When Susan’s husband David died, she was devastated. So her brother was surprised to hear Susan sound upbeat just a few weeks later, exclaiming how proud she was to have dealt with a major car repair, a task that David would always have done. How, her brother wondered, could Susan seem so optimistic after such a devastating loss?
Recent research about grievers who are termed “resilient grievers” adds to our vast knowledge of grief and grieving. After a loss, resilient grievers show little disruption in their ability to function. Their experience with loss differs substantially from the experience of many bereaved people, who often find themselves incapacitated, temporarily or longer, following a loved one’s death. But studying resilient grievers can be helpful in several ways. First, the research reinforces what we already know: that the journey with grief is highly individual. Second, we can learn from resilient grievers. Third, using some of the methods that resilient grievers naturally employ in their grief journey may help us develop resilience, even in our grief.
It is important to know that there is no reason to feel bad if you are not a resilient griever. Resilience is not a goal that everyone should expect to achieve. The potential for resilience is sometimes simply beyond our control. Studies show that most resilient grievers share common experiences that may be outside our own experience. For example, resilient grievers tend to have fewer losses and have less experience with losses that are sudden, traumatic, or unexpected. Resilience is not just a characteristic of individuals; certain losses make it easier to respond in a resilient manner. The deaths they experienced were generally not sudden. Most said that they found great comfort in being able to say “goodbye” to the person before he or she died. The deaths associated with resilient grievers were not perceived to be “preventable” – it was unlikely that any intervention could have prevented the death. Often in more sudden deaths, such as a car crash or even a stroke or heart attack, survivors may be haunted by the guilt empowered by all the “what ifs?” that can make grief different and difficult.
Yet, there are things that all grievers can learn from resilient grievers. Resilient grievers tend to have an optimistic mindset. Part of this mindset is a belief that even the most tragic situations offer opportunities for learning and personal growth. Susan believed that. Of course, David’s death was an exceedingly painful event for her. Yet, rather than being overwhelmed by the changes she experienced in her life because of his death, Susan looked at each change as a challenge. Every new accomplishment, even the mundane ones such as dealing with car repairs, felt like a personal triumph.
There is another characteristic of resilient grievers – a belief that something good can come from even the worst events. Matthew’s daughter died of a congenital heart disease. While he mourns the death of his daughter, Matthew takes comfort from the fact that he and his wife were able to donate her daughter’s organ to science and that her heart would lead to heart disease prevention for other children in the future. Matthew believes that even out of this tragedy, some good resulted.
Resilient grievers have one other trait, according to studies. They often consciously try to engender positive memories of the person who died. Over time in studies they reported these comforting memories would spontaneously emerge. For example, Susan loved to listen to music with her late husband. Their songs reminded her of some of the wonderful moments in their marriage. She even asked her son to create a special playlist so she could keep these music memories that are so meaningful to her.
Resilient grievers sometimes worry that they are doing too well. If you are one, you should not worry. Everyone reacts to loss in their own way. Even if you have a more resilient pattern of grieving, you are still likely to experience moments when the pain of loss is intense. For those who are still struggling to find resiliency, you may learn the lessons from those who are resilient—even as you grieve.
This article is the first in a series focusing on “Finding Potential for Growth after Loss.” To find out more, go to: www.hospicefoundation.org