Several years ago, when her father was dying, Beryl Torthe came across The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, the groundbreaking book by Teachers College psychologist George Bonanno that challenges traditional understanding of how people respond to loss and trauma.
“The main idea was that power can come from grief,” says Torthe (pronounced TOR-tay), now a first-year master’s degree student in TC’s Clinical Psychology program. “It’s easy to say that grief is a terrible thing and a terrible event, but the dialogue around grief doesn’t always focus on what can be gained through it.”
Torthe’s own story is testimony to the truth of that idea.
Growing up in South Africa, where the academic and career arcs of young people are, for the most part, dictated by the outcomes of tests given in early high school, Torthe assumed she would work in business and finance. She chose to attend Alfred University, in upstate New York, because “I was looking for a liberal arts school in the U.S., and Alfred was listed, alphabetically, among the top five.”
But when her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during her sophomore year, Torthe left school and returned home to Pretoria. There, watching him battle the disease and assisting in his care, she began to question her direction in life. “My studies suddenly seemed superficial – I felt it wasn’t answering any tough questions.”
Things came to a head one day when Torthe accompanied her father to a post-operative treatment center.
“We were in a chemotherapy session and I watched as a man sitting near us, obviously very sick and connected to all sorts of wires and tubes, got up from his chair, untethered himself and went outside to light up a cigarette – while he was getting chemotherapy! It was a defining moment for me. I wanted to know why people behave the way they do and about the choices they make.”
Returning to Alfred following her father’s death, Torthe declared a new major: psychology.
“The transition was wonderful,” she says. “The beauty of psychology is that you never have answers to all the questions. There is no spread sheet that quantifies psychology. It is just an endless journey of asking questions. And I’ve always said, ‘If you can’t answer all the questions then you’ve found the right spot.’”
Also while at Alfred, Torthe took and passed New York’s Emergency Medical Technician exam and joined a volunteer Alleghany County ambulance squad. For her senior honors thesis, she interviewed more than 100 professional and volunteer emergency medical technicians and found that these workers, who save lives every day, are far more likely to have signed a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order than people in the general population.
“It’s easy to say that grief is a terrible thing and a terrible event, but the dialogue around grief doesn’t always focus on what can be gained through it.”
“Doing CPR to save lives is kind of glamorized on TV, but when you see it up close, the reality is often about frail, older people sustaining broken ribs from chest compression and or being brought back from the brink to continue living with terrible illnesses,” she says.
Torthe graduated at the top of her class in 2018, serving as valedictorian at Alfred’s convocation and, inspired by Bonanno’s book, enrolled this past fall at TC. During her first year, she’s worked as a Graduate Assistant in a collaborative (NYU and Columbia) Culture, Stigma and Psychosis lab, helping with research on stigmatized populations in China and Botswana. But she’s already pretty sure that she wants to focus her studies, and possibly her career, on thanatology, the field that concerns itself with death and loss. Her goal is to take courses with Bonanno, who directs TC’s Loss, Trauma & Emotion Lab as well as the College’s Resilience Center for Veterans & Families.
“It’s a quirky coincidence that a book I read during a tough time was actually written by a faculty member at Teachers College,” she says.
Bonanno might say that tough times are what you make of them. Meanwhile, for Torthe, that kind of unexplainable convergence is just another confirmation that she has indeed come to the right spot.