The Other Side of Sadness -Updated

Update: This post was linked by a reader over at the YWBB (aka widow board) in response to someone asking if it really takes 3 – 5 years to “get over” the death of a spouse. I read the responses, and while everyone who replied made a point to stick to his/her own experiences, there was still a bit of self-serving justification going on and the real issue was never addressed.

You don’t “get over” the loss of someone you love. Over time it becomes a part of you like every other experience you’ve ever had – good, bad or unexpected. And as someone pointed out here in the comments, life is not a process so it makes sense that grief – like joy – is not something we 12 step through. Loss is an experience. More quickly than most people realize, we move on from even the worst events and back into the mainstream of life. And life changes. Even if my first husband hadn’t died, I would not be the same person today as I was the day I met him. Life is change.

It’s disingenuous to say that it takes years to find happiness, meaning or a new life. That happens quickly and in spite of ourselves. Whether or not a person chooses to cling to grief or not is the heart of the so-called “time line”. Bonanno makes this point himself in the book. People who chose to hold onto good memories and push on for the sake of the lost loved one generally are back to whatever normal means sooner than those who cannot get past the event or the feeling of unfairness. He also points out that people who experience complications in grief usually had underlying issues to begin with that the loss simply made worse.

I won’t post on the widow board, but if I were to answer this poster I would say this:

Life is what you decide to make of it. We carry loss with us always but whether or not it defines or dominates you is up to you. And even in the first months to the end of the first year, most people experience happiness and find meaning. Anyone who tells you it took three years or more to feel anything other than misery or that year two was worse than year one either had issues before or is not being all that honest – with you or with themselves. You can be happy. The choice is yours.

I just finished reading The Other Side of Sadness by George Bonnano, an associate professor at Columbia. It basically sets the record straight on all the ridiculous notions that surround grieving.

For example, “grief work”, the idea that grieving requires a thoughtful and painful laundry list of activities that a person must do before he/she can move on with his/her life. The notion exists thanks to a throw-away idea by Freud. How he can be the father of all that is counter-intuitive and the father of modern psychoanalysis at the same time is one of life’s minor mysteries, but essentially he briefly pondered the notion that in order for a grieving person to move on in life, that person must “detach” from the deceased and that this process was “grief work”. And that’s about all he said on the subject but those two words have been a millstone for me. I’ve been told more often than I can count that my wanting to move on was keeping me from grieving properly and wasn’t possible.

Bonnano has done quite a bit of research over the years, and he has discovered that pretty much the opposite of “grief work” is not only the norm but is healthier.

People who endeavor to move on and be happy – usually because they feel the deceased would have wanted that – have better lives and outcomes than those who succumb to the idea that grief is a process that must be worked through.

“Do you feel vindicated?” Rob asked me after I told him about what I’d read.

And I do.

Take that widow board with your nonsense about distractions and “grieve now or grieve more later”.  Neither of those things is true. Distractions are what healthy people do to keep from being overwhelmed in the beginning. It’s about balance. And the notion that grief can be suppressed and come back to cause havoc later? Based on a flawed study back in 1944 that was later proven to be wrong in its conclusion.

The book acknowledges that grief has ebb and flow and never completely disappears, but it debunks the notion that a person can’t get along without grief counseling. In fact, it says that 6 months should be the cut-off point as far as seeking help for complicated grief goes. Before that, sadness and emotional swings are normal.

And that’s the heart of the book, that grief is normal.  Human beings are built to grieve and if we simply followed our natural instincts, we’d be better off.

So, there is no grief process. No 12 steps. Distractions are good. Being determined to move on is the norm.

Any questions?

29 thoughts on “The Other Side of Sadness -Updated

  1. I stumbled upon your blog today and I am THRILLED to have found it. I have been on the YWBB for almost a year now and, I , like you, am one of those widows who LOVES my husband, misses him everyday, but wants to survive, wants to thrive, wants to be happy and on and on. I have a beautiful daughter that I need to be strong and healthy for. I have a husband whom I still love with all of my heart and I want him to be proud of me, I want him to be happy, I want to live in a way that honors all that we shared and all that he meant to me. BUT, I am so used to seeing these posts from widows/widowers who are years out and are still miserable…So I think I am doing something wrong, that I must not be grieving “right”, that I am crazy, that I am in some kind of denial because I am somehow in a better at less than a year…And I had an incredible marriage…a fairy tale…almost perfection, if there were such a thing…and my husband committed suicide out of nowhere…no signs, no symptoms, no asking for help…

    I feel like I should be curled up in a ball, useless, crying, numb….yet I’m not. I’m strong. Surprisingly strong. I’m resilient. I picked myself up after a few months, brushed myself off, and I have chosen to not be defined by his death, but rather by the love we shared, the child we created, and the ways in which I can continue to honor him and keep him an important part of our lives…

    It’s refreshing to see someone who feels the same way I do, who also feels that there is some (okay, a lot) of people on the YWBB who are sad and negative and miserable and who want to stay that way.

