Experiencing Both Grief and Resilience

Original pastel by the author of light through the clouds, the feeling of resilience and grief.
“Light Through the Clouds”

It’s been twelve weeks since Larry died and the heart-smashing black abyss of grief that I first felt is beginning to morph into a more gentle shadow that comes without warning, then fades away.   Most days I spend at least a little time writing and reading about loss, about caregiver recovery.  I cry less and I’m doing more, finding little joys and comforts that bring relief.   I believe I am experiencing both grief and resilience.

I recently read about both in the book  The Other Side of Sadness  by George Bonanno who has conducted years of research with bereaved people.  He says the well-known Kubler-Ross theory of five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) was based on observations of people with cancer who were coming to terms with their own mortality, not on rigorous study of people experiencing loss of a loved one.  And Freud’s theory of needing to “work through grief” or it will overshadow your whole life was just that – a theory.

Bonanno’s research says that 60% of people recover pretty rapidly (within six months) from their initial grief and what facilitates that recovery is resilience.  I was intrigued reading his comment that emotions are meant to be temporary solutions.

As I understand him, people who are resilient tend to be able to accept and embrace that there is an ongoing oscillation between grief and joy.  Each are temporary.  They are able to feel both and they are able to manage both.  They can cry, and they can also laugh. They can express their grief, and when necessary, they can suppress their grief (at work, for example).

They also feel, even in the dark depths of grief, that eventually they will recover.  They will experience both grief and resilience. They have an optimistic view of themselves.

Is that me?  As Larry lay dying and then in the hours that followed his death, his son and I were able to laugh in between when we cried.  Those swings were wild ups and downs, crazy oscillations of emotion that followed into the next days and weeks.

Now I’m finding that there are still oscillations, but smaller ones.  Good days and bad days.  Good nights and bad nights.  Good hours and rough hours.  Overall though, both peace and sadness.  There is light between the dark clouds.

I look back to our last months together, when Larry was experiencing so many symptoms and we still found ways to enjoy life.  We were able to hold both polarities – dying and living a good quality of life.  I’m figuring out how to do that for myself.

That doesn’t mean I don’t miss him.  I do.  I miss him terribly.  A few days ago would have been our 23rd anniversary.

But Bonanno talks about separating the grief from the memories, and even from sadness.  I feel more sadness and less intense grief.  What’s the difference?   Grief feels more like yearning to me- wanting him back, hating that he’s gone, wishing things were otherwise.  Sadness is sitting with the loss.  Accepting I have a big fat hole in my life but I still have to move on.

On the other hand, my love and memories will always be there.  In fact they feel more tangible and available and comforting now than right after he died, when they were too painful to think about.

Maybe I’ll fall apart tomorrow, but according to Bonanno I have a 60% chance of not falling apart for very long.  As for the future, if I feel like I’m coming apart after six months or so I will seek counseling, because that’s when the research indicates initial grief starts to turn into chronic grief and I’ll need help.

In the meantime, I’ll accept that things can feel both surprisingly normal, and then pretty darn hard.  That I can feel happy, and very sad.  That I am experiencing both grief and resilience.



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