After some discussion with our insightful readers, we’re adding a brief preface to this article. We feel it’s important to clarify up front that when we say we don’t recover from grief we do NOT mean that we don’t recover from the intense pain of loss. It is important for all grieving people – despite their loss and experiences – to believe in the hope for healing. No one should expect to live with the anguish associated with acute grief forever.
Our belief is that grief encompasses more than just pain. We believe that over time grief changes shape and comes to hold space for many different experiences and emotions – some of these experiences may be painful – like a milestone or the anniversary of a loved one’s death – but some of them may be comforting – like warm memories and the enduring role that your loved one plays in your life. With that, the original article is presented below.
I need to tell you that, in the face of significant loss, we don’t “recover” from grief.
Yes, I’m using the royal “we” because you and I are all a part of this club.
I also need to tell you that that not recovering from grief doesn’t doom you to a life of despair. Let me reassure you, there are millions of people out there, right now, living normal and purposeful lives while also experiencing ongoing grief.
All the things you’ve heard about getting over grief, going back to normal, and moving on – they are misrepresentations of what it means to love someone who has died. I’m sorry, I know us human-people appreciate things like closure and resolution, but this isn’t how grief goes.
This isn’t to say that “recovery” doesn’t have a place in grief – it’s simply ‘what’ we’re recovering from that needs to be redefined. To “recover” means to return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength, and as many would attest, when someone very significant dies, we never return to a pre-loss “normal”. The loss, the person who died, our grief – they all get integrated into our lives and they profoundly change how we live and experience the world.
What will, hopefully, return to a general baseline is the level of intense emotion, stress, and distress that a person experiences in the weeks and months following their loss. So perhaps we recover from the intense distress of grief, but we don’t recover from the grief itself.
Now you could say that I’m getting caught up in semantics, but sometimes semantics matter. Especially, when trying to describe an experience that, for so many, is unfamiliar and frightening. Grief is one of those experiences you can never fully understand until you actually experience it and, until that time, all a person has to go on is what they’ve observed and what they’ve been told.
The words we use to label and describe grief matter and, in many ways, these words have been getting us into trouble for decades. In the context of grief, words like denial, detachment, unresolved, recovery, and acceptance (to name a few) could be interpreted many different ways and some of these interpretations offer false impressions and false promises.
Interestingly, when many of these words were first used by grief theorists starting in the early 20th century, their intent was to help describe grief. I have no doubt that in the contexts in which they were working, these words and their operational definitions were useful and effective. It’s when these descriptions reach our broader society without explanation or nuance, or when they are misapplied by those who position themselves as experts – that they go terribly awry.
So going back to the beginning, we don’t recover from grief after the loss of someone significant. Grief is born when someone significant dies – and as long as that person remains significant – grief will remain.
Ongoing grief is normal, not dysfunctional. It’s also not dysfunctional to experience unpleasant grief-related thoughts and emotions from time-to-time sometimes even years later. Humans are meant to experience both sides of the emotional spectrum – not just the warm and fuzzy half. As grieving people, this is especially true. Where there are things like love, appreciation, and fond memory, there will also be sadness, yearning, and pain. And though these experiences seem in opposition to one another, we can experience them all at the same time.
Sure, people may push you to stop feeling the pain, but this is misguided. If the pain exists, it makes sense, because there will never come a day when you won’t wish for one more moment, one more conversation, one last hello, or one last goodbye. You learn to live with these wishes and you learn to accept that they won’t come true – not here on Earth – but you don’t stop wishing for them.
And let me reassure you, experiencing pain doesn’t negate the potential for healing. With constructive coping and maybe a little support, the intensity of your distress will lessen and your healing will evolve over time. Though there will be many ups and downs, you should eventually reach a place where you’re having just as many good days as bad…and then perhaps more good days than bad…until one day you may find that your bad grief days are few and far between.
But the grief, it’s always there, like an old injury that aches when it rains. And though this prospect may be scary in the early days of grief, I think in time you’ll find that you wouldn’t have it any other way. Grief is an expression of love – these things grow from the same seed. Grief becomes a part of how we love a person despite their physical absence; it helps connect us to memories of the past; it bonds us with others through our shared humanity, and it helps provide perspective on our immense capacity for finding strength and wisdom in the most difficult of times.
Here are some other thoughts on this subject:
- The Myth of the Grief Timeline
- Ongoing Relationships with Those Who Have Died
- Grief Emotions Aren’t Good or Bad, They Just Are
- What it Means to Change Your Relationship With Grief
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