I’m inching up on the one-year mark of losing my B. March 5 will be the day. Leading up to it, the month of February is full of emotional landmines: His birthday. Valentine’s Day. Anniversaries of other events related to his loss.
February has catapulted me back to very early grief. Once again, I’m completely exhausted—absolutely depleted physically, emotionally, and mentally. I’m sad—profoundly, numbingly sad. My body aches. My cognitive functioning is off. I’m zoning out of simple conversations, and am forgetting when and what I last ate.
A bit of time has elapsed since I last experienced such strong physiological manifestations of grief. I’d been on an upward swing of sorts over the last month-plus, energized by the onset of the 2021 new year.
But I’m not out of the woods yet. Not with grief.
Although I was feeling (relatively) better for a period of time, the seething pain of loss has crashed down again. Almost a year has passed since I lost my husband, but the last few weeks have felt like the early days of grief all over again.
In mainstream Western culture, the common view of grief is that it’s a steady, upward climb towards healing. Within a year of a loss, we’re expected to be “getting back to normal” and “moving on” with our lives.
But as my own resurged pain suggests, grief just simply doesn’t work this way.
The Common View of Grief
Like many of us, I come from a culture that values time and the efficient use of it.
Calendars, alarms, and agendas keep us in line, telling us where to go, what to do, and how long to do it for.
Hand-in-hand with staying on track, we’re expected to do more with less time, and push through our tasks until we reach the ultimate prize: final completion.
Project done. Nice work. Now—on to the next mission.
Not surprisingly, our cultural values of time and task completion shape how we understand and experience grief. As a result, society holds misconstrued beliefs about how grief should feel, and how long we feel it for.
We’re allowed to mourn—but only for so long. It might be hard (“I can’t even imagine”), but if there’s any hope of living a “normal” life again—well, we must accept the loss and move on.
Because we’re taught to believe that the sooner we wrap something up, the faster we can move on to something “better,” and because loss just hurts so damn much—our instinct is to try to bring grief to a close as soon as possible.
Our cultural values of time and task completion shape how we understand and experience grief. As a result, society holds misconstrued beliefs about how grief should feel, and how long we feel it for.
But when we grievers inevitably find ourselves in pain again, we hit a wall. We may ask ourselves: Why am I not able to “move on”? Why am I not “healed”?
Thanks to the conventional view of grief, our default assumption is that we’re “stuck” in our pain and, therefore, there must be something wrong with us.
We’ve Got Grief All Wrong
The “problem,” per se, is not with the griever—but rather, with how society tends to view the process of grief.
Society expects grief to move forward in a steady, upward, linear fashion. In fact, the most-referenced model of loss, Kubler-Moss’s Five Stages of Grief, suggests precisely this. As the model goes, grievers proceed through clean-cut stages of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, before ultimately reaching the last phase of loss: acceptance.
Even mental health professionals may reinforce the false expectation that grief should progress to a speedy, finite recovery. According to psychotherapist and bestselling author, Megan Devine, many therapists and counselors view grief as a disorder that needs to be fixed or cured. As a result, clients may be labeled as “ill” if they feel their grief for too long.
Such conventional views of grief can be seriously detrimental to someone who is navigating loss.
For one, pushing through grief or minimizing how much it hurts can actually prolong suffering and trauma. The griever is shamed into hiding their pain, instead of expressing and processing it in an open way. But as the saying goes, “we can’t heal what we don’t reveal.” In other words, denying grief doesn’t speed up healing—in actuality, it only deters it.
Conventional views of grief can be seriously detrimental to someone who is navigating loss. For one, pushing through grief or minimizing how much it hurts can actually prolong suffering and trauma.
Another way that the conventional view of grief hinders our ability to heal is that it sees pain as problematic, rather than a normal part of loss. This is especially the case if the pain is felt long after the loss occurred.
However, pathologizing pain only imposes more stress on the griever. When this happens, not only are we dealing with our grief—we’re also forced to carry the negative ways that others view it.
A More Realistic View of Grief
Clearly, the conventional view of grief misses the mark; healing from a loss isn’t a steady upward climb at all. What’s more, the conventional view is not only misinformed—it can derail genuine healing.
So, if the conventional view has got it all wrong—what does grief actually look like to those of us living through it?
Grief has no end date.
First and foremost, grief is not time-bound; there's no date on which grief “ends.”
