The secret life of grief

Bonanno doesn’t pretend that smiling is a magical elixir or that laughing will cure the hardest-suffering patients. Grief isn’t a single track, he’s found, but a long private journey that splits along three rough paths. Ten percent of us experience “chronic” and relentless grief that demands counseling. Another third or so plunges into deep sadness and gradually begins recovery. But most of us—”between 50 and 60 percent,” Bonanno said—quickly appear to be fine, despite day-to-day fluctuations. Scientists used to consider these patients tragic actors, shoving their feelings into the core of their bodies, where they would only explode with volcanic violence in dreadful ways later in life. But this, Bonanno says, might be the biggest myth of all. “If you think you’re doing okay,” he said, “then you’re doing okay.” …

For the 16 months after her diagnosis, I returned the favor. We never spoke of the food she couldn’t eat, the thick hair she couldn’t grow back, or the weight she couldn’t keep. Instead, riding home from New York once a month and bounding onto her bed, I’d serve a feast of happy stories harvested from a life spent trying not to worry. I cried often, but privately, in the stairway at work, on the train behind a pair of sunglasses, and in my apartment, indulging a memory behind a locked door. But I only lost it twice in front of her, both times trying to say the same thing: What makes me saddest isn’t imagining all the things I’ll miss, but imagining all the things you’ll miss. The wedding dances, the wine-fueled parties, her birthday cards, each emblazoned with ludicrously incorrect ages. For Mom, who drew kinetic energy from every drip of living, as if by photosynthesis, and braved the winter of life with spring in her heart, smiling like a sweet little maniac all the way to the end, cancer was such cosmic robbery.