Before discussing grief years later, we need to get on the same page about a few things first. Most importantly, we must agree that similar to other difficult experiences like sadness, anxiety, or fear, grief is a human experience that comes up on and off throughout one's lifetime. It feels different than these experiences because grief has a definitive starting point, but once it's introduced into our lives, the potential to experience it is always there.
Grief doesn't end, it changes
The second matter we must agree on is that grief changes over time. If this weren't true, the idea that grief stays with us forever would mean a life of purgatory. Grief is always painful, but in the beginning, it is acute. It is nightmare-you-can’t-wake-up-from, doubled-over-in-agony, does-anything-even-matter bad. Grief years later is far more manageable. You need to have faith that this is true. As we shared in our article, What it Means to Change your Relationship with Grief:
The reality of grief is that it often stays with you until the day you, yourself, die. For those who think of grief as being all negative emotion, I can see where this may seem unmanageable, but rest assured the impact of grief changes over time.
As you change your relationship with grief - by changing how you respond to, cope with, and conceptualize grief - you will likely also find hope and healing. If you think about it, grief is one instance where there is a strong benefit to accepting its ongoing presence in your life because doing so creates more room for comfort, positive memories, and an ongoing connection with the person who died.
Grief Years Later: 4 Challenges
The first year of grief is nearly impossible. We've written about how, in some ways, the second year of grief can feel even harder. But what about after that? What about five years down the line or ten? Surely, there's nothing new to discover about your loss by that point. Right?!?!
It's not for me to predict how anyone will feel about their loss years down the line. Hundreds of different factors can influence the roads people take, the perspectives they find, and the things they make peace with. What I can say about grief years later is that many people continue to revisit and grapple with their loss experiences in an ongoing way. I don't say any of this to scare you. I simply want anyone feeling surprised, frustrated, or dysfunctional because they're still tripping over their losses to know they're capital 'N' normal.
People stop validating your loss
People often feel they can't bring up grief-related pain or seek support years after a loss. Most formal and informal support is offered in the weeks and months following the loss. Focusing a lot of attention here makes sense because so much is hard all at once. . However, this, coupled with the misconception that grief ends, inadvertently can create a situation in which people feel silenced about their losses over time.
A person may feel that after a certain point, they shouldn't bring up their thoughts and feeling. They may fear people will think they're weak, seeking attention, or being dramatic. And indeed, many people have experiences that make them feel their grief over an older loss is less important or invalid.
Changing society's understanding of the ongoing nature of grief is a slow process. But in the meantime, if you want someone to speak to about your grief, it may be helpful to speak to a therapist or to find a supportive community that understands grief isn't time-limited.
You continue to experience secondary losses
Secondary losses are losses that happen as a result of the primary loss. The primary loss is like a rock that's kicked up and puts a hole in your windshield. Secondary losses are all the cracks that splinter out from there.
When we talk to grieving people about secondary loss, we usually discuss secondary losses that become apparent immediately after the loss. But over time, I’ve realized that secondary losses are like an unwanted gift that keeps on giving.
As you go through life and have new experiences, you will likely stumble over additional secondary losses, some you never would have foreseen. For example, the loss of spending retirement with a spouse, the loss of having your parent as a grandmother, the loss of being able to call your sister when things go wrong in your relationship, etc. All these events can happen years after your initial loss, and because you continue to love and miss the person, you will likely feel their absence in new ways.
Connections sever and losses accumulate
As people grow older, they accumulate loss — they move away from places, get new jobs, lose touch with friends, and people die. Ideally, you carry the people and places you cherish forward with you. However, it still hurts to lose tangible connections to the past.
These things may have grounded you and reminded you where you came from. Or perhaps they connected you to people who are gone. Regardless, additional loss and change, along with time passing, leaves people with the sense that the life they lived with people in the past is getting further and further away. And that’s sad.
Memories become more abstract
In our article, I Miss the Sound of Your Voice: Grieving Sensory Memory, we discuss the pain of losing sensory memories associated with deceased loved ones.
Most of you are grieving, so I don't have to tell you. You already know one of the saddest things about life after loss is that, with time, memories like the sound of a loved one's voice, the smell of their clothes, or the feel of their arms wrapped around you start to fade.
Sensory memories are tied closely to a person's physical presence, and, in the beginning, there's nothing you want more. Arguably, the loss of these sensory experiences is one of the first secondary losses a person will experience after a death.
Sensory memory is short; technically, we can only hold onto sounds and smells for 1/5 to 1/2 of a second. This is why many people hold onto things like old clothes, voicemails, cards with their loved one's handwriting, photographs, cologne, etc. These things help to trigger those sensory memories. But, with time, even those things can fade or become lost.
And the older we get, the more difficult it is to hold onto sharp, detailed memories. Luckily, Some people have excellent memory. However, if you're like me, you may find that specific memories become more abstract over time. They become ideas, stories, and words -- but the pictures and feelings they once evoked are difficult to grasp.
If years have passed since your loss, how has your grief changed and how has it remained the same? Share in the discussion below.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
You can find What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss wherever you buy books: