Grief, Trauma, and Resilience After Suicide
By George A. Bonanno, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Columbia University
Grief and mourning have largely been understood as following a predictable five-stage process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In my recent book, The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells us about Life After Loss (Basic Books), I summarize several decades of research to illustrate how this traditional model fails to represent what most of us experience.
A primary reason to reject the accepted model for mourning is that it discounts our remarkable capacity for resilience. The available evidence suggests actually that we are hardwired to deal with losses. Many people cope with death and bereavement extremely well, often without the help of a mental health professional. In some cases, grief may actually deepen interpersonal connections and lead to a profound new sense of meaning in life.
The loss of a loved one to suicide is undeniably a difficult loss, perhaps the most difficult loss anyone might endure. When family or friends take their own lives through suicide, survivors must often endure a volatile mix of grief and trauma reactions. The research backs this up. People bereaved from suicide have been found to experience greater levels of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and complicated grief, compared to bereaved people who have suffered other types of losses.
But as with all losses, not every survivor of suicide has the same reactions and not every survivor suffers to the same extent or for the same length of time. Research on disasters and other types of potentially traumatic life events shows us clearly that only some survivors will experience long-term or unremitting difficulties. Usually this proportion is limited at most to one in three survivors, and most of the time the proportion is considerably lower. By contrast, many and often the majority of survivors of traumatic events cope remarkably well. The same appears to be true for survivors of suicide. The good news, if we can call it that, is that most suicide survivors will eventually be ok; that is they will find a way to accept the reality of their loss, however painful, and find a way to once again live a healthy fulfilling life, with all the joys and sorrows it entails.