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George A. Bonanno is a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University,[1] Teachers College. He is known as a pioneering researcher in the field of bereavement and trauma.[2][3][4][5][6] His contributions to the field, summarized in his book, "The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss,"[7] include the following:

  • Introducing rigorous scientific methods of research to the field of bereavement and trauma;
  • Describing for the first time, a natural resilience as the main component of grief and trauma reactions in people who face major losses, such as the death of a spouse, the loss of a child, having suffered sexual abuse as a child, or losing a loved one in severe stressor events, such as the World Trade Center collapse of September 11 attacks;
  • Replacing with scientific findings the major concepts of grief that are theoretical, unsupported scientifically, but remain popular among the lay public today, such as Kübler-Ross model of the stages of grief and the idea of grief work based on the Freud's ideas [8] ;
  • Demonstrating that some practices common in grief counseling and among therapists after potentially traumatic events are harmful, such as asking people to talk about a loss[2] or to cry about a loss, practices that are common part of public policy and are based on the underlying assumption that people are not resilient;
  • Showing that genuine laughter and smiling, rather than crying, is a healthy response to a loss or stressor event;
  • The first and only researcher having obtained and used pre-loss data to understand the processes of grief;
  • Based on pre-loss data, outlining four trajectories of grief;
  • Demonstrating that absence of grief or trauma symptoms is a healthy outcome, rather than something to be feared as has been the thought and practice until his research;
  • Coining the phrase "coping ugly" to describe the idea that coping with grief takes many forms, some of which seem counter intuitive.

The neutrality of this section is disputed.


Bonanno is the researcher who found that resilience is the core experience of human grief and trauma reactions. Bonanno's finding of resilience overturns what has been the status quo assumption of a person's experience of grief and trauma in the West since Sigmund Freud nearly a century ago. Bonanno's contribution to the field is to have found resilience through rigorous research and not through anecdotal evidence or theorizing.

Controversy. Many in the field of bereavement have found Bonanno's finding of persistent resilience in the face of potentially traumatic events controversial. A main source of controversy comes from those who are not researchers, but therapeutic practitioners who have relied on Freud's theories and those of his followers, who 1) overlook resilient reactions and 2) pathologize resilient reactions as repressed or hidden grief that will come back to haunt people.[9] Many therapists and psychiatrists who treat the chronically affected find it hard to imagine that no treatment is needed for most people who have experienced a loss or even an extreme stressor event, such as during 9-11 or childhood sexual abuse. Further, in contrast to Freud's and his followers' ideas and prevailing popular theories, it is difficult for many people to accept laughter as a more healthy response than crying. Another difficult concept, especially in the face a potentially traumatic event when people feel pulled to help in some way, is to realize that offering treatment to otherwise well people can cause harm, by producing the symptoms they hope to avoid.[2]

Other critics have claimed the opposite, that far from being misguided, the idea that humans are resilient is so obvious that it is simplistic.[10] Others have countered that it may seem simple, but the idea has escaped researchers for the century between Freud's work and Bonanno's.[10] Policy and treatment for the past century has relied on the false idea that humans are not resilient, a costly mistake in human and monetary terms.

Resilience Overturns Stages Model. That people are resilient even when facing extreme stressors or losses contradicts the stages model of grief. If people are resilient then there is no stage of grief to pass through. Until Bonanno, therapists and psychiatrists considered the absence of grief a pathology to be feared, rather than a healthy outcome.[11]

Importance of Resilience. Resilience has profound implications for people's concepts of themselves, especially after suffering a severe stressor event. The idea also has important implication for how the therapeutic community thinks of bereavement and treats bereavement. Bonanno's research has shown that universal counseling by grief counselors after potentially traumatic events does more harm than good.[12] Resilience being an inherent part of human experience after major stressor events also may have important implications for public policy, such as how to best treat veterans who have served in war situations and whether to counsel large populations after major stressor events, such as tsunamis or mass shootings.

