My daughter's death was my first real experience with grief--and it wasn't what I'd expected. You see the "Stages of Grief" all listed in neat order, and you imagine your grief will somehow resemble a chart. You'll go through denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression, and then acceptance. Except that I kept cycling around anger and depression. I'm not sure that I felt any denial except for the first few hours. And acceptance? Well, my experience has been that grief never goes away and that acceptance looks very different for different people.
Why doesn't grief go away? Well, here are four reasons it might not for you.
1. Grief doesn't affect just one person. It affects a group of people. For me, this has meant that my children are still going through their own grieving process as they have grown from children to adults. They didn't really know what they had lost until recently, and so they are still trying to deal with the emptiness in their lives. Also, I did my best to deal with my grief in my own way, without involving them in it. That may or may not have been a mistake, but what that means is they didn't realize that I was grieving until more recently as I've shared information about what I went through in a way they can now understand.
2. A loss continues to grow as time passes. What I mean by this is that as our family has gone on, there are more things that my daughter has missed. In the first year, I only thought about baby milestones: rolling over, learning to walk and talk. As time has gone on, I've missed the first day of school, her first instrument, her elementary school graduation. And in the future, I will be grieving the loss of her first date, her first kiss, her marriage, her college years, on and on. I realized one day at church as I was braiding my other girls' hair that she wasn't there, that she should have been adding into the joy, but she was gone. That happens every day, as I collect new moments where she should have been, but wasn't.
3. You never go back to who you used to be. I kept waiting to be the person I had been before, and I think other people expected that's what would happen, too. They imagined that I would be sad for a while, and then be back to my old self. I wanted it so much sometimes that it added to my depression and grief. I was grieving over my daughter's death, and honestly over my own, too. The person I had been that day she died also died, and I couldn't make myself be her again, no matter how much I tried. I have to grieve two deaths instead of one, and I think this is true for many people who grieve.
4. Grief becomes part of who you are. I used to wish that it wasn't true. I guess that's a part of denial, but I did think that if I'd accepted grief then I wouldn't feel so much pain when I thought of my daughter. I've described myself as "permanently broken" before and although it may sound as if I'm exaggerating or even trying to get attention, it is simply the new reality of my life. In order to have a new life after the old me had died, I had to create an identity that had grief at its core. I don't feel the need to shove this part of my identity in everyone's face, but it comes up A LOT. I've found some peace in the reality that there has always been a hidden group of mothers who have lost children, and now I'm a part of that club that no one ever wants to be part of, but is there in the background, ready to come to your aid when you call.
"Acceptance" for me has meant that I'm prickly about people telling me what my grief means or how it's supposed to look. It means that I sometimes turn off a show or a link on-line about a parent who has lost a child because it hurts too much and I give myself permission not to do that when I'm not ready. Acceptance isn't "moving on" and "letting go" of my pain. It's loving myself as I am, grief and all. And whatever they say about the stages of grief, I can shrug and talk about how it works for me.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.