I'm loving the outstanding new book by George A Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us about Life after Loss. It's an eye-opening review of recent research on how people differ in their responses to loss, and how many of things we believe to be true simply have no evidence to back them up.
For people in the grief support field Bonanno's book is a real page-turner. Bonanno is a clinical psychologist and professor at Columbia University. Despite his fancy academic credentials, he's a very good writer (at least I assume he is -- there is no indication on the book that a ghost writer was used). The book is free of the turgid prose usually found in scholarly psychological journals. He successfully condenses the sometimes complex evidence base in a crisp, straightforward way. For those who want to know more, citations to the academic literature will help you track down the primary research. Most of the research in the book is well-known to grief professionals, but most of it will be new to the average non-professional. So the book serves as a good popular introduction to issues that the professionals have been discussing and arguing about for some time.
Everybody "knows" that grief is a five-stage process, right? Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance, yada, yada. But wait! Bonanno says that this model, widely popularized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, "does not, in fact, represent what the majority of us go through when we lose a loved one." In particular, the model does not give much credit to the human capacity for "resilience". Into every life a little rain must fall. Most of us take a licking and keep on ticking, even without professional help. In the past few years the role of this capacity for resilience has been hotly debated. Bonanno's book is a readable and well-documented review of the controversies. He gives center stage to studies showing that most folks are not particularly emotionally fragile. In fact, they are tougher than we give them credit for.
But this ability to bounce back from a loss doesn't work for everyone, all the time. About 10 to 15 percent of people who experience a serious loss can experience clinical depression or other long-lasting emotional problems as a result of it. That group of seriously troubled people may get the most benefit from professional support. The rest of us generally do just fine if left to our ourselves, with support from our friends and family. Instead of reflexively considering every loss as a treatable medical condition, it makes more sense to provide assessment services to help identify when things are getting out of hand, offering supportive services when the road is unusually rocky.
Bonanno isn't just a heartless guy who tells his clients, "Sorry for your loss, get over it." He has a compassionate tone that shows great perceptiveness to the range of emotions during periods of loss. His final chapter, titled "Thriving in the Face of Adversity", recognizes the universal nature of the human condition and gives hope by saying that "We dread these events, but when they happen we have no choice but to deal with them as best we can. Fortunately, most of us deal with them remarkably well." Other chapters deal with special issues in loss, such as trauma counseling and cultural variations in grief.
There is one portion of the book that doesn't quite live up to its billing as an authoritative summary of current research. That's in his reporting of research on the question of possible harmful effects of grief counseling. Is going to a grief counselor dangerous to your mental health? The flap is about “TIDE” (no, not the laundry product). In this context TIDE refers to treatment-induced deterioration effects. In other words, does seeing a grief therapist make things worse? I've written about this question before. (See: "Grief Counseling Not Bad For You, Experts Say") That piece focused on a particularly dubious study that Bonanno chooses to rely on for some of his conclusions. This particular study has been blasted by psychologist Dale Larson in a blog piece titled Zombie TIDE Claim of Harmful Effects Strikes Again. Also see “Negative views of grief counseling are not substantiated by the research, experts say” on the website of the American Psychological Association.)
The book is getting some buzz outside academic circles. Paula Span gave it a positive review in the New York Times' "New Old Age" blog (October 22, 2009).
Related content by other Growth House bloggers:
- Dale Larson: Zombie TIDE Claim of Harmful Effects Strikes Again
- Les Morgan: Grief Counseling Not Bad For You, Experts Say