Grief Years Later: 4 Challenges

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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

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,
real-life book!

After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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:

Let’s be grief friends.

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8 Comments on "Grief Years Later: 4 Challenges"

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  1. Nora Jamieson  October 3, 2023 at 2:49 pm Reply

    This article arrived just when I needed it. I am coming to six years since my Beloved died on December 24. I experienced physical issues, enough to be hospitalized for four days in March. This year has been so difficult it feels like I’m back at year two or three, and it’s hard not to have those enculturated splinters show emerging from the psyche. Something must be wrong, etc. And I’ve studied death and dying, and grieving both before and after his death. But still those voices are there. And now I am planning to move, leave the house we lived in together for 26 years. It’s our house, and I need to go where I’m less isolated. And yet, it is a huge secondary loss, almost feels like he, and I, are dying again.

    Thank you for your ongoing devotion and support to this work.

  2. Donna  October 3, 2023 at 11:16 am Reply

    It’s been 2 1/2 years since I lost my husband , and I also feel this self-censorship of expressing my feelings ; the not wanting to burden my kids and friends with my still raw feelings of loss. Grief is overwhelmingly self centered , which is uncomfortable .

    Truthfully I was a person who had arrogantly ignorant thoughts about others and their response to loss , I now understand and try to forgive myself for my insensitivity .

    The secondary losses rise up everyday , unexpected. The autumn light through a window can bring so many feelings, often encapsulating everything. I don’t fight it and allow myself to get lost in it , for the moment . The recovery from that moment allows a deeper understanding of how to hold those feelings of us, in a new way.

    I’m still waiting to honestly feel that time has changed the nature of my grief , I’m not there yet but do practice it, knowing it will come.

  3. Michelle K  October 3, 2023 at 8:43 am Reply

    It’s been almost a year since my husband died suddenly. October 14 is the anniversary and October 29 is his birthday. I just passed my 50th birthday and my family and friends gave me a lovely party but he wasn’t there. He should have been there. Nearly every day I wish I could ask him for a hug. I miss his voice. I miss his presence. He had such a large presence. And I never realized just how integrated into my existence he was. I’m seeing someone and, luckily, he knew my husband well. He’s empathetic and supportive when grief intrudes on what might have otherwise been a lovely day. I think, for me, the biggest difficulty is that some people seem to think I’ve found a new relationship too soon. What they fail to understand is that the grief is still very real and a big part of me. It always will be. I still miss him. I love him. I always will. No matter who else comes into my life.

  4. Judi  October 2, 2023 at 11:52 pm Reply

    It is obvious that those who write for “What’s Your Grief?” have keen insight into the grieving process. Thank you! My precious daughter died 7 years ago in a drowning accident when she was 35 years old. I agree with the quote from Rose Kennedy that the grieving wounds never really disappear, but scar tissue does cover them so the pain is less frequent and less intense. It is still surprising at times how quickly the grieving tears can fill my eyes to spiling over due to a memory or something that reminds me of Christin. I met a friend for coffee last week, and when we sat down at the table with our coffee, she looked at me and asked me how I was doing, regarding Christin. The emotion of missing my precious daughter every day just grabbed me. The grieving emotion is just beneath the surface most days.
    It helps to read your articles and recognize that some of the things I feel or do is normal.

  5. Janet Misner  October 2, 2023 at 6:03 pm Reply

    This past June marked the 9th year since the death of my 32 year old son, Jon. Just as described, the weeks and months of the first year and somewhat even through the next 5 years I thought mostly only of him and how much I missed him. Finally, I am starting to feel as if he’s still with me in some way. Yesterday we had our 9th fundraising event raising money for a scholarship for firefighters and first responders established in his name. This event has helped me keep Jon’s memory alive and the bonds with many of his friends while helping others.

  6. Liz  October 2, 2023 at 5:15 pm Reply

    Last year it was 10 years since my 10 year old son Ben died, and somehow that symmetry allowed us to reconnect with others who knew him in a healing way. This year, the anniversary ticks over to a new sum – he has now been dead longer since he was alive. This ‘secondary loss’ feels almost as if time is trying to ‘subtract’ him out of our lives… For the very first time, we opened up an old photo album (it has been too painful before now) and his cheeky grin jumped off the pages at us. When he was just three years old, Ben told me he was going to have a Big Life, and he did.

  7. Corinna Jones  October 2, 2023 at 4:27 pm Reply

    This article has arrived at the perfect time.I have been struggling lately and feeling unable to speak about it with friends and family as I think they will be tired of my feelings (it’s 5 years now since I lost the love of my life) and everyone has their own life to deal with. I actually reached out today to get some more therapy as I can feel myself heading back down the black hole again.Sending love to you all 💔

  8. Lauralee Ciranni  October 2, 2023 at 11:43 am Reply

    Lengthy post…

    After my mother passed and my father was ready to sell their house, he asked if he could move in to my house. I agreed without hesitation. At the time, I was living and working overseas, so the house had been sitting empty except for the Christmas holidays and summer vacations.

    It was a perfect set up. My father was able to have his own space and independence, but he was within a mile of several of my siblings. He loved to garden, so I knew the yard would be well taken care of; and, he was there when my kids wanted to spend their college breaks in Maryland. I loved knowing that they weren’t going home to an empty house, but rather had their Grandpa to greet them and spoil them when I couldn’t be there. I was able to move from just daughter to friend during this time too. As a teacher, I had two weeks off during the Christmas holidays and 10 weeks off in the summer. Once my father moved into my house, most of those breaks were spent in Maryland with him. I loved our summers together – spending hours at the breakfast table just talking, hanging out in front of the TV or playing games in the evening, including my Dad on as many of our family outings as he wanted to take part in – definitely a win-win for everyone.

    In 2021, my father passed away. Two and a half years later, I still miss his presence in my house. While I have moved his furniture out and moved mine in, there are still many pieces of my father present – a few pieces of furniture, his hiking hat filled with pins from his many travels, old photo albums, and some kitchen items. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to truly make it MY house because my father was such a part of it. Even my siblings have to work hard to not call it “Dad’s house” because oftentimes when they visited him, I was not present. I can now sit at the kitchen table with my family and recall conversations with Dad without breaking down in tears. I can also walk into the renovated master bedroom and no longer see it as “Dad’s room”. Working in the garden is where I feel my father’s presence the most. At the beginning, it was difficult to be out there because all I could think about was how I wished he was still around to enjoy the new deck and to give me planting advice as I embarked on a new gardening project. Now, most of the time, working in the garden brings me peace. I know Dad would be happy with the results of all my efforts in the yard – the beautiful colors in the front garden; all of the fresh vegetables gathered from the vegetable garden he started and we have maintained; and the new woodland garden that is taking shape in the shaded area of our backyard. There are times, like this past weekend, when the grief still hits hard. At those times, I want to get rid of all the tangible memories of my father, sell my house, and move to a new state. However, most of the time I am now able to feel comforted by the memories these tangible objects evoke. Hoping that as time goes by, the edges of grief continue to decrease in sharpness…


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