In the depth of winter, I finally learned,
that within me there lay an invincible summer.
— Albert Camus
Grief is difficult to define for many reasons.
It is individual and complex and is affected by a variety of factors: strength and meaning of the relationship to the deceased; type and timing of death; the age of the deceased and the griever; previous grief experience; and available support system.
Today, it is not unusual to get to middle age without experiencing the death of a loved one, so we often feel that we lack the understanding and skills to respond to someone else’s loss. Therefore, we may avoid the person who is bereaved, or at least, an avoidance of any topics related to the death. Even close friends and family members discourage conversations about the person who has died or the loss in general. They frequently do this because they don’t want to make the bereaved sad by talking about it. Many times, though, it is because they are personally uncomfortable with grief. They wish to be supportive but they simply don’t know how.
Living with Grief —
How, then, can you learn to live with your grief and pain? How can you move forward into a future in which your loved one is missing? Will you ever feel hopeful, or joyful, or happy once more?
In the past, there was a tendency to divide grief into stages and then encourage individuals to do the necessary “grief work” to move through each stage to resolve grief, to reach acceptance, to “get over it.” We now recognize that individuals don’t “get over” their grief. Grief doesn’t just “fade away.” It doesn’t get “finished,” “resolved” or “worked through.” Death may end a loved one’s life, but the relationship we had with that loved one will remain.
The loss becomes a part of our life, and, like other life experiences, it becomes an integral part of our being.
While saying, “It will get better with time,” seems too easy and too pat, time actually does help with grief, but acute grief episodes can occur for a long time. These may happen suddenly, seemingly without warning. Perhaps you hear a familiar song, smell a scent that your loved one wore, or simply have a thought or memory, and your grief rushes back. Your reaction to these memories should get less intense as you move forward, and there should come a time when you can think of your loved one without overwhelming sadness and emotional pain.
Clues to Chronic Grief —
It is possible, however, to fall into, and get stuck in, the depths of grief. Prolonged grief can be debilitating and overwhelming, and individuals can live in a state of chronic grief, keeping grief at the forefront because the past seems safer than the future.
The beginnings of chronic grief may be difficult to recognize, but the following clues are reasons for concern:
Having Difficulty in Acknowledging the Finality of the Death or Accepting the Loss as Real.
It is hard to face the new reality in which a loved one is missing, and a shared identity with the lost loved one persists long after the death. Sometimes, however, an inability to accept the loss can lead to new problems. These may include acting as though nothing has happened, not starting probate of the will, not changing account names or claiming life insurance, never visiting the gravesite, or continuing to speak of the loved one in the present tense. Or, the bereaved may act like the death did not greatly affect them because they simply can’t accept the magnitude of the situation.
Keeping the Environment Unchanged.
It usually takes time before the bereaved is ready to part with clothing or the belongings of the loved one, and this is understandable. What becomes troubling is if the bereaved keeps the house or room exactly as it was when the loved one died, as though they might walk in at any moment. This is akin to wishful, almost delusional thinking, or trying to turn back time, or negate the loss in some way.
Dwelling on the Past.
Holding onto the past prevents the bereaved from having to adjust to an environment without the loved one in it. The bereaved may refuse offers of help, discourage visitors, and decline invitations to any social events. There appears to be nothing positive in life since their loved one is gone. Living in the past provides a comfort, while the future brings fear and confusion.
Moving Forward Through Grief —
If any of these situations apply to you (or a loved one), it may be time to seek some assistance. Finding a support community after the death of a loved one can be especially helpful. Hospices offer bereavement care, as do many hospitals and some community agencies. A support group can provide the space and the permission to talk about the loss and your feelings. If a support group does not appeal to you, talk candidly with a trusted friend, a counselor, your doctor, or a member of the clergy.
Moving beyond the possibility of chronic grief requires the weaving of old threads with the new; new routines, new responsibilities, new interests, new activities, perhaps even new friends or, eventually, a new partner. Reentry, taking that essential first step, may feel momentous, but eventually, you will begin to readjust your way of looking at the world and your plans for living in it, and you will start to look forward with hope. Far from an act of disloyalty to your lost loved one, living your life fully will be a tribute to their memory, the love you shared, and the wishes they had for your happiness.
Just as hope changes as situations and circumstances change, your grief will change over time.
When first confronted by grief, you may have felt as broken as a big oak tree that had been shattered by wind and lightning. Like that tree, it is not possible to put your life back together in its exact previous form, but, like an acorn buried at the roots of that broken tree, it is possible to start anew and grow strong again after a devastating loss.
Adapted from Choose Hope (Always Choose Hope) by Elizabeth J. Clark, Covenant Books, 2017).