’s work was taken from the transcript of an interview with Dr. Bonanno by clinical psychologist David Van Nuys, Ph.D. ( and a 2013 article in The Atlantic by Derek Thompson: The Secret Life of Grief.