"How Old Would She be Now?" and Other Grief Equations

Emotion / Emotion : Eleanor Haley

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"When will I ever use this?" is a timeless refrain. Kids have been saying it since the invention of geometry. And, as someone who's currently supervising two kids in "teleschool," I can assure you it's something they're still saying today.

The truth is that the most complicated math I do is helping my kids with their homework. How meta. I also use it for the sporadic cooking adventure; when I sometimes pretend I'm a business person who uses spreadsheets; and when I lie awake at night doing grief equations in the darkness. 

You know what grief equations are, don't you? They are questions like:

grief math

How long has my mom been dead?

How many years until I'm the same age as her when she died?

How many days has it been since I last saw her?

How many Christmases has she missed?

How many grandchildren has she not had the chance to meet?

How old are the rest of my loved ones in my mother's generation? 

If they all live until 100, how much longer will we have together?

To be sure, I'm not engaging in such calculations for my love of math. No, no... It's a mix of unadulterated grief and existential panic. I'm prone to being existential—and I also think having a baby in my late 30s triggered a new wave of anxiety for me. 

Having a baby close to 40 isn't that big of a deal these days but my own mother died in her 50s, which I consider relatively young. She had just seen my youngest sister off to college. Only 7 out of her 27 grandchildren had been born. She never had the chance to retire and reap what she so tirelessly sowed. 

So when I calculate how many years I have until I'm the same age she was when she died, it sends me into a tailspin of subsequent equations about how much of my children's lives I will miss if my path mirrors hers. Though I have no reason to believe my life will end anything like hers, besides the 10% of pancreatic cancers that are hereditary, that doesn't stop me from considering the possibilities.

The aspiring optimist in me wishes I could flip the equation and focus on the positive numbers. Like how many years I was lucky enough to have with my mom, or how many precious hours I spend with my daughters, but I can't do it. The answer to "How much time is enough with the people I love?" will always be infinity. I guess I'm selfish that way.

Grief math is something a lot of bereaved people do. Not in any intentional way, but sometimes it becomes a part of the thought process.

In the beginning, it feels like ticking days off on a dark cave wall. One day, two days, three days down until you've lived without them for a week—then a month, then another, and so on. How you feel about the days adding up depends on the moment. Sometimes they measure the distance you grieve putting between yourself and the life you shared with your loved one. Other days, they might feel more like progress.

As more time passes, you may count by larger intervals. How many anniversaries or birthdays has it been? How old would she be now? Would he have learned to drive or fallen in love? When will I have lived longer without him in my life than with him? When will I be older than she was when she died? The exact grief equations depend on your life and life you shared with that person.

Most recently, my own thoughts have been on Mother's Day. This year will be my 13th Mother's Day without a mother. Thinking back, I remember the first Mother's Day after her death was bad—and the second was worse. The next ten years were a random mix of good and bad, and this year I'm feeling okay.

I guess this goes to show that grief, in and of itself, isn't governed by rules, logic, or equations. Though I will say—as days, weeks, months, and years go by—the ratio of good days to bad should change so that the intolerable moments are fewer and farther between. Though, I can't promise you'll ever stop doing the math. I know I never have.


Do grief equations keep you up at night? Share in the comments below.

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16 Comments on ""How Old Would She be Now?" and Other Grief Equations"

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  1. Mike's Mom  January 21, 2024 at 1:11 pm Reply

    Thanks for publishing this. I too do grief math, but silently, to myself. I have good grief support & I know the other grievers R doing the same math & they agree that it’s normal. But when I’m not with them, in the world on my own, I know other people will not understand, so I stay silent. Thanks for reinforcing the normalcy of this. I don’t think my need to do this math is going away anytime soon.

  2. Nehn  September 15, 2022 at 9:52 am Reply

    In 7 years I will have been alive longer without my mom than with her. I’m turning 31 next week, she would be turning 59 this January. She’s missed 12 of my birthdays, Christmases and Thanksgivings, 12 years of things I want to show her/tell her/ask her.. 12 years of my life, 4,445 days and it’s only growing… It’s just inconceivable to me that time is still passing and she’s not here.

  3. ~k  May 21, 2022 at 8:39 pm Reply

    I think using numbers in “real time” keeps the deceased a person, the person who is, in a way, still in our lives.

  4. Joyce  May 18, 2022 at 4:42 pm Reply

    Oh my goodness I thought I was the only one employing grief math. Unfortunately I’m a bit obsessed but it a different way. I have lost so many beloved people in the last few decades. I wake up and start counting them almost every morning. It sounds like this in my head: “In 2005- Eric. 2009- Shirley. 2016-Dad. 2017-Steve. 2018-Anne. 2019-Mom got sick. Uncle J died. Then H died. 2020-Mom died. Then Aunt B died. Then K died. 2021-Aunt S, then Aunt L…” I count them all up and make a mental note of the number. Sounds kind of morbid, doesn’t it? Then I start thinking about how nothing will be the same without Mom now. And I miss her, my dad, their house, my aunt, her house…and on and on.

  5. Trinity  May 18, 2022 at 4:00 pm Reply

    I’ve done so much grief math but the one that really got me on here that I hadn’t considered was to consider how old I would be at the age when he’s been gone longer than he was in my life as a living being. That definitely feels like a way to put into perspective the depth of what is missing even as I carry him into all of those years in a different way.

