New Ways to Think About Grief

As the nation mourns those killed in Tucson, a new look at the science of loss shows we're more resilient than we thought

  • Eric Thayer / Reuters

    A candlelight vigil outside a hospital in Tucson. New research on grief offers fresh insights into how we cope with loss.

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    It's hard to say whether Silverman's analysis was colored by gender stereotypes popular in psychology at the time or whether it was swayed by her method of recruiting study participants. Most of the women who responded to her widow-to-widow outreach program were full-time homemakers when their husbands died. (Many of them did not even know how to drive.) It was the women who declined help from Silverman's outreach program — and therefore never became part of her study — who had worked outside the home before their husbands' death and continued to work. Of them, Silverman noted, they were "correct in their appraisal" that they didn't need help when it was offered, although that assessment did not change her final conclusion that widowhood universally does major and long-lasting damage to women.

    The gender beliefs of the people who write about and attempt to help others cope with loss have surely contributed to this misconception. According to a survey sent to counselors who had been certified by the Association for Death Education and Counseling, female grief counselors are more likely than male counselors to believe that there are sex differences in bereavement and that women need more time to work through their grief. Women are also more likely to become grief counselors in the first place.

    In 2001, the Stroebes examined all studies that had attempted to measure who suffers more, men or women. To be included, the studies had to meet one of two conditions: widows and widowers had to be compared with a control group of married men and women, or they had to have been evaluated before the loss of their spouse to establish a baseline of their mental health. As the Stroebes pointed out, mental distress is not unique to grief alone, and women suffer higher rates of depression in general, regardless of whether they've lost a husband or not. The resulting analysis came to a surprising conclusion: relatively speaking, men suffer more from being bereaved. Yes, widows measured higher on depression scores than widowers, but not once women's prebereavement or control-group depression levels were factored in.

    Myth No. 4 : Grief Never Ends

    Our grief culture asserts that it's perfectly normal to get mired for a long time in a state of despair after losing a loved one. Although Kübler-Ross implied an end point by identifying acceptance as the fifth and final stage, she also concluded that "the reality is that you will grieve forever."

    In fact, researchers have now identified specific patterns to grief's intensity and duration. And what they have found is that the worst of grief is usually over within about six months. In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2002, Bonanno tracked 205 elderly people whose spouses died, and the largest group — about 45% of the participants — showed no signs of shock, despair, anxiety or intrusive thoughts six months after their loss. Subjects were also screened for classic symptoms of depression, such as lethargy, sleeplessness, joylessness and appetite problems, and came up clean on those as well. That didn't mean they didn't still miss or think about their spouse, but by about half a year after their husband or wife died, they had returned to normal functioning. (So much for the often repeated saying that "the second year is harder than the first.")

    Only about 15% of the participants in Bonanno's study were still having problems at 18 months. This small minority might be suffering from a syndrome clinicians are starting to call Prolonged Grief Disorder. Most people respond to loss with resilience, which is often mischaracterized as pathological or delayed grief. Or, to borrow Bonanno's paraphrasing, "If you're resilient after a horrible accident or a traumatic event, then you're a hero, but if you're resilient after a death, then you're considered cold." Knowing that this was a common conclusion, he asked the subjects in his 2002 study about the quality of their marriages and found no significant differences between those who recovered quickly and those who took much longer. Nor were the resilient grievers found to be more aloof or distant when interacting with others. As for the possibility that they were repressing their grief, Bonanno followed the group for up to four years (some participants dropped out) to see if people who initially showed lower distress levels had delayed reactions. None of them did.

    It's hard to tell what makes people resilient. "Personality probably predicts only about 10% of resilience," says Bonanno. "Having money helps, having social support helps, having minimal sources of other stress helps, but no one thing is a big predictor." What we do know is that while loss is forever, acute grief is not.

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