Smile, Though Your Heart Is Breaking

Bereavement Punctuated by Chuckles Could
Be Therapeutic, Psychologists Find

by Patricia McBroom

Grieving the death of a loved one is considered hard work. One is supposed to "work through" the anger, sadness and hostility, coming eventually to an acceptance of loss and resolution.

This is how the psychological literature says it is done and this is how many clinicians deal with bereavement.

They could be wrong.

In contrast to traditional assumptions, two psychologists from Berkeley and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., have found that people who laugh in the months following the death of a spouse are better able to function years later than are people who express more negative emotions.

The laughter apparently releases the stress of negative feelings and allows the person to take time out from the grieving process. That seems to lead to a healthier outcome, according to Dacher Keltner, assistant professor of psychology.

"Our findings pose problems for basic theories on mourning," said Keltner. "It may be that 'working through'-as in focusing on -the negative aspects of bereavement is not the best idea because people who distanced themselves by laughing were actually doing better years later."

The researchers found that the more anger, disdain and contempt (but not sadness) expressed by people six months after the death of a spouse, the more likely they were to be still preoccupied by the experience a year or two later.

Keltner's work and that of George A Bonanno, assistant professor of psychology at Catholic University, have recently stirred up debate at meetings of bereavement clinicians. The two have five papers in circulation based on intensive physiological and emotional study of the adjustment of 85 bereaved spouses in their mid-40s, in a project that began at UCSF in 1991.

Their most recent publication putting forth the salutary effects of laughter during bereavement will be published in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association.

"We found the opposite of what the literature says we should find," said Bonanno.

"Everybody talks about 'having to do your grief work.' Even Freud talked about the 'work of mourning.' Yet, we found that the more people focus on the negative, the worse off they seem later," said Bonanno.

The two psychological researchers hasten to add that they are not recommending that people deny the negativity they may feel, but that they be able to let go of it from time to time, put the pain aside and laugh.

Evidence that spouses in this study were doing just that came from narrative analysis of their interviews, combined with coding of the facial expressions.

Some 90 percent of all the laughter in the study occurred while people talked about negative things, such as "It's not fair that he died," or "His job was killing him." Rarely did they laugh when they talked about positive things.

"They laughed when they talked about distressing things," said Keltner. "It allowed them to disassociate themselves from the grief. Perhaps this is a good mechanism for moving you away from the death experience."

The researchers took care to remove the possibility that their findings were due to original differences among people in levels of social functioning due to mourning, by statistically controlling for amounts of grief, as expressed in an interview given at the first meeting. Still, laughter made a large positive difference in the outcome for these mourners. Expressions of sadness did not relate to the outcome at all, but expressions of anger correlated with a negative outcome.

The first interview took place six months after the death of a spouse, with subsequent meetings at the second and third year after the death. The research now includes new data from a five- to seven-year follow-up which has yet to be analyzed.

Although their research has been interpreted in a London newspaper as an endorsement of the "stiff upper lip," Keltner and Bonanno emphasize that they are not recommending deliberate avoidance or suppression of feelings.

"There is a difference between deliberately putting down feelings and just shifting away from them," said Bonanno. "Deliberate avoidance does not work."

Nevertheless, Keltner said, he is left with questions about the role of giving expression to negative feelings.

"What do you do with all the anger and bitterness you may feel during mourning? I can't answer that question. Suppressing emotion is not the answer, but remember that people who laughed also experienced negative emotions."

He added that the spouses who told their stories in laboratories while wired up for physiological measurements were certainly feeling the grief because their narratives, when they talked about their deceased spouse, brought tears to his eyes.

"Some told flowing, poetic stories of falling in love. Others were tongue-tied, halting and overcome with emotion. Some were really happy when they thought about their deceased spouse; others were bitter or angry about how they died," said Keltner.

One consequence of the laughter was to increase social bonding, the researchers found. People were more likely to be drawn to those who laughed and that may have contributed to the improved functioning down the line, they said.

People were also drawn to those who cried, however, and the presence or absence of tears did not predict outcome one way or the other.



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