  6. Ingrid  May 25, 2021 at 1:38 pm Reply

    I am so glad to know i am not the only one doing this. Good word – grief math!
    Last Sunday I calculated that in 3 weeks’ time i will be a widow for longer than I was a wife. I did a similar thing almost 2 years ago, calcuating when exactly i would be older than him…
    People do not seem to understand it, that this is necessary for me, to engage with the unthinkable…
    Thank you for putting it into words

  7. Liz  September 3, 2020 at 12:30 pm Reply

    I count the Saturdays – Gordon died on a Saturday. It’s been 7.
    I’m alright with me counting the weeks but not okay with anyone else doing it. My sister said she was sitting in bed thinking it was 4 weeks since Gordon died – I was not happy and told her I didn’t like it, it’s my timeline not hers. That sounds unreasonable but that’s how I feel about it.
    I was also pissed off when a friend texted me to say ‘You made it through week 1’. I’m sure she meant well butI didn’t feel like it was an achievement, like a race, like it was something to celebrate. I told her how I felt and she realised and hasn’t done it since.
    The best thing I do for myself is tell people when I react badly to something they have said or done, they don’t mean to and I try to remember that. But I need to tell them.
    It’s strange what sets me off.
    I love this WYG place – it’s so comforting, thank you all.

  8. Risa  May 11, 2020 at 8:57 am Reply

    Grief math! Thank you for putting a name to it, not to mention letting me feel like I’m “normal”. I’ve been saying its Rain Man in my head counting things. So many days, weeks, months since a myriad of things. Today marks 43 weeks and this coming friday is 10 months. And like you, I wish I could turn it around and try to remember what I had rather than what I’ve lost and how long its been since that loss. I hear that the memories I have, and there are plenty, are a comfort. I don’t know as I guess I’m still in that place where I’m grieving the finite-ness of those memories. There are no more hugs, no more funny stories, no more romantic dinners and it goes on. I try to take comfort in a memory (which are evoked still by just about everything) but its still flipping into the sad and loss of more.

  9. Jim  May 9, 2020 at 10:12 pm Reply

    You wrote ‘She never had the chance to retire and reap what she so tirelessly sowed.’ and it hit me so hard. In my case it’s very true. My mom passed away in her early 40’s and everything she had worked for is here. This is my second mother’s day without her and I feel like a shit right now.

  10. Jo  May 9, 2020 at 8:34 pm Reply

    I do this all the time. Counting down to May 21 – almost 1 year since he has been gone. Together 42 years – he always said we would make 50. It didn’t happen. I am old and alone. What to do?

  11. Pat Castellano  May 9, 2020 at 5:47 pm Reply

    Sometimes it is even an equation during a single day. ” 3:23 a.m. I am awake like clockwork because about that time she would need to get up and go to the bathroom. “7 a.m….oh, B would be getting up now. Or 5:00 pm, oh she might be getting up from her afternoon nap…” On May 24 it will be 4 months already since the day she died. Wow! So the 24th is a number stuck in my head. 12:47 pm to be exact, on January 24. There was 10 years between us; we were together 30 years, I was alone the first 15 years after graduating college, we were together twice that time. Now it is like it starts over….not sure I like this returning to Before Bonnie Time.

  12. Elaine Zurick  May 8, 2020 at 9:23 pm Reply

    Grief math. I’m so glad to have a name for it. I’ve been doing that most of my life. My dad died when I was 8 – now almost 53 years. My mom passed 25 years ago last month. Tomorrow is 7 months since my husband passed away. My brain is always going through the numbers. Thank you so much for this article. I’ve thought it was just something I did.

  13. Margueritte  May 8, 2020 at 7:32 pm Reply

    Aww great post. Sometimes I play the game of asking a question to my mom who died 5 years ago…….and then answering it…..because I know what she would say. I was fortunate to know her so well. Sometimes this helps.

    For the first years after she died I would find myself at the card section looking for a Mother’s Day card.

    I think a mom would definitely want you to remember her, and miss her and think about her on Mother’s Day and smile about quirky things about her

    This is what I want for my children.

  14. Karen Reber  May 8, 2020 at 7:25 pm Reply

    Yes, I share a similar timeline of love together and time love lost. We were 16 also and married at 20 and 21. I lost him unexpectedly coming home from my first vacation post retirement. He had so wanted me to retire but I thought more time and more savings was the responsible thing to do. Now almost 18 months later I grieve not having retired earlier to have enjoyed many more vacations with him. The house is big and lonely. I will move to a smaller place, away from the house he built and lived, once its sold. Things will never be the same and now having lost 7 relatives and a close friend, young and old, in the last 20 months it is hard to be the positive upbeat person I was before. It is better for me now but a hole in my heart that will be an open wound for as long as I live. I hope the healing process can progress after this quarantine for all but I seem to be stuck right now.

  15. Frances  May 8, 2020 at 9:19 am Reply

    It’s been 653 days ago. 653 days =21 months and 14 days = 1 year and 9 months = 15,670 hours without him.
    We were 16 when we started dating, we were 23 when we got married and he was 54 when’s he left this earth. We had been married for 30 years and a part of each other’s lives for 38. This year we would have been married twice as long as the age we were when we got together. That’s a long time being a we. Now I am a me. I wonder how long I will be a me.
    Too many grief equations and more just under the surface.


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