Searching and Yearning in Grief

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley


I have a fuzzy memory of being a child at the grocery store with my mother. I was little, probably only about as tall as her waist. And young enough that separation in a public place like Wegmans made me uneasy. Mind you; this was Wegmans circa the early 80s, so not the mega maze-like place it is now. But still, I didn’t like being split up in any stranger-filled space. 

Anyway, at one point in our trip, I got separated from my mother. I probably wandered ahead one aisle, or maybe she had to double back for something. I wasn’t panicked, but I wanted to find her – fast. So when I discovered her an aisle or two away, I hurried to her side and reached up to grab her hand, only to realize a second or two later – oh my god, this isn’t my mother!  

As an adult, I see kids make this mistake all the time, and each time, I smile and think it’s kind of cute and funny. But I also know, for that child, it’s probably distressing. To enter the safe radius of your parent or caregiver, and reach out for their warm hand, only to find yourself next to a complete stranger whose hand you would not like to hold. It’s a disorienting experience, to say the least. 

To understand how this relates to grief, I want to share a bit about a grief theory called the Four Phases of Grief. This theory was put forth by John Bowlby, known for his work on attachment in babies and children, and Colin Murray Parkes. We’re not concerned with the theory in its entirety today. If you’d like to learn more, you can check out our article on the Four Phases of Grief. Instead, I want to focus on what the theorists identified as the second phase of grief – the “yearning and searching” phase. 


Yearning and Searching

In the yearning and searching phase of the Four Phases of Grief, the grieving person intellectually understands their loved one has died, but they continue to search for them. Remember, Bowlby saw relationships through the framework of attachments. So, one might say that in this phase, a person’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are oriented towards repairing the physical attachment that was severed by death. 

Yes, the person rationally knows this isn’t possible, but I guess the parts of the brain preoccupied with habits, routine, love, attachment, and yearning have some catching up to do. So the grieving person continuously reaches for their loved one in vain. You don’t have to agree with everything in the Four Phases of Grief to agree that searching for deceased loved ones is a real experience, especially in the early days of grief. 

It’s hard to explain this “searching” to people who haven’t experienced it because it isn’t just a matter of looking around for the person and finding they’re not there. Instead, searching, in this context, means doing all sorts of things to try and repair the physical attachment – like seeking out sights, sounds, smells, people, and places that remind you of the person. Sometimes you get so close that for a split second, you honestly think you’ve managed to cross the void. But then, once again, your loved one is gone. It’s like they’ve picked up the phone, said “hello”, and the signal cuts out. 

As you might expect or relate to, this experience is more than just sad; it’s tormenting. It’s a bait and switch of the worst kind. For a second, you’re that kid in the grocery store who thinks they’ve found their parent, only to look up and find something dark, strange, and unfamiliar. For many people, the consequence of this unfulfilled searching is repeated feelings of loss, hopelessness, and despair. Because over and over again, they are reminded that nothing – no sight, smell, sound, or dream – will ever bring the person back again.  


Do we ever stop searching?

I think the natural next question is, do we ever stop searching? I honestly don’t have an answer, but that’s because the tendency to search evolves differently for people over time. One theory that we particularly like posits that, though we may always seek connection with deceased loved ones, eventually we accept that a physical connection isn’t possible and instead establish a psychological connection.

This psychological connection often takes the shape of thinking about a loved one, talking to them, carrying on their legacy and traditions, and other continued bonds. It also often provides the grieving person with the comfort of knowing that they’ve established a psychological bond that no amount of time or distance can destroy.

That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how hard it can be to get to a place where you feel comfortable and secure in your psychological connection. This bond does not exist on a higher, more sunny, plane than your grief. Rather, it exists in the same place as it. Your grief and your continued bond are two sides of the same coin. This means that you have to live with the knowledge that there’s often a 50/50 chance you could feel either comfort or grief (or both!). To quote one of our theorists from above, Colin Murray Parkes, “The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.


