The Other Side of Sadness

The Other Side of Sadness.
What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss   George A. Bonanno
Basic Author s 2009
Paperback: 372 pages ISBN-10: 1459608186 £19.99

This book challenges the precepts of bereavement theory and practice by describing what the new science of bereavement tells us about life after loss. As people we are optimistic, flexible, resilient, and have a self-serving bias telling us we are stronger than we are. The author does not deny that some people are not like this – but the majority of us are suffer losses and continue with our lives.

Freud’s delayed grief work theory states if the bereaved is not completing the grief stages then they are in denial. The author refutes the idea that the unconscious bond with the deceased has to be broken. Bereaved people who maintain the bond do well. Grief is a positive experience!

The author argues that Freud’s work is poorly researched –unlike research today. Traditionally a healthy response to grief is interpreted as unresolved grief in the unconscious. Linking previous losses to the current loss is highly subjective. Theories based on Kubler- Ross and Bowlby’s work were not based on the losses of bereaved people.

Grief is described as partly made up of intense sadness which makes people more reflective. Grief work is described as relentless, whereas sadness is not. Moving between pain and sadness is important: the bereaved temporarily reconnects with close relationships , then continues the process of mourning.

The author sees Resilience as normal not exceptional. Being an individualistic culture we care about peoples’ feelings:  we expect bereaved people to feel constant sadness and grief. We are surprised when they do not. Resilient people are healthy and have good relationships with the deceased. Resilient people have positive feelings & memories, and  are unlikely to avoid the loss or pain.

No clear pattern emerges in bereaved peoples’ past that accounts for their resilience. There is no general rule to the type or quality of the relationship to the lost person that promoted the healthiest forms of grieving. The quality of relationships to others does not determine whether people cope with their loss.

The author thinks of the grief process as resilient people finding comfort from memory. The relationship is not completely gone. Resilient people are confident, and flexible. They can express emotion, but can also keep their feelings to themselves when appropriate.

10-15% of bereaved people do not recover and grief takes over. The bereaved feels everything is missing, and is cannot be positive. The pain of grief blocks all memories of the good. Prolonged grief is dominated by a yearning for the lost person linking it to emotional dependency.
The Other Side of Sadness

Bereaved people are often chosen for therapy. A therapeutic intervention exposes the bereaved to the trauma. The therapist helps the bereaved confront the parts of the trauma that are difficult. People who experience difficulty in intimate relationships have an insecure attachment style & are more likely to experience prolonged grief reactions. People who are securely attached handle bereavement better.
Freud said the bereaved has to sever the enduring bond with the deceased to resolve the trauma! In fact some people coped better maintaining a relationship with the deceased.

The dependent person clinging to the deceased’s possessions or using them for comfort made the grief worse. The dependent bereaved obsessively keeping the deceased’s room exactly the same indicated a severe grief reaction, where the bereaved felt worthless without the deceased.

Research shows that the Chinese are better at recovering from grief than the US, doing more grief work. In China grief work is not related to suffering or level of distress, but to mourning rites. It is not about the pain and suffering of the bereaved but focuses on the imagined experience of the deceased trying to enter the land of the dead and find a good life. For the Chinese the continued bond was more common and healthier as less distress was felt.

In Asia the idea of the continuing bond is sewn into the culture. Many towns have ancestral temples to honour the dead, and for the bereaved to commune with the deceased. Nothing in the Chinese ceremony is about the individual’s grief: but about honouring loved ones and particularly family and connection.

The book ends stating that in the US there is scepticism about the continuing bond because it is not woven into western culture making the continuing bond becomes less acceptable and adaptive when it is not culturally supported.
I enjoyed this book but there is an attempt to rile the reader into thinking polemically. It should be taken as a challenge and addition to current thinking on bereavement, not a replacement!
The Other Side of Sadness

Adrian Scott MBACP Snr Accred

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