This September, it will be 10 years since my mother died of cancer. It seems as if it were a lifetime ago and it seems as if it were yesterday. That is the nature of grief; it has it's own rhythm. It is both present and in the past and it appears that it continues to stay that way no matter how much time has gone by.
A few years ago when my friend Meghan O'Rourke and I published a series of articles on grief and loss in Slate magazine, some criticized the findings because some of the respondents had experienced a loss many years before taking the survey. In psychology we call this phenomenon "recall bias," where people filling out surveys wrongly or incompletely remember experiences from the past.
Memory is certainly pliable, and it is possible that people made errors in recalling what their grief was really like for them. Methodologically and intuitively that makes sense, but as a griever, I am not so sure.
The idea that the more years have passed since a loss, the less likely someone is to recall their grief rests on the assumption that grief is a static event in time that will eventually fade. This view is aligned with what many researchers in the field of psychology and psychiatry believe: that grief has a starting point, a middle point, and an end point. The heated debates in the media and in the field about when grief becomes pathological rest on the assumption that at some point, grief becomes "too much" and needs to be treated with medication or a mental health professional. If grief is a static event in time, then it certainly makes sense that it would be hard for people to remember what their experience was like five or 10 years after a loss.
Having spent years studying grief, and being a griever myself now entering her tenth year of loss, I know that grief does not work this way. It is not an event in time. It is not even just an emotional response to a loss. It is a process that changes us permanently but also constantly as we ourselves change and grow. In this sense, grief is just like love. It is not something that happens once and goes away -- it is something that evolves, expands and contracts, and changes in shape, depth, and intensity as time goes on.
Grief is lifelong, ever-changing companion. It is both in the present and in the past. Moments of intense yearning and pain for the deceased can come and go even 10 or 20 or 30 years after a person we love has died. It is cliché to say it, but it is also true: Grief is the price we pay for love. Grief is still with me because my mother is still with me. To deny one is inevitably to deny the other.
Interestingly, between mothers and children, there is a biological correlate to "the being with and in each other" called fetal microchimerism. It is an amazing phenomenon where fetal cells from the baby make their way into their mother's bodies and vice versa, mother's cells become intertwined into the baby's body. In other words, my mother is literally part of me biologically and emotionally and my cells were with, and in her when she died.
To be sure, microchimerism is just a metaphor -- this being with and part of each other is not just for biological mothers and children. It is for everyone who has loved and lost. When I present my professional work, I often say I am a grief researcher, but actually, grief is just a stand in for what I am really studying -- love and attachment. One cannot come without the other. Just like love, grief is an experience that evolves and changes with time; but one thing is for sure, it is not forgettable, because it never goes away.