Searching and Yearning in Grief

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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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."

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.

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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.

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22 Comments on "Searching and Yearning in Grief"

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  1. Regina  January 28, 2022 at 1:35 am Reply

    I just know how I am supposed to feel. My husband died of Covid on September 3, 2021. I am lost without him. He is apart of everything I do. We have been married for 26 years and it will be 27 years in February. I guess I’m still searching for him. I got married when I was 18. This pain is unbearable.

    • Val  January 28, 2022 at 11:50 am Reply

      Hi Regina,

      I just wanted to tell you that I see and hear you in your grief. That your feelings are valid.
      I pray that God provides you with comfort during this time, and may he and his universe heal you.



  2. Sarita Coffiel  October 9, 2021 at 5:03 pm Reply

    My fiancé passed away 8/20/21. This is a real hard time for me. I am involved with Griefshare st my church. I am always visiting the cemetery after work. Like mentioned I am always searching and looking for my fiancé. This void is terrible and I don’t know how I’m going to feel a year from now.

  3. Jackie  September 24, 2021 at 11:47 am Reply

    I was drawn to your article on yearning and searching after hearing this from my sister who lost her 30 year old daughter suddenly this summer. She told me she had this overwhelming urge to go and find her daughter as she couldn’t believe that she would leave her little family. As much as I am also grieving for my beautiful niece I was really concerned for my sister after hearing this. She seems to be paralysed, as if beginning to do normal everyday things again will be like accepting that the situation is real, that life will have to go on without her daughter in it. I can see from reading all of the previous posts that we each have our own personal struggle, and this relates to circumstance, relationship and individual response to the grief experience. It’s a small comfort to know that my sister is going through a recognised response to a severed attachment, and I hope she will come out the other side of it. As do I hope everyone here moves through their stages and eventually find peace and comfort. thank you for sharing.

  4. PAULINE BROWN  August 10, 2021 at 12:03 am Reply

    I’m glad I found this site at 4 am. My husband died on 24January 2018. It’s like a swirling most of meaninglessness since. Maybe I can say more soon.

    • Kathleen Kennedy  August 10, 2021 at 6:26 pm Reply

      Dear Pauline I am so sorry for your sadness what it tells me is how much you are capable of loving another person, that when they are no longer near you, you have loved them so much that you feel lost yourself. You have a kind and true heart, remember your loved one knows what is going on with you and wants you to find a new life and what happiness you may be able to find. You don’t need to remarry but you definitely sound like you need some friends. Please contact me if you’d like we can be friends as we go thru grief together. I don’t want you to feel alone and on your own anymore, you don’t have to be, o.k.? And I am not WonderWoman I could use some friends myself. Hope you respond and I can be of help to you and vice-versa, your friend, Kathy

  5. Jane  July 30, 2021 at 11:50 pm Reply

    I was worried that I would ‘have conversations’ with my deceased husband. We were married for almost 33 years and it’s like I know what he would have said. I wonder if the searching can then also be transferred to others. So a searching of a closer connection with an adult child or wanting to form new friendships but, being disproportionately upset when it doesn’t work out all that well? Because I’m seeking a closer connection with, well, anyone?

    • Kathleen Kennedy  August 10, 2021 at 6:20 pm Reply

      Hi I was married for over 30 years too so I understand the sleepness nites, loneliness, missing just having a conversation with someone I know so well. It sucks. Even tho my husband had been sick for a long time, first a car accident with a brain injury, then 4th stage throat cancer, he survived that one for eleven years but could only eat thru feeding tubes. he had a strong faith in God I hated watching him cough all day long to clear his throat his saliva glands either secreted too much or too little spit either way was torture for him. I am glad he is no longer suffering and is with his heavenly Father but after being married for such a long time it is pretty hard. He actually died the first time on his 60th birthday, asked me to help him get out of bed and just fell over dead. They revived him but brain was apoxic. Anyway enough about me I hear you and understand your feelings of loss and sadness. If you need a friend please e-mail me if you can or just respond. I will try to help you if I can, we can be friends if you want. Hope you have a better day, just remember either way you are not alone! Take care of yourself you matter to me and I’m sure to others. God bless you, Kathy Kennedy

      • Jane  August 12, 2021 at 6:27 pm

        I love your generous heart. I will accept this friendship! And I am so sorry for all you have been through. Thank you for replying, you lifted my heart today. I just had major abdominal surgery. In the hospital over the anniversary death of my husband, it was hard, thank you so very much!