Contrary to what the self-help books may say, there is no magical day where we wake up and—poof!—we no longer feel sad because our loved one is gone. The pain of losing someone doesn’t just evaporate by the mark of a year—or by any other arbitrary deadline, for that matter.
Part of what makes timelines so irrelevant is that time loses all meaning to those of us in grief.
In my case, my logical mind knows that my B has been gone almost a year.
But how a year feels?
Well, it feels like just weeks have passed since he died. It feels like a black hole has sucked out a year of my life. It feels like I lost a chunk of time; entire months have passed whose details I can’t recall.
The pain of losing someone doesn’t just evaporate by the mark of a year—or by any other arbitrary deadline, for that matter.
Time to me is now relative; it moves forward, but so much of me still resides in the past. While I do feel myself starting to fold my loss into my current life, I know a part of me will always remain with my B. A piece of me will forever live in the past, and a sliver of that piece will continue to relive March 5, 2020—the day he took his life.
The seething pain of loss does ease over time. But the grief is never fully gone.
Even on a good day, even during a laugh—the hole that a loved one leaves behind when they die is always there. When we lose someone close to us, there’s a constant awareness that something (or, rather, someone) is missing. Lingering in the background is the omnipresent reminder that something just isn’t quite right.
There’s no one way—or right way—to experience grief.
Grief is as unique as the person living it.
Contrary to what mainstream theories of grief suggest, the emotions of grief, and the ways in which we experience them, vary by person. Even people mourning the loss of the same loved one may experience grief in entirely distinct ways.
There are infinite reasons why grief resonates differently in each of us.
One factor is the nature of the relationship held with the person who passed. Losing a partner is different than losing a parent, which is different than losing a child, and so on. The nature of the relationship between two people is also unique, varying in proximity or distance, among other qualities. All of these dynamics shade how we experience the loss of someone we love.
Grief is an ongoing, iterative process of feeling pain, and exploring through trial-and-error what makes it hurt a little less. No timeline or theory of stages can speed that process along or help us ride the waves of grief “correctly.”
Grief is also shaped by the way in which our loved one passed away. Sudden or tragic death brings an onslaught of unexpected, traumatic emotions. On the other hand, anticipated deaths, including those linked to terminal illness, carry their own emotions, such as prolonged stress and sadness experienced before the loss.
Our personal, psychosocial, and situational contexts also impact the way we experience grief. Our own mental health experiences, financial stability, the presence and reliability of a support network—all of these issues play a role.
While grievers’ experiences are as different as we are from one another, there is one universal truth that holds in loss: There is no single way to grieve. Nor is there a way to “do it right.”
Grief is an ongoing, iterative process of feeling pain, and exploring through trial-and-error what makes it hurt a little less.
No timeline or theory of stages can speed that process along or help us ride the waves of grief “correctly.”
Grief is erratic.
Thankfully, contemporary researchers have challenged the five-stage model of loss, suggesting that grievers don’t heal in a lock-step fashion, nor does grief consist of a clear beginning, middle, or end.
Instead, grief tends to be erratic.
A good day today doesn’t necessarily guarantee the same for tomorrow. (Thankfully, the same goes for a bad day.)
Whether due to a trigger or just the flow of one’s own experience, visceral emotions of grief may resurface at any given moment—even many years after the loss. And all of this is completely normal.
To cope with resurgences of grief, we often try to control the pain, end it, fight it, or plan its course or duration. But the reality is that neither grief, nor the emotions or fatigue that it brings, can be predicted, controlled, or mapped out.
Sometimes a wave of grief just needs to run its course. Sometimes the process of grief just is.
Go Easy On You
Grief is hard, hard work. The grieving body undergoes acute stress; emotions are all over the board (and rightfully so). On top of this, there is so much pressure on grievers to get it right, to get over it, to move on.
Grievers deserve a break.
And so, for those of us living through the loss of a loved one, let’s go gentle on ourselves.
Let’s rest. Get fresh air. Gently move the body. Drink water (crying is incredibly dehydrating). Cancel plans. Do the bare minimum—which, right now, is more than enough.
Let’s ask for support. Allow ourselves to find help when we need it, be it counseling, spiritual guidance, energy healing, or extra social support. No one is expected to get through grief alone.
And when grief resurges, let’s remember that there’s nothing we need to do other than survive it—no matter if it’s days after the loss… or decades.
Lenore Matthew, Ph.D., MSW
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