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16 January 2020

Love, Loss, Grief, Complexity, and Resilience

Written by
Carolyn Coughlin

If we understand the different ways people react to loss, we understand something about what it means to be human, something about the way we experience life and death, love and meaning, sadness and joy. (George Bonanno, The Other Side of Sadness)

In early 2018, at the age of 52, I had the first experience in my adult life of losing someone I loved deeply.  Pango, our 9 year old Golden Doodle, was my first dog. I loved that dog so much, I frequently told people that he was immortal and that he could never die because I wouldn’t be able to bear it.  So when he was diagnosed with cancer, and I knew he would die long before the “never” I had predicted, it was a huge blow.  In the days before and after he died, I felt such a huge range of emotions, I was amazed that one human body could contain such a multiplicity without self-destructing. The night before we put him down, I lay on the floor and held him while I wept and he slept. The next morning, we fixed him a huge cheese and bacon omelet and laughed hysterically while he devoured it on our kitchen floor.  I looked at him and felt such love. Shortly after he took his last breath, I stood in the middle of my living room and shouted to the empty house, begging for the universe to please bring him back. Then I collapsed on the floor and cried, and after a little of that, I began to breathe more deeply, calmed down, and went to my desk and wrote him a love letter.

Prior to that, I can’t say that I’d ever experienced that kind of intense co-arising of seemingly divergent emotions while also being conscious of that experiencing in the moment. Up until then, the loss of an unconditional and bottomless love had only been a theoretical concept. Now it was real. And as I’d soon find out, it was only a warmup for what was to unfold over the next two years, during which time I lost one of my closest friends and colleagues, my mother, my mother-in-law, and my brother.  It’s been a hell of a ride so far, and while I’ve been attempting to be as fully present to it as possible, simply experiencing it fully in each moment, I’ve also found it helpful to try and understand the experience of grief itself through a lens that is already familiar to me.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far about love, loss, and grief, and the surprising ways in which an understanding of complexity and complexity-fitness practices is helping me.

Grief is a complex phenomenon, emerging for each of us from a unique mixture of personal conditioning (like our lived experience, our intergenerational history, and our biology) and the particular circumstances of and context surrounding the loss that precipitated the grief itself (like the nature of the relationship, the timing, what else was happening in our lives, and our support system.) And like other complex phenomena, it can’t be understood in a linear way, and it can’t be controlled through brute force or even careful analysis. This is incredibly liberating for a variety of practical reasons, including:

  • It means that when I think I’m making progress in one moment and in the next moment find myself crying all day after getting a call from my 19 year old daughter telling me that she didn’t get an offer from the sorority she wanted (yes, this actually happened today!) I can be more accepting of what’s happening, even if it doesn’t make sense in logical, linear sort of way.
  • It releases me from the idea that if I’m just good enough at doing the “work of grief” that somehow I’ll be able figure out how to do grief right. This allows me to be with my experience, rather than trying to conquer it.
  • It allows me to draw the boundaries of “normal” much wider. In other words, I don’t have to do grief and loss like anyone else does.

There do seem to be patterns to “resilient” grieving. George Bonanno, in his book The Other Side of Sadness:  What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us about Life After Loss, looked at why it was that when people in his studies were exposed to similar types of losses, some were so obviously devastated and others emerged mostly unscathed. What he found were some really helpful patterns that are surprisingly similar to what I already know about complexity fitness and some of its key components.

Bonanno found in his research that how a person makes sense of their lost loved one was far more predictive of their resilience in grief than were the actual circumstances of the relationship or the loss itself. In other words, a person’s inner capacity to make sense of the loss and of themselves in it matters at least as much as the nature of the external circumstances themselves. For example:

  • Resilient grievers seem to be good at both intentionally remembering and honoring their lost loved one in positive ways while also engaging in the normal ongoing demands of their own lives. In other words, they manage this key polarity well. [1].
  • They also tend to be more able to adjust to the shifting demands of different situations. They are more flexible and able to do what it takes to deal with what comes their way.
  • They tend to be optimistic, confident, and have a belief in their own agency to influence how things will go.
  • And, finally, they seem to have a broader range of emotional expression as well as the ability to self-regulate. They are able to experience their emotions while neither unconsciously shutting down them down nor being overtaken by them.

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that resilient grieving turns out to have many of the same ingredients as resilient living!  Being fit for a complex world requires that we see our external conditions (our Context) for what they are, not what we wish they were. That we notice the ways our Context is sometimes a threat to our ability to maintain our intact sense of who we are (Identity.)  And that these threats show up in our whole selves, not only as thoughts, but deep in our nervous systems (Soma.)[2]  So having a language to think and talk about our experience—whether it’s love or loss, joy or grieving– helps us make sense of it in a way that is more reflective of what is actually happening and therefore releases us from some of our natural but unhelpful tendencies to try and predict and control.  From our Complexity Fitness work, we also know that finding ways to amplify three conditions–Stability, Fluidity, and Connection[3]—supports resilience in the face of constantly changing and sometimes overwhelming external conditions.  All three of these seem to show up in the patterns Bonnano found in his work.  More importantly, they have proven helpful in my own lived experience. I have found Stability in remembering and orienting around what I care about.  This includes my work, my family and friends, and my own well-being.  While I have slowed down a bit from my normal pace since the passing of my brother in early December, I have not turned completely away from the normal things that ground me.  I have leaned into Fluidity in new ways, particularly when it comes to the way I experience my wildly fluctuating emotions.  And I have been keenly aware of the importance of Connection, both to myself and to my loved ones.  My one remaining sibling and I have relied on each other heavily.  And the wider web of connections I have cultivated over the years, which includes people from literally all eras and geographies of my life, has been both a safety net and a warm blanket for me. And I’m paying attention to the interplay among these three ingredients of Stability, Fluidity, and Connection, trying to notice when they get out of whack.

I am noticing how the work I do every day seems to be serving me reasonably well as I have moved and continue to move through the tsunami of loss and grief that has permeated my life these last two years.  It seems that the ingredients for resilient loving and living are not so different to those for losing and grieving.  I hope you and your clients find something in here that supports you in whatever complexity your world has on offer for you.

Above all, [grief] is a human experience.  It is something we are wired for, and it is certainly not meant to overwhelm us.  Rather, our reactions to grief seem designed to help us accept and accommodate losses relatively quickly so that we can continue to live productive lives  [so that] we are able to keep on living our lives and loving those still present around us.



[1] See Barry Johnson’s Polarity Management.

[2] See this blog for further explanation of these ideas.

[3] See this blog for further explanation of these ideas.

One thought on “Love, Loss, Grief, Complexity, and Resilience”

  1. Dear Carolyn,
    Thank you for your moving story and highly valuable considerations. I feel with you and will take your reflections along with me for darker days to come.
    Heartfelt regards,

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