This is not a feel-good article. But it is an honest one. It’s not one of those light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel creative guides to grieving that recommend journaling, drawing pictures of your deceased loved one, having imaginary conversations with your dead relative to resolve “unresolved issues,” practicing mindfulness, composing healing affirmations, or making memory books (though, you should do any and all of those things if they make you feel better).
I am not a certified grief counselor, but I am a bona fide grief expert — that is, if you consider someone with a lifetime of hands-on experience an expert. If my words sound like they have an edge, that’s because they do. I am tired of people telling me (and others) how to grieve, what is normal, what is not, what is acceptable, what is not, that it will get better, that I should be over it by now.
At this point, if you’re newly bereaved and/or fragile by nature, you may want to stop reading, because you may not be ready to hear what I’m going to say. On the other hand, if you’re years into your loss, you already know what I’m going to say: Grief never ends.
Except for those who are in the throes of very recent, not-yet-fully-processed grief — which can render us hopeless, helpless, irrational, and desperate, and nowhere near ready to accept that our loved ones are gone forever — I think that knowing and accepting that grief, like death, is forever, is almost a relief.
So, I won’t pander with pretty platitudes (”Time heals all wounds”), religious bromides (”God needed another angel”; “They’re together in Heaven now”), or other thought-terminating cliches meant either to comfort the grief-stricken or to break an awkward silence when there is nothing — because there truly is nothing — that can be said that will make things better.
Though there may be “stages” of grieving, those stages do not follow a linear path, and sometimes — often — they overlap. There’s no handy timetable, either. So, when a friend, relative, therapist, counselor, pastor, or rabbi tells you, “It’s time to move on,” ask them how they know. What, exactly, is the cutoff between time to grieve and time to move on? The answer is: There is no cutoff, because grief does not punch a time card.
Here’s the good news: Though grief doesn’t end, it does change shape over time, and, at some point, it becomes part of you. Your grief may mellow — in fact, it must. It may take months or years, but it will not always be as intense as it is now. Why? Because it’s physically and emotionally impossible for human beings to maintain and sustain the draining, often overwhelming, intensity of acute grief for a prolonged period of time. The instinct to survive is the most primal instinct of all living beings, and, at some point, you just get tired — tired of crying, of being sad all the time, of living in the past, of longing for something that can never be. At some point, you will smile again, and it will be because you are genuinely happy. You may not be happy in the same way, but one day, you will laugh, and it will be for real. You will “go on,” because that’s what life is — going on.
5 TRUTHS ABOUT GRIEF
1. GRIEF IS FOREVER. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can “get on with” your life. Don’t let this statement frighten you. Instead, embrace it, even if it takes a while to do so. The fact that grief is forever doesn’t mean that mourning — which includes the outward rituals associated with the death, but, more important, the process of adapting to the death of a loved one — is forever. And you will adapt to life without your loved one. If those words break your heart, you are not alone. It breaks my heart to write them, because, even after years of grieving, seeing those words and internalizing them is painful. Love hurts. Life hurts. Loss hurts. There is no way around it.
You will survive. But don’t expect to be “the same.” The death of a beloved person changes us permanently. But wouldn’t it be sad if it didn’t change us? But the way grief changes us changes as well, and that’s because everything — including change itself — is in flux. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” (Actually, what he said was closer to: “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.”)
2. FEAR IS PART OF GRIEF — AND, UNFORTUNATELY, SO IS SHAME. Most of us are familiar with the concept of grief “stages,” based on the DABDA (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) theory, adapted from the Kübler-Ross model). There is a lot of merit and wisdom in this model and it’s helpful, even comforting, to familiarize yourself with it. I’ve gone through all of these stages in all of the losses throughout my life — including the loss of my parents, my brother, my nieces, and my baby. But there’s another element of grief that people don’t often talk about, and that’s fear. Fear — fear of living without our loved one, fear of losing our minds, fear of never being whole again, fear that it’s going to happen to us, fear of going to sleep, fear of being alone, fear of ghosts, fear of the unknown — is one of the aspects of grief that, for some of us, contains an element of shame. It shouldn’t.
When my brother died, when I was a 16, I became consumed with fear. Fear of touching his hand as he lay in the casket, fear of walking past his bedroom, fear of the dark, fear of dreaming about him, fear of running into a friend who didn’t know, fear that I would see his ghost. When I dared to mention this fear to a grief counselor, she said, “That’s silly. Do you think your brother would ever hurt you?” That’s not the point, asshole! I’d never experienced the death of someone so close — or so young and full of life — before. It was a valid emotion, one that I ended up having to process by myself, because I was afraid people would think I was “crazy” if I shared my fear. But that was a different time; qualified therapists are much better educated about grief and loss today, and, it appears, much less judgmental.
