“Bad things happen.” That’s the way that George Bonanno often begins his presentations on trauma and resilience. And bad things do indeed happen, from individual tragedies like the death of a loved one, loss of a job, or a serious illness to major disasters like the bombing of the World Trade Center or the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. What happens to people after traumatic events and why? We were treated to fascinating answers to these questions during his visit to Cornell this week.
I’ve always been personally intrigued by why responses to difficult life events are so dramatically different. I think it’s because of what I would call “A Tale of Two Grandmothers.” My maternal and paternal grandmothers were roughly the same age, and both had been through tragic life events when they were younger. “Nan” and “Grandma” had both lost much of everything they had during the Great Depression, and both of their husbands died young, leaving them widowed and alone. But my mother’s mother, Nan, thrived despite loss. She lived healthily and happily to age 93, helping my own widowed mother to raise my three brothers and me. Grandma, on the other hand, was emotionally disturbed by her losses, unable to shake pervasive grief and loneliness, often repelling the people who tried to help her.
When George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, began working in the field of bereavement, many people working in the field either believed in fixed stages of grieving (such as those popularized by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross) or that people must always express and work through grief. In contrast, his research has identified resilience as the core experience of most people who experience trauma. By resilience is meant the ability of individuals exposed to a potentially highly disruptive event to maintain both healthy psychological and physical functioning and the capacity for positive emotions.
All of us have known people like that, and it turns out they are in the majority. Applying rigorous research methods to trauma and grief, George found that many people recover well on their own. Further, in such cases, offering treatment to people who don’t need it can actually cause them harm, leading to the kinds of symptoms grief counseling is supposed to prevent.
In an interview about what such people should do after a trauma, George noted:
People who are not showing grief symptoms, don’t do anything — they’re fine. In fact, they can be harmed by intruding on their lives. They don’t need to talk about it, but I think in this culture we have this sense that people need to talk about it — if they don’t talk about it, something is wrong — no, leave those people alone. In people who are showing moderate levels of grief symptoms, it is sometimes a matter of getting used to the pain, which passes with time.
George has courted some controversy with his research, because professional counselors find it hard to believe that people do not need treatment of some kind after a tragic loss. But his astonishing array of studies – ranging from people who experience the 9/11 terrorist attack, to Hong Kong residents affected by the SARS epidemic, to people living under chronic stress in the Palestinian territories – show that of all reactions to trauma, resilience is the most common.
Rather than focusing on the pathologies that are supposed to follow trauma, George’s research points us toward looking at how to promote resilience and positive emotion after loss. One way, interestingly, is smiling and laughter (and George himself laced his talk with humor, despite the difficult topic). Although people who can smile and even laugh shouldn’t be accused of not grieving enough – George’s research shows that laughter almost always has a positive effect.
In sum – good news for us all, since every one of us will experience loss at some point. George’s work points toward strengh-based approaches to coping with traumatic events, and demonstrates the human capacity for resilience most humans share. I highly recommend George’s recently published book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss. Written for a general audience, it’s a model of research translation on these issues.