    Also, I have the George Bonnano book….I bought it a while ago, started reading it and then put it down…I had read soooo many books on grieving, on suicide, on the afterlife…and I just needed a break from death for a while. I will definitely have to pick it back up. With the one year anniversary fast approaching, I’m sure I will be needing my fix of grief-related reading.

    Anyway, thank you for this. I am going to bed with a positive outlook tonight. And I will definitely be back to follow your blog!

    1. I am sorry for your loss.

      I felt too that I was grieving wrong after finding the board, but our lives are not one-size fits all, so why would our grief or choices for moving on be? I am glad you found the blog helpful. Do pick up Bonnano’s book again if you have some spare time. He talks a lot about how people in Asian cultures approach death and grieving and it is such a healthy acceptance and integration with life. I wish North Americans were more like that.

  2. I haven’t read any books and don’t have any preconceptions but I am a YWBB user and I’d just want to say that I found a tremendous amount of support and comfort there and while there were some people I disagreed with wholeheartedly they were in the minority to such an extent as to be an irrelevance and more worth of compassion and concern than anything more negative.

    That said I agree with the key thrust of this post – it’d be well wide of the mark to believe that any individual had found a magic formula one ought to follow and ludicrous for any one of us to believe he was somehow grieving ‘wrong’.

  3. I just now saw this update … I suppose I should have gotten permission or given you a heads-up before posting the link. I don’t ordinarily do that — link to someone else’s blog on the bored. (Misspelling intentional, btw.) The question and your post coincided and I acted without thinking. You must have been quite surprised by the uptake in hits!

    Anyway … I’m fraught with contradictory thoughts and opinions on this subject. Our “new life” starts whether or not we want it to, and it will be what we choose to make it. Yes, some people cling to grief and choose to be miserable about it. On the other hand, grief clings right back and can’t just be shaken off or shoved aside by putting on a happy face.

    (And I really do think that two weeks’ after your spouse’s funeral is too soon to decide that you’re ready to start dating and fall in love with someone else.)

      1. Actually, Rob, I think the record is 10 days. Someone posted that since her husband had been sick for 9 months, she’d done all her grieving. And yeah, she was sad but there was this new man at church and she just KNEW that God had sent him to her so she wouldn’t be alone.

        1. A wiser widow then myself (Kate Boydell) once said that you cannot talk a widowed person out of romance if they’ve set their minds to it. You can only offer support because he/she will “go there” regardless. A lot of space is wasted at the board by people who believe that they are the authority on this or that. Pat people on the head. Don’t judge. Stella is good at that. So is Marsha. But give advice at the risk of making yourself crazy and/or alienating people who really need someone who will listen and tell them that it’s all going to be okay..

    1. No worries. You didn’t identify me and I don’t think many people remember me there at all anymore. It was an interesting post because I still don’t understand why we tend to dwell on the negatives and the timeline when newly widowed ask these kinds of questions. As I mentioned in a post not long ago, I don’t think anyone is looking for anything other than assurance that they won’t be miserable forever. Most people are not floundering at a year out. Sad, reorganizing but not debilitated. Those who are have issues or circumstances that are out of the ordinary.

      The emphasis on the timeline can be a self-fulfilling prophecy if we are not careful.

      But I still believe that positivity gets a person farther than not. I spent nearly three years clinging to the only emotional float I had – which was that someday I would be happy again. I just knew that. It doesn’t mean I was a ray of sunshine, but I wasn’t going to let myself fall completely under the influence of my circumstances either. The only thing we can count on is change but it can’t happen when we aren’t willing to concede that it is possible.

      But that’s just me and you know that already. And I know this is not popular among the grief set because I am hardly anyone’s go to in the widow blogoshere.

  4. I will look for this book. For me, the losses have become part of the fabric of my life. There are still times, though, when the sadness is overwhelming. That’s not part of any grieving process – that’s life.

  5. I don’t really believe in grief work either. Grief’s not something you do or something you work at, it just is, and it passes in its own time.

    I do think there’s a certain type of person who copes better with any situation when they have something active to do, and for those people it’s fine to go to groups and read self-help books and whatever else “grief work” entails. The problem arises when people decide that everyone has to do those things, and that anyone who doesn’t is doing it wrong.

