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At Peace with Grief
At Peace with Grief

How to Face Loss with Resilience and Grace

Pam McDonald, LCSW-C

"Life is change. Growth is optional. Choose wisely." -Karen Kaiser Clark


Everything changes. From the cells that make up our bodies to the shifting tectonic plates under the earth's crust, our world is constantly in flux.

Although change is always a part of our life experience, when it comes suddenly and tragically, it can challenge our coping mechanisms (at best) and cause chronic psychological pain and suffering (at worst). These types of events--whether they be a natural disaster, unexpected life-threatening diagnosis, tragic death of a loved one, or sudden catastrophic economic loss--will change us. Whether or not the change strengthens us is a choice, and we can learn strategies to be more resilient in this ever-changing world.

Catastrophic events such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the SARS epidemic in China have left thousands, even millions, of people coping with tragedy and loss. Grief expert Dr. George Bonanno has studied the survivors of these large-scale tragedies and also conducted longer-term studies of individuals before and after experiencing a personal loss. His research has identified some key characteristics of resiliency. The findings are promising--and provocative--as he has given us another way to think about grief and loss.

Many of us understand the grieving process based on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's work in Of Death and Dying, published in 1969. Ross described five stages in the grieving process--denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance--that are typical for many dying people coping with impending death. Our culture's focus on these five stages has led to the belief that normal, healthy grieving for any kind of loss must include a length of time and a variety of stages.

But Dr. Bonanno's research found that there are many healthy people who do not grieve in this way. Some people are naturally resilient even in the face of tragic loss or disaster. They may not show any symptoms or grief, and they return to normal life functioning a few months after the event. Bonanno termed this "coping ugly" because at first glance, we might think these people are cold or avoidant personality types. However, the research revealed that these are adaptive, resilient--and common--people. This is good news!

These people had some common characteristics such as an inflated sense of self (used to protect the individual from feeling overwhelmed by the event), an ability to repress negative thoughts, the use of laughter and humor to cope with grief, and the held belief that "they would get through." How do we know if we are grieving healthily? Healthy grieving changes; we move through different feelings and stages in many differing ways. We can be feeling sadness, anger, anxiety, denial, numbness, have difficulty concentrating, experience changes in appetite or sleep patterns, and have physical aches and pains. Even if we are not "coping ugly," we are able to laugh and set the grief aside at times.

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