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The Science of Sorrow

New findings may help ease the grief


June 18, 2010

George A. Bonanno
George A. Bonanno
Professor at Columbia University

As anyone who’s experienced loss knows, it’s never easy. It’s not something for which we can always prepare. But, recent studies show that the process of coping may not be what we once thought.

George A. Bonanno, a professor of Education and Psychology at Columbia University, has been researching the science of bereavement for nearly 20 years. He believes, now, that most people know innately how to deal with loss, as part of human nature. It’s a theory that doesn’t fully agree with the typical grieving process, as we’ve come to accept it. Instead, it challenges the notion of five specific stages.

Bonanno, the author of “The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us about Life after Loss” has, with the help of his staff, interviewed thousands of people who have experienced grief. They’ve concluded the majority of survivors were more resilient than we would have imagined.

“That doesn’t mean they were not sad or disturbed by the loss,” says Bonanno. “But they didn’t experience the notion of a grieving process the way so many books suggested they should. They grieved, but the majority of people continued to function.”

The book was inspired in part by Bonanno’s own experience: he lost his father while in his early 20s. He still feels sad over the loss, but he says, “In a way, my life opened up after my father’s death.” For him, it’s normal for multiple emotions, like sadness and happiness and hope for the future, to coexist, without the need to “process” or “resolve” further.

Specifically, Bonanno explains the process of grieving, as he sees it, to be like a pendulum.

“During the first several months following loss,” he says, “the pendulum swings back and forth between sadness and happiness. At the moment of loss, a person seems to pay little attention to the world around him. He takes in his new situation and tries to imagine life without his loved one.

“As the person acclimates to changes, he feels unexpected moments of happiness, then sadness again. The pendulum finally slows and equilibrium results.”

As the pendulum swings, Bonanno recommends each person be allowed to find his or her own way to achieve balance.

“Do what feels right,” he says. “It may be going to the grave to talk or donating to a charity in your loved one’s name.”

Joining a grief support group may be right. “For some, sharing feelings of grief in a group that seeks to help us can support healing,” Bonanno says.

What’s most important is that each person has the freedom and support to heal in his or her own way, whether that’s laughing, crying, talking—or not talking—or a mixture of techniques over time.

How Insurance Can Help
ERIE Agents have been there to help Customers through some of the toughest times.

Joe LaGuardia
Joe LaGuardia
ERIE Agent, Historic Square Agency

One spring morning about 20 years ago, ERIE Agent Joe LaGuardia read something in the local paper that he’s never forgotten. It was the story of a mother who had lost her 6-year-old son. The boy had seen a friend across a busy street, pulled his hand away from his mom’s and ran into traffic.

The family was one of Joe’s Customers. Reading the news broke his heart.

“I recognized the name immediately,” Joe remembers. “It hit me really hard. As an Agent, I help my Customers purchase life insurance, but it’s never easy to hear the news of when they need it.”

Joe, an Agent at Historic Square Agency in Erie, Pa., had young children of his own at the time, and he could barely imagine what the family must have been going through.

But, helping families is part of Joe’s job. He’s one of many ERIE Agents who delivers on the promise of life insurance on a regular basis. He’s trained specifically to do so, knowing how to approach a family and his role in supporting them during such times.

Still, with training and nearly 40 years of experience, Joe finds that delivering life insurance checks is never easy. In a business world of numbers and sales, helping Customers process life insurance claims is the most personal thing Joe does.

And, he says, it’s the most important.

*Erie Family Life insurance not available in New York


Kayleen Reusser, a freelance writer in Indiana who’s authored several children’s books and been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, contributed to the writing of this article.

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