Does the pain of grief, that deep sadness and knife-edge longing that pierces the heart ever stop?
What we would like to hear is the answer, “Yes, just a little longer and you will stop hurting.” However, to really understand the experience and feelings, and where those will take us, it helps to view grief from a different angle.
In contemporary society, grief is mistakenly viewed as an ‘event’. A loved one passes and it is expected that family and friends will grieve and miss the person for a time.
Some cultures have funerals or ‘wakes’ as a commemoration of the life lost, and others have rituals or events that mark the passing: like 6 week memorials or mourning garments worn for a specified time.
If a person affected by loss is not back to functioning daily, or continues to be thrown out off balance by their grief beyond several months, they are told they need to “buck up”, “it’s time to move on”, “to get out and live again”. For many, especially when a child or partner has died, that is hard to do.
Grief takes time. Grief is better seen as a journey rather than an incident. When someone is gone from life, they will be missed but never forgotten. In the immediate aftermath of death, and for the first year, the pain felt is deeply intense and emotional.
It might be related to regret of things undone, guilt, longing for dreams that now won’t be realized, fear of being alone, or anger at being left behind.
It is startling to find oneself talking to a person who is no longer there or walking into a room and expecting to see them. When navigating that first year the anniversary dates are raw reminders of the loss.
The next several years are a time of adjustment to living alone, doing things without that trusted friend and helper, or changing life direction. Throughout that time the sense of missing the person never really goes away. It becomes less constant and less focused in thinking, but returns when one is reminded of them by a smell, a similar voice, a picture. It is a journey that lasts a lifetime.
Grief does change over time. Eventually the dark and heavy feelings that threaten to overwhelm move into the background of living.
Anniversary dates and activities turn into something more positive and become a time of remembering what that person liked and what they did. Memories of good times, shared experiences and accomplishments come to mind more frequently. There is still a sense of loss, but it is mixed with a sense of gratefulness for having had some time with the person and having shared a part of life with them.
Grief arises out of the memory of a person who has left our life. We would not want to lose that memory.
Perhaps the important transitional step along the path of grief is when we begin to spend more energy keeping the person’s legacy alive and moving forward. This point of time will differ for every person who experiences loss. Grief is a very personal journey.
Gail Potter is a Nurse Educator at Selkirk College who chairs the Hospice Board