Four Trajectories of Grief and Trauma Reactions

In 2002 and 2004, Bonanno described the four most common trajectories of grief or potential trauma.[13][14] This research was based on longitudinal data beginning prior to the loss. In subsequent studies, Bonanno and colleagues identified the same trajectories following other potentially traumatic events, such as the September 11th Terrorist Attack in New York [15] and the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong.[16] Contrary to common assumptions about loss and trauma, Bonanno’s research has shown that resilience is the most common pattern and that delayed reactions are rare.

The four trajectories and the percentages of people who tend to fall into each category are expanded upon in his book, "The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss,"[7] The book also includes graphs of the trajectories.

The four trajectories are as follows:

  • Resilience: “The ability of adults in otherwise normal circumstances who are exposed to an isolated and potentially highly disruptive event, such as the death of a close relation or a violent or life-threatening situation, to maintain relatively stable, healthy levels of psychological and physical functioning” as well as “the capacity for generative experiences and positive emotions.”
  • Recovery: When “normal functioning temporarily gives way to threshold or sub-threshold psychopathology (e.g., symptoms of depression or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)), usually for a period of at least several months, and then gradually returns to pre-event levels.”
  • Chronic dysfunction: The prolonged suffering and in ability to function, usually lasting several years or longer.
  • Delayed grief or trauma: When adjustment seems normal but then distress and symptoms increase months later. Researchers have not found evidence of delayed grief, but delayed trauma appears to be a genuine phenomenon

Coping Ugly

Bonanno coined the phrase "coping ugly" to describe his finding that grief and coping with grief take many forms. Behaviors that may not be healthy ordinarily may be helpful in times of stress, such as self-serving biases.[17]

Research Methodology

Bonanno is known for conducting well-thought-out, multi-cultural research into grief and trauma, including studies in Nanjing, China; among war survivors in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and in Israel. He has done multi-dimensional studies of emotion regulation, stressful life events, resilience, and adjustment among college students; a study of emotion and well-being among survivors of childhood sexual abuse (in collaboration with researchers at NIH); and several recent studies of resilience and adjustment in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York City (funded by the National Science Foundation).[18]

In addition, he is known for developing new research techniques, such as a measure of ambivalence.


  1. includeonly>Carey, Benedict. "Economic collapse brings out resilience in most, experts say", The New York Times., The New York Times Company, 2009-01-01. Retrieved on 2009-10-14.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2
  3. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, Professor of Psychology, Yale University, “Bonanno has revolutionized our thinking about how people respond to loss and trauma. The Other Side of Sadness has tremendous implications for interventions and for how people see themselves.”
  4. Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology, Harvard University; author of Stumbling on Happiness, “There are a lot of books on bereavement and now you can throw them all away. Bonanno carefully assembles scientific evidence to show that most of what we thought we knew is just plain wrong.”
  5. George A. Bonanno's Columbia University Faculty Page
  6. includeonly>Szegedy-Maszak, Marianne. "Self-absorbed handle trauma best", U.S.News and World report, 2005-06-23. Retrieved on 2009-10-14.
  7. 7.0 7.1 The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After a Loss
  8. Boston Globe Business Day Article: Some comfort for the grieving: There's no wrong way to do it
  10. 10.0 10.1
  13. Bonanno, G. A., Wortman, C. B., Lehman, D. R., Tweed, R. G., Haring, M., Sonnega, J., Carr, D., & Neese, R. M. ( 2002). Resilience to loss and chronic grief: A prospective study from pre-loss to 18 months post-loss. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83. 1150-1164.
  14. Bonanno, G. A. (2004).* Loss, trauma, and human resilience: Have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely adverse events? American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.
  15. Bonanno, G. A., Rennicke, C., & Dekel, S. (2005). Self-Enhancement among high-exposure survivors of the September 11th terrorist attack: Resilience or social maladjustment? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 984-998.
  16. Bonanno, G. A., Ho, S.M.Y., Chan, J.C.K, Kwong, R.S.Y., Cheung, C.K.Y.,Wong, C.P.Y., & Wong, V.C.W. (2008).Psychological resilience and dysfunction among hospitalized survivors of the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong: A latent class approach. Health Psychology, 27, 659-667.
  17. Bonanno, G. A., & Mancini, A. D. (2008). The human capacity to thrive in the face of extreme adversity. Pediatrics, 121, 369-375.
  18. Press Release by Teachers College, Columbia University

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