At a loss

Time, not talking, may be the best remedy for grief

March 16, 2003|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

There's a name for it -- grief work. As if mourning for someone you love was a job you had to do in a certain way, and when you finished you could go on with your life. The steps are laid out in self-help books and the popular press: tasks like accepting the loss, confronting emotions of despair, anger and loneliness; learning to live in the present; dealing with the life changes. And of all the steps, the one most commonly accepted is that you have to express your grief to get over it.

Maybe not.

Emma Sue Solloway, a 59-year-old who lives in Catonsville, says she didn't have time to sink into depression after her husband died of a heart attack 15 years ago. Grief counseling wasn't something she ever felt she needed.

"My family accepts death as part of life," she explains. "My two children were the saving grace when my husband died. If you're busy you don't have time to grieve too much."

Is Solloway unusual?

Since Freud published his essay "Mourning and Melan-cholia," it's been pretty much accepted that people must confront their feelings about the death of a loved one to adjust to the loss. Those who don't are simply repressing their emotions, and that will be unhealthy in the long run.

Now, though, scientists are taking another look at how people deal with bereavement. Recent research suggests that Solloway's experience isn't uncommon.

How she coped with her husband's death could work just as well as seeing a grief counselor once a week or pouring her heart out to a friend.

Is no depression OK?

George Bonanno, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University's Teachers College, has been studying the ways people deal with grief for the past decade. His work, he feels, is dismissed because it contradicts so much of what is assumed to be true in the field.

When mourners don't show a lot of stress after losing a loved one but go on with their lives and seem happy again fairly quickly, it's commonly viewed as "maladaptive" grief, he explains. "I've been arguing that there's no evidence for that. It frustrates me quite a bit."

His most recent article, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psy-chology, deals with information from a longitudinal study of 1,500 people.

Out of that group, the researchers had data on 205 people from about three years before the death of a loved one until 18 months after. Almost half of them showed no real symptoms of depression after the loss.

Because the subjects had been studied for so long, Bonanno and his colleagues knew there was nothing unhealthy about them: They were in good relationships. They hadn't been depressed beforehand. They weren't cold or avoiding types. They simply adjusted to their loss quickly and got back in the stream of things.

"This isn't an abnormal pattern if half the people do it," Bonanno says. "I hear, 'They're just depressed and don't know it.' That's ridiculous. Why are we so suspicious of people who seem healthy?"

If you force people to talk about their feelings when they don't feel a need to, he explains, they could get worse. "It might undermine their natural coping mechanisms."

But when Bonanno says that people who repress their grief often get through their bereavement just fine and show no lingering depression, he also adds, "There are many styles of coping in the world, and they all have their pluses and minuses." For instance, he says, some studies have shown that people who repress their emotions may have physical problems.

'Period of intense loss'

Psychologist Margaret Stroebe and several researchers in the Netherlands conducted two studies that essentially agree with Bonanno's findings.

The researchers followed recently widowed men and women over two years to see if talking to others made any difference. Using a second group of widows and widowers, they studied whether keeping a journal about the bereavement shortened the period of mourning and its psychological effects.

Stroebe and her colleagues determined that people who share their thoughts and feelings after the death of a loved one -- either by talking to others or writing about them -- don't adjust to the loss any better than those who don't. Time healed as well as anything. (It should be pointed out that these bereavement studies dealt with normal mourning. A death from violence or the loss of a child may present a whole set of problems beyond uncomplicated grief.)

"It's not that talking and writing never helps," says Stroebe. "Most bereaved people do this naturally. Sometimes it will bring relief or help a grieving person see things differently; but sometimes it will just be ruminative expression, and this may, if relentless, be maladaptive." It might, in other words, just make the mourner feel more depressed to dwell on the loss.

After Kim Emery's mother died of lung cancer three years ago, the 43-year-old couldn't seem to get past what she now calls "the dark side."

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