Poets ramble on at length about mortality, but it was an anonymous World War I lyricist who probably said it best: "The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling for you but not for me." We can visualize other people's deaths, but not so much our own ("For me the angels sing-a-ling-a-ling").
Unfortunately, this standard psychic defense routinely backfires. We may aim all our fears outward, but then they boomerang back to fill us with terror. When our loved ones die, how will we manage without them? When the worst possible news hits — and it will — how will we survive?
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.
Dr. Bonanno has not written a self-help book in the ordinary sense, but his message winds up being just about as comforting as if he had. Don't worry, he says. When the worst possible news breaks, you will almost certainly get through it unscathed. Almost everyone does. And if your friends and neighbors mutter that you aren't grieving normally, don't worry; you probably are.
In other cultures, Dr. Bonanno points out, it is the ceremonies of death that are the focus of public attention; the community makes sure they are carried out with precision. In our own navel-inspecting society, it is the emotions of death that well-meaning observers focus on instead. Why isn't that widow shedding at least one little tear? How could the boyfriend be off at the ballgame like that? What is wrong with that bizarrely cheerful orphaned child? Surely they all need therapy.
Not so, Dr. Bonanno maintains. In contrast to the grim slog of Freudian grief work, the natural sadness that actually follows a death is not a thick soup of tears and depression. People can be sad at times, fine at other times. The level of fluctuation is "nothing short of spectacular"; the prevalence of joy is "striking."
Over all, we are hard-wired to move on, helped by innate mechanisms that may seem maladaptive or abnormal but are actually quite common and effective.
One of those tools may well be the ability to smile through the worst of it. Humans are inherently drawn to comfort sad people, but can seldom tolerate more than a few minutes in the presence of the seriously depressed. The fact that the bereaved can shake it off periodically means that people will willingly stay with them, protecting them from a spiral of self-involved solitude.
Other tools are less convoluted. Almost everyone idealizes the deceased and spends long solitary sessions remembering good qualities, overlooking bad ones. Some talk to the deceased regularly. Some indulge in what Dr. Bonanno calls "ugly coping" — anger at the damn doctors, the damn hospital or the stupid minister's stupid eulogy can make the bereaved feel better about the loss.
And some realize early on that their lives have actually improved. The consuming worry about incurable illness is over. Old dramas end.
Dr. Bonanno uses his own tense relationship with his father to illustrate this last point: the two were mired in a classic "go to college or get out of my house" situation for many years, long after Dr. Bonanno had grown tired of his self-imposed James Dean role. "It felt to me that I had been living my life as if in a stage play," he writes.
"When my father died, it was as if the house lights had come on. To my surprise, I found that the theater was empty. Not only was I the only one left on the stage, but I was the only person in the entire theater. I had been acting out a play by myself. I could have stopped at any point, but I hadn't known it."
His sadness for his father is continuing — the closing chapters of the book find him burning joss paper in ceremonial Chinese mourning for the old man — but "in fact, my life opened up after my father's death." In his view, it is perfectly normal for the two emotions to coexist, with no need to "process" or "resolve" further.
Medical science being what it is, there are undoubtedly rebuttals to Dr. Bonanno's appealing analysis out there somewhere. But it still makes good reading, a sensitive and sensible view of loss (applicable not only to death, one suspects, but also to lost love, lost opportunity, even lost time) to warm the waning days of the year.