One Way to Handle Grief: Just Get Over It

Even right after the death of her husband in 2005, Eleanor Clift says, she was determined to
Even right after the death of her husband in 2005, Eleanor Clift says, she was determined to "keep on living life as best I can and as normal as I can." (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)
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By Charles Zanor
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The day after Eleanor Clift's husband died of kidney cancer in March 2005, "The McLaughlin Group" host John McLaughlin phoned. Would Clift, a Newsweek contributing editor, be in the television studio the next day, he wanted to know, for the customary Friday taping of the show?

After consulting with her son, Clift agreed.

A mildly startling decision, perhaps, but a reflection of a kind of resilience that is often overlooked.

Clift's recently published book, "Two Weeks of Life," chronicling her final days with her husband, Tom Brazaitis, demonstrates they had a solid marriage and a healthy dependence on each other. Her decision to occupy her usual seat that Friday and bat around the political issues of the day did not reflect a lack of caring but a way of coping.

When I asked her if she had drawn any positive lessons from her experience, Clift named only one:

"It's really a gift to help usher someone out of life. It's a moving experience, and I kept trying to be mindful of the fact that this is part of life. . . . And if I could just somehow get through it and honor his memory and keep on living life as best I can and as normal as I can, that's what I would do."

That response is one Christopher Davis, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, has come to recognize. Davis has spent more than a decade studying how people respond to the death of a loved one. Eight years after a mine disaster in Nova Scotia took the lives of 26 coal miners, he and his colleagues interviewed 52 surviving family members, including 11 widows. Three groups emerged from his analysis of the responses: mullers (who extract positive lessons from the experience), chronic grievers and copers (like Clift).

The Nova Scotia interviews lasted two to three hours or longer, giving the family members plenty of room to speak their minds -- almost unheard of in these days of multiple-choice questionnaires and checklists. The people the researchers spoke with "wanted to tell their story," Davis told me.

The interviewers asked about the personal impact of the loss, whether anything positive had come of it, how it affected their philosophy of life and whether they ever tried to find a purpose for the death: the big "Why did this happen to me [or my husband or son or father]?"

The mullers were exactly the collection of successful grievers that Davis had expected to find. As he wrote in the 2008 "Handbook of Bereavement Research and Clinical Practice," published by the American Psychological Association, "People in this cluster tended to report losing a part of themselves, searching for and finding some meaning . . . and describing positive [personal] changes."

As Davis notes, this is consistent with 20 years of psychological literature reporting that many people eventually feel that a wrenching loss also had some benefits. I have a mnemonic device for this reaction: CPR. The "C" is for character (these people have been tested and strengthened); "P" is for perspective (they now see the world in a new way); "R" is for relationships (important people in their lives have taken on increased emotional significance).

The second group fared less well. They were the chronic grievers, stuck in many ways where they had been eight years earlier.

Almost all asked "Why did this happen?" Almost none found answers. The overwhelming majority felt nothing good had come from the experience, that it had shattered their beliefs about justice and the benevolent intentions of others.

The third group, the copers, were a surprise for Davis. Had he not designed the study to let participants speak for themselves, he might have missed them.

"They had an orientation to life, a way of looking at life, that said, 'You know what? [Bad stuff] happens. When it comes along, well, here it is.'

"I was blown away by one comment that one of the participants made . . . : 'If it hadn't been the explosion, it would have been a car accident, or it might have been cancer. It might have been something else.' You know, his days were numbered. It happened this way, and get used to it."

In contrast to the chronic grievers and the mullers, virtually none of the copers asked the "why" question. They did not feel the death had given them inner strength, and almost two-thirds said that as far as they could tell, nothing good had come of it.

The quiet coping response has not received a lot of attention in the loss literature. Yet if you look around, quiet copers seem to be everywhere.

When I asked a friend about the death of his mother several years ago, he told me this story:

"My father never complained during my mother's [neurodegenerative] illness. He just took care of her by himself until we finally had to put her in a nursing facility. . . . She was there for about a month before she died. . . . Right after that he went into planning mode, asking each of the [adult] kids how they felt about this and that funeral arrangement. . . . If you asked him how he felt, he'd tell you: I feel torn apart, I feel relieved, I miss her. But unless you asked him how he felt, he didn't really talk about his feelings."

About three days after the funeral, my friend noticed that his father didn't have his wedding ring on. (The removal, by the way, was no easy task; he had to have it done at the local fire station.) My friend asked him why he wasn't wearing it. Even though I can see his answer coming from a mile away, it still slays me: "Because I'm not married anymore."

He never had a period of nonfunctioning after his wife's death, and he soon found volunteer activities (a food-share program, a community garden) to devote time to. He made connections at the senior center as well.

He embodies the best qualities of the quiet copers, the people who roll up their sleeves and get to work, who deal with things by dealing with things.

It would be a big mistake to think, however, that the sleeve-rollers just move along without looking back.

Eleanor Clift told me that she continues to think about her husband every day: When she has a decision to make, she'll try to figure out what advice he would give her.

As a psychologist, I am a muller and a rehasher. I have to be. If I brought in casseroles for my patients instead of reviewing life events, I wouldn't be doing my job. Besides, I couldn't stop rehashing things if you paid me.

But can there be too much talking, reflecting, uncovering and exploring one's feelings? Sometimes it has to be better to just shut up and have a sandwich.

We mullers have managed to infuse popular culture with the idea that the unfailing exploration of your feelings will put you on the main road to personal happiness. Well, tell that to the copers. They seem to be doing just fine.

Charles Zanor is a practicing psychologist in Massachusetts.

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