3. YOUR DECEASED LOVED ONE IS NOT TALKING TO THERESA CAPUTO...OR ANYONE ELSE. Believe me: I know how much you want to talk to, hear from, or hug your loved one. I know that you want him or her to be safe. I’ve been there; I’m still there. I always will be. My mother died 20 years ago, and there are still days when I want to just curl up in bed with my blanket and pillow, and imagine that I am lying in her arms, that she is rubbing my head, that she is hugging me and telling me everything is going to be okay.
When we are writhing in pain, it’s natural to crave — and seek — comfort. It’s also very hard to be rational or logical when we are in the throes of grief, particularly early on. Our impulse is often to turn to the quickest and easiest source of solace. We seek the most concrete connection we can find; for many of us, religion doesn’t do it. That’s where mediums who claim to communicate with the dead come in — or slither in — to fill the void. And they charge a pretty penny to prey on your vulnerability and sorrow.
But don’t feel foolish for wanting to see a medium. When my mom died, I wanted desperately to get an appointment with the TV medium-of-the-moment, John Edward. At some point, though, I realized that there would be no way my mother would let herself be “channeled” through a stranger who would relay something stupid like, “She’s telling me that the tiles in the shower need to be regrouted.”
4. GUILT IS NOT A “USELESS EMOTION.”
There are no useless emotions. There are emotions that don’t feel good, but that doesn’t mean they are useless. All I know is that it’s hard enough to feel guilty — I don’t also want to feel guilty because I feel guilty! Whether or not it’s rational or reasonable, many of us have felt guilty — or something close to it — at one time or another after the death of a dear one. Why? Because nobody wants to die, and nobody wants a loved one to die. So, when someone we love does die, we are flooded with emotions, which may or may not include guilt. We may feel guilty simply for breathing the air, or feeling the sun, or watching a new TV show. If you were with your loved one in a situation that he or she did not survive, you may be tormented by survivor’s guilt. (If you’ve never seen Ordinary People, you may want to check it out; it provides some insight into this concept, which wasn’t talked about much in 1980, when the film was released.)
Sometimes, we don’t feel guilt right away. Often, guilt comes much later — for instance, the first time we realize that we are having a good time, smiling, laughing, or enjoying company. This may set us back temporarily, and we may avoid seeing friends or “having fun.” I’ve been to a few grief counselors over the decades, and they’ve all told me not to feel guilty for being happy. Did their advice help me not feel guilty? Of course not. But that’s just me. In my case, though it took years, I realized that no friend, therapist, or book could change my feelings. Only the passage of time and my own growth and insight has helped me. Still, I can’t help feeling melancholy or at least wistful when I’m enjoying something that my parents would have loved, or when I see a group of young teens — who are the age my daughter would be now — having fun at the beach or at an event or even just laughing and talking after school at the deli.
5. “MORBID” THOUGHTS ARE PAR FOR THE COURSE. You know you do it. And I know you do it: You think about your loved one’s “condition” after death. You think about him or her being buried in the ground. You wonder if they knew what was happening when they were being put into the body bag. You pray they didn’t feel pain when they were autopsied. You wonder, probably with extreme anguish, what their organs looked like. You hope they weren’t scared when they were buried, or burned when they were cremated. You think about the cremation process, and have nightmares that they tried to get out of the cremation chamber because they were still alive. You cry when it rains or snows because you don’t want them to be cold in the ground. As time goes by, you have an occasional thought about what their body looks like now.
I’ve been there, done that. Even now, I wonder if my brother is fully skeletal, if my baby is dust. I wonder if my nieces’ ashes “know” that they’re buried next to each other. Is any of this “normal”? Who’s to say? A clinician who was trained by other clinicians who wrote textbooks based on research done on the limited body of knowledge available to other mortals? Of course, these thoughts are morbid. But isn’t death morbid? In my opinion, it is more normal, albeit far less comforting, than imagining a loved one sitting on a puffy cloud playing the harp as cherubs sing and float nearby. For one thing, my mother would get really bored playing the harp. She’d much rather be playing Bingo and smoking a Pall Mall.
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 grievedifferently. 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.