  6. You are sooo my grief Yoda. I’ve been following you for months since realizing I don’t quite fit the experiences/opinions (and learned quickly to not be too positive, too hopeful, too optimistic) I find on the board. For a long time I thought something was wrong with me for dearly loving my hubby, missing him terribly, yet having faith that tomorrow will be better than today, and gasp, that I want to have love/life/laughter again and sooner than later, please. Lately I’d been feeling some substantial guilt for wanting to begin truly living again. Reading your review today shot my rear to my nearest book store and I knocked the entirety of the book out in a sitting. It rocks. You rock. Dr. Bonanno rocks.


    P.S. Thanks for being a persistent light out there about your opinions and experiences in widowhood/grief/remarriage. I’m suspecting there is a very silent, very substantial group of people that sense a different path and really want to go down it. It just seems a more hopeful path is the line where “individual” isn’t tolerated in some of the larger grief community.

    1. Grief Yoda? Not so much. But I am glad if anything I have written was a help to you. I think we all have feelings of guilt when we realize we are going to live and be happy again. It’s easy to forget that this is probably all our loved ones wanted for us and that they would feel guilty if they knew how guilty we felt. It’s all very circular.

      It’s always best to be true to yourself regardless.

  7. I’ve never had a situation where I felt the need to go through a grieving “process”, even when my parents died, so perhaps I’m not one to speak to this. But I do think each person grieves in their own way in their own time. I cannot believe there would be one way for all.

    Straight From Hel

  8. I agree that counseling before 6 months is probably not productive and may be counterproductive. And the whole “detachment” and “letting go” stuff is bunk.

    But I do think there is a grieving “process,” albeit one that looks different for each person. And I think that the grief does need to be attended to, that those who try to avoid it now will only be blindsided by it later. And I think that a lot of folks do get stuck and need help figuring out how to recover and rebuild.

    I think there is a lot collective wisdom on the board — and a lot of collective enabling. As you said, it’s a matter of finding the balance.

    1. I think the point of the book was to reassure people that there isn’t a set of steps – that it is an individual thing. But I think what is referred to as a “process” is simply acceptance and living. And life is work regardless of circumstances.

  9. i like that: “…Human beings are built to grieve and if we simply followed our natural instincts, we’d be better off….”. Hear, hear!

    now to throw off my stoic Scandinavian upbringing and allow myself to follow my natural instincts. easier said than done, but i’ll try.

    1. It’s one of the things the book talks about – “damned if you do or don’t” – the problem is that we gauge our “normalness” on how other people do things or cultural expectations. I like the East/West comparisons. It is in the West where death is denied that the most problems seem to occur.

      1. the failure to acknowledge the ‘normalcy’ of death – which does seem to be a western thing – is fascinating. might need to read this book… is it christian beliefs that drive this?

        1. The book does mention that it is a clash between are sophisticated culture and the rather simplistic afterlife beliefs projected by Christianity. It doesn’t compute. Also, the punitive aspect of the afterlife for westerners is part of the problem too.

        2. Coming along to this part a bit late, but the flip side of the Christianity coin is that whether faith helps or hurts your healing has a great deal to do with whatvone chooses to believe as well. I believe in a loving and forgiving God, and therefore can take comfort that my father and sister are truly now in a “better place.”. If I subscribed to the notions of purgatory or eternal damnation for those who did not follow a ten-step program in life, I would probably have jad a great deal more diifficulty with the loss of my father and sister.

        3. In my Catholic childhood, purgatory was presented as a stopover. Everyone went there first b/c – of course – no one was good enough to go straight to heaven. I never presented a layered afterlife to my daughter. There was always just heaven – even after I came to a place where I believed that what comes after is probably too complicated and nuanced for religion to wrap a theory around. Consequently, when Dee was told – recently – that she would go to hell if she didn’t believe in Jesus (which she doesn’t) – she calmly informed the person that “hell isn’t real. it is a made up place.”

          People need to believe in the eternal soul b/c it makes life seem meaningful and death less scary. Well, most people anyway.

    1. Well, there is money to made from everything, but basically it seems that when they started actually looking at grief it was turned into a disorder to be fixed.

      Grieving is normal. It’s not something that requires intervention in the first six months (for the majority of people) and if we didn’t live in a death fearing culture (or one that promotes ridiculous expectations of love/marriage), it wouldn’t be an issue. The author talks about the differences between the Western unease and the Eastern acceptance as part of the life cycle that makes a lot of sense.

      And then, the whole “process” idea is promoted heavily within the “death industry” and among its grieving victims.

      The bottom line is that there is nothing that can be actively done to alleviate sadness caused by losing a loved one other than focusing on the happy memories when needed and simply soldiering on. Those are the people that get on best. When you buy into the need for groups, counseling and the like – you are probably prolonging the intense grief and doing yourself no good.

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