Brainwave’s “Grief and Gratitude”

Attachment is the theme of the Rubin Museum of Art’s 2015’s Brainwave series—what does it really mean to attach? Yes, we become attached to a large range of “things,” including our smartphones, our daily routines, and even our feelings of success and happiness. The greatest and most powerful attachments we form, however, are to people. I may fear losing my iPhone or breaking my favorite mug, but the loss of a loved one would be exceedingly more devastating.

In a poignant and honest talk between professor of clinical psychology and researcher George A. Bonanno and economist Sonali Deraniyagala, author of Wave, a book about the loss of her immediate family—her two sons, husband, and parents—to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka, she eloquently discussed her personal experience with grief.

After the tragedy, the everyday (a blade of grass, a shirt, a bird) had become terrifying. Returning to her apartment in London, a place full of memories of her time with her family, seemed impossible. Deraniyagala pointed out that remembering her family is a highly painful experience, but there can also be “a certain deliciousness to agony.” People suggested that she try to not imagine what she would be doing with her family if they were alive because the feelings would be too intense, too heart-wrenching, and wouldn’t allow her to move on. She finds the opposite to be true. In order to recover, she needs to feel her family by recognizing the reality of her agony and their death, for agony is “infused with love.” Other preoccupations such as guilt for not rescuing her loved ones were “superficial” distractions that would not allow her to heal.

Is there a particular way people should cope with loss and grief? According to Bonanno, instead of loss shattering an individual’s or group’s lives or identities, it is more like a beehive that has been knocked over. The bees, or in this case the brain, is thrown a curveball from which it can recover. He claimed it can be repaired, rebuilt, and the bees (in this case brain cells) will fix the beehive or make a new one. Interestingly, Deraniyagala disagreed. She said she felt “fractured from the absence” of her loved ones and needed time to “distill her loss.” In Wave, Deraniyagala details how she recovered from her immensely painful tragedy by following her own instincts and setting her own pace. For her, the creative writing process, including construction of narrative and careful selection of words, was a safe way to dip into the memory of a giant wave that up-ended all facets of her life and the precious people it took from her.

The mechanisms underlying grief and resilience are largely a mystery. When Bonanno expressed his surprise at how long it took Deraniyagala to recover, he was not being insensitive but, rather, remarking upon her seemingly high level of resilience.  In his book, The Other Side of Sadness, Bonanno demonstrates that the conventional model of sadness disregards the human capacity for resilience and emotional and ritualistic coping methods. Ultimately, Deraniyagala and Bonanno concluded that dealing with loss, grief, and psycho-emotional pain is a highly personal experience that each individual feels and deals with differently. Although from a Buddhist background, Deraniyagala found little solace in the Buddhist idea of impermanence and accepted her attachment to those she loved rather than keeping them at a distance and disconnecting from her memories of them. This was her coping method and obviously, she said, it would not work for everyone.

Tara, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

Green Tara, courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

Towards the end of the program, moderator Tim McHenry asked Deraniyagala about her interest in Green Tara, a remarkably beautiful brass sculpture upstairs in the gallery. She answered that it simply reminded her of similar works she had seen in Sri Lanka during childhood. Fittingly, Deraniyagala and Green Tara are very much alike and what the protective deity preaches according to McHenry—“all we have to fear is fear itself”—applies as much to Deraniyagala’s remarkable story of fearless resilience and recovery from an unimaginable tragedy as it did to FDR’s presidential moment in time.

This year marks the Rubin Museum’s eighth annual Brainwave series of conversations, films, and experiences revolving around neuroscience. Events continue until April 29; tickets can be purchased at the door or online.

– Amanda Bastone

One response

  1. I can not imagine the pain Deraniyagala has gone through and continues to live with. After the death of my only grandchild and later my only child, I learned how important it was for me to change my attachment from a physical relationship to a spiritual relationship. They are a huge part of my identity and certainly my history. We can live a good live without our family that has died and remain attached. That is the healthy was to grieve. I am thankful Deraniyagala shared her story!

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