Laughing in the Face of Death: Coping with Grief Effectively | Teachers College Columbia University

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Laughing in the Face of Death: Coping with Grief Effectively

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education George Bonanno isn't always the most popular speaker at conferences for grief counselors.

I saw grief drinking a cup of sorrow and called out, "It tastes sweet, does it not?" "You've caught me," grief answered, "and you've ruined my business, how can I sell sorrow when you know it's a blessing?" - Jalaluddin Rumi

Assistant Professor of Psychology and Education George Bonanno isn't always the most popular speaker at conferences for grief counselors.

Frequently, his lectures have been greeted with boos and hisses from clinicians in the audience. Why? Because contrary to the general western belief that bereavement and mourning require individuals to work through painful feelings, Bonanno's research shows that people who repress intensely negative emotions have more successful recovery from grief than those who don't, and many clinicians do not like those findings.

"It is assumed you have to express emotion and you have to work it through," Bonanno said. "Clinicians are encouraging people to do that."

"People who expressed a lot of emotion didn't do very well," Bonanno said of research he conducted on individuals who lost a spouse. "People who didn't express emotions did better."

As part of that study, the researchers evaluated facial expressions of subjects speaking about their deceased spouses. "Those who exhibited genuine smiles and laughs predicted less grief over time and evoked positive emotions in others," Bonanno said.

He explained that emotions are inherent behaviors that serve a purpose. "Negative" emotions like sadness and anger are meant to be short-term. Expressing sadness or anger over long periods of time can undermine relationships and turn people away.

He added, "It is easier for other people to be around you" when grief and distress are punctuated with laughter and smiling. "People avoid someone who is in pain all the time."

Bonanno's findings are not meant to encourage denial of pain in difficult situations. Instead, his research looks closely at how people handle grief and examines the results of their coping methods. The danger he sees is when clinicians assume that all people need to deal with grief in the same way."Not everybody is going to need a grief counselor for situations like the Columbine shootings," he noted. "Even kids who witnessed it don't all develop trauma symptoms. You can do people harm by asking them to think about it more."

Traditional grief therapy methods generally have little effect on people, he added. Some people are worse for the effort. "They may be in pain," Bonanno explained, "but they don't necessarily need to focus on their pain anymore. They need ways to get their mind off it." Most people, he said, get over the loss of a loved one within a year or two. Some show moderate distress and get over it on their own; some people don't show anything. Only a small fraction of people exhibit serious distress for a long period of time.

"One of the predictors of those who will do much worse is having a loved one suffer a violent death," he said. People who are grieving over the loss of someone who has died in a dramatic way-car accident, suicide, murder-often imagine their loved one frightened. Those are the people who may need to seek professional help.

Western culture tends to discourage laughter in the bereavement process. Although other groups, such as the Hindu culture, sometimes go to the extreme of encouraging weeping and shrieking in bereavement, many others discourage excessive weeping and wailing or encourage laughter and happiness. "In our culture, we have an unfortunate suspicion of laughter," Bonnano said.

"African cultures tell lascivious tales about the deceased, and in South America, former Surinam slaves have a story-telling feast that can go on for two weeks," Bonanno explained. Balinese mourners also smile and laugh during funerals, and the Hopi Indians encourage the bereaved to cry alone.

Mourning the deceased is not the only experience that creates the need to grieve, and Bonanno is finding some of the same results in a study he recently completed about sexually abused girls. "When we asked them how they are doing, just like the bereaved people, some of the sexually abused girls said they were not too distressed while their physiological reactivity was way up," Bonanno said. "Those people actually do better over time. We extrapolate that they reacted physically to the task, but then found some way to distract themselves so that they were not paying attention to it."

Bonanno cautioned that he is not trying to encourage people to exacerbate their pain, but said that he does not have any clear solutions on what the interventions should be. "As a researcher, I would rather figure it out first and know what they should be," he said. He is collecting new data now that would provide better solutions in a few years.

"There are some people who will need help in their grieving process," he concluded. "We still don't know exactly how to determine who those people are."

Bonanno is conducting an ongoing study that compares the loss of a child and the loss of a spouse. As part of that study he is looking at how married people understand their relationships with their spouse and children and comparing that to how people experience the loss of a spouse or a child.

Published Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2001


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