  6. Cynthia kendrick  July 7, 2021 at 6:56 am Reply

    In just 7 days apart, I witnessed my 41 year old son dying twice. My oldest daughter, currently an RN and I were on the scene 9 minutes from receiving the call. He had no pulse, no heartbeat. His team worked in trying to regain a pulse for almost 45 minutes; AirLife was called and transferred him to our closest Trauma1 center over an hour away. His heart and organs slowly made a miraculous recovery within the week, but his brain suffered irreparable damage and his wish always was no machines if that was his only way if surviving. With the support of both my daughters and husband, we removed the vent on Wednesday after his final Neuro exam and on Saturday, July 3, he looked directly in my eyes in the wee hours of the morning and as soon as I went out of the room, within 2 minutes, he took his last breath. I am not sure what I am feeling other than my insides are like a crumbled up mess that may never fit back together the same way again. He was never married, has 3 most precious little ones, twin 8 year olds and a 9 year old. The decisions I have had to make within the last week have been nothing short of a nightmare. My faith is strong and I pray his was as well but this floating, empty, disconnected feeling may be with me forever. Life seems to be moving so fast and I can’t catch up.

  7. Marlowe C. Embree  May 26, 2021 at 8:25 pm Reply

    I can’t seem to edit my previous remark, but it hasn’t been as long as my typo suggests…

    Twelve weeks and two days (okay, and fifteen hours) into my loss and grief, I still find myself longing-pining-searching a great deal. Knowing that it’s normal helps a bit, though not a lot. My experience suggests that the boundary between the first and second phases you describe is fuzzy and fractal. Looking at pictures of my beautiful Diane, doing things she would have loved, talking to her, writing her letters that I can’t send, and so on are, to me, in a liminal, in-between space between the phases. But the devastation does slowly seem to dissipate a little bit.

  8. 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.

    • Chloe  July 17, 2021 at 8:23 pm Reply

      A’fing’men Mrs K!! 👌🏻👏🏻💯

    • Jane  July 30, 2021 at 11:40 pm Reply

      I am so sorry for your grief. I lost my spouse and frankly, I don’t know how I could have lived through that experience without my Heavenly Father to lead and guide me. I am so sorry for your grief.

    • Val H  September 13, 2021 at 12:44 am Reply

      Thank you for sharing. I lost my Dad a few months ago and I’m pretty angry. And it’s just like your last statements are how I’ve been feeling, but haven’t expressed to anyone let alone God. I guess it’s why I haven’t been praying a lot and I stopped going to griefshare. I just would cry so much in those meetings and no one else seemed to show as much emotion. Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable. Anyway I just want to let you know you’re not alone in your angry. I’m so tired of people asking me how I’m doing. I usually just say I’m okay or alright, but really I’m angry as f. Like how do you think I feel? My Dad is dead, remember? I feel the exact same way. Just want to be left alone and work, and in general unless it’s my boyfriend, friends, aunt or some of my family. Speaking of family, none of them have called me except checking in with my aunt and my grandmother. Anyway just wanted to say thank you for saying the things I’m too scared to say because I think God will kill me if I do step you him lol.

    • Marianne MAYNARD  September 29, 2021 at 7:16 pm Reply

      I lost my grandson on July 5, 2021 in a motorcycle accident. He was killed instantly. He was 39 and I took care of him from the time he was born because my daughter was sixteen and was not capable or even willing to care for him. I loved him like he was mine. The shock and grief are with me and are devastating. also my daughter is an alcoholic and a narcissist and since she is his mother had complete control and left me out of all funeral arrangements and has not talked to me since his death. Since his death I finally realized for my own sanity I had to let go of her and so I am grieving two losses. The emotional abuse has been going on towards me for years but I was in such denial I didn’t see it clearly until She left me out of my own grandsons funeral. Alanon is helping me get through but the grief of My grandson is unbearable. I do rely on Gods’ Grace and the people who really love me to help me through.

  9. 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.

    • 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.

      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.

      • Kamy  September 6, 2021 at 11:22 pm

        I am so lost and alone. My husband died about 9 weeks ago. He contracted Covid 19 from the hospital when he went for an operation. He got very ill and was confused. Lasted 4 days and overnight developed pneumonia and collapsed in my car. I rushed him to hospital. It was too late. I feel guilty and empty. Struggling to cope. Am.emotionally a wreck. Can’t imagine going on . Am getting up each day for my 2 children.

  10. 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

    • Cynthia  October 16, 2021 at 3:18 pm Reply

      So true … especially when am feeling super down or heartbroken ..despite of prayers I always think abf my special someone who died in a way my grief comes back at times I feel like he is trying to communicate by thoughts ..I do yearn for him n love him still .may he rest in peace wonderful to know he’s still with me

  11. 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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