If you’re interested in learning more about continuing bonds and attachment in grief, we have a 3-hour CEU workshop coming up next week.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.


Let’s be grief friends.

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6 Comments on "Searching and Yearning in Grief"

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  1. Mrs. Kennedy  May 26, 2021 at 6:31 pm Reply

    Today I found two shirts in a plastic bag and when I held them up to my nose, realized they smelled strongly of my husband who has been dead for six months now. He died after suffering for fourteen years, first from a brain injury in a car accident, then throat cancer, could no longer eat by mouth. His quality of life sucked. I know he is in a better place but I feel a void, I lost him the real him so many years ago but even the little piece I had left had meaning. I am glad for he is no longer in pain or misery but selfishly feel his absence. My one son has alienated himself due to the changes with his dad and problems with him from a long time ago, he was verbally abusive and occasionally physically abusive. He saved my life when my husband tried to stab me with scissors after getting radiation and chemo on top of a brain injury his eyes were blank I think he would have stabbed me if my son had not shoved him all the way across the room and into the corner. I still let him stay with us as I did not know who else could take care of him with his complex care. Since 2006 this has monopolized my life I thought sometimes if he were gone I would feel a relief but I actually just feel alone. People try to be nice but I don’t want to hear any of it. I feel raw and naked and want to be left alone. If I was truly alone I would leave but I can’t. I hate this life all the assholes and hypocrisy and hate what is the point? Oh let’s give God the glory well f- his glory this suffering isn’t worth anything and to me why would he expect us to go thru all this shitstorm to get glory. Sorry you Christians if you disagree, I think God should know enough about his own character to recognize his own magnificence without stupid people like us being made to participate.

  2. Gregg  May 24, 2021 at 12:20 pm Reply

    Thanks for this article. My wife suggested I read it. We lost our 24 year old son in March of 2019 and I still, continually struggle with searching and yearning.

    I still will drive through what was his apartment parking lot just to take look up at the window that used to be where his bedroom was. I still pull his sweatshirt out of a drawer where we keep some of his clothing we don’t want to get rid of and can still faintly smell “his” smell. I feel a connection to him in these moments and it’s quickly followed by such a sadness that I can’t be with him, talking with him or just sitting there not saying a word.

    Grief is no fun.

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    • anonymous  May 31, 2021 at 11:47 am Reply

      Hi Gregg, and all who may read this…

      I love that you feel a connection with your son in the moments that you wrote about.

      I have many of my husband’s shirts hanging in our open closet and I put my face right into them every day and smell his smell and kiss the sleeves and say “thank you honey, I love you honey” and then find myself smiling a genuine life-affirming smile. I feel him all around me!
      And he is smiling, and happy, and joyful and content with our connection, too!

      This is one of many little rituals I allow myself, and these connections bring me comfort and a connecting and full joy.

      I was emotionally able to donate some clothing within the 1st year, and am still doing that slowly. No rush. I listen for the inner guidance always, and trust that.

      I remember writing down on paper the number of days and weeks that we had been together, and it has been a huge help for me to look at that paper from time to time.

      We were married for 1729 weeks.

      This technique for me was so helpful because, especially in the 1st few years, I saw–on paper– how long we had been together, and that our separation was still so young and fresh.

      AND SO OF COURSE I WOULD BE SAD!
      Which the world doesn’t like one bit.

      I would also be reminded of how far along this new road I had travelled.

      I have no doubt that my husband is nearby, in a different form now.
      I trust it, because I have experienced him.

      I hope this helps a bit.

      This is just me sharing my experience.

      3
  3. B.  May 24, 2021 at 10:55 am Reply

    I thought of this quote:

    “If you think about someone you’ve loved and lost, you are already with them. The rest is just details.”

    Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

    1
  4. Pat Berman  May 22, 2021 at 12:56 pm Reply

    Your article on Yearning & Searching. So meaningful and so helpful. Thank you💕

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