Resilience in Coping with Death


Writing in the New York Times, Abigail Zuger, M.D., reviews The Other Side of Sadness, by Georege Bonanno, a new book on grieving that breaks the stereotypes of the grieving process suggesting that resilience is the most common and effective process:

Orthodox psychology has long emphasized the grim slog in store for those who must live without the people they cannot live without. Freud called it “grief work,” a process of painfully severing the emotional ties to the deceased. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross mapped out five morose stages of effective grieving.

But if you actually talk to the bereaved, says George A. Bonanno, you find these classic perspectives are pure — well, Dr. Bonanno doesn’t actually say baloney, but so he implies in his fascinating and readable overview of what he calls “the science of bereavement.”

Just as meticulous observation and experiment transformed astronomy from a compendium of mythology and wishful thinking into a coherent science, the same tools are changing the psychology of loss.

A professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, Dr. Bonanno has now interviewed hundreds of bereaved people, following some for years before and after the fact, looking for patterns.

His conclusion: the bereaved are far more resilient than anyone — including Freud, and the bereaved themselves — would ever have imagined.

h/t to Scott Gunn on Twitter

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I've read earlier articles on this book and on Dr. Bonanno's research. You can read an interview with him at He has a blog at the web site of Psychology Today, and you can read his post on this at

That said, I'm just not that impressed. For one thing, many of us in pastoral care have known that talking about stages is a construct, and not a plan - that is, we've known and written for some time that grief can't be programmed, and that some folks cope better and resolve faster than others. Indeed, several of the pamphlets published as CareNotes from Abbey Press address this (for example "Be Gentle To Yourself While Grieving"). My response to this has been, "Yes. And?"

There are two audiences that might benefit from this. There are indeed clinicians who are themselves convinced that Kubler-Ross's construct is in fact a program and progression, and won't listen to contrary experience from us because we're us, chaplains. There are also family members who do worry about whether another is "grieving enough." I don't know that they're as large a part of the population as Dr. Bonanno things, but they're out there, and they are indeed a drain on grieving individuals. (It might be interesting to study that group themselves, as I suspect they're avoiding their own grief by worrying about the grieving styles of others.)

I haven't read the book yet, and I want to see the data, especially the selection criteria for subjects. I would also like to look at his bibliography. I fear we would find nothing from the pastoral care literature in it. In the meantime, if it helps some folks, well and good; but I can't really get excited about it.

Marshall Scott

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