I’ve been talking with a dear friend recently about “getting over” and “moving on” from the loss of a loved one. Specifically, we discussed the expectations of others on how long it’s reasonable to grieve.
Let me start by saying I’m not a professional in the field of loss and grief. But I do have direct experience, and I think that counts for at least as much as a PhD when it comes to knowing what’s in someone’s brain, heart and guts after someone you loved has died.
She and I had the same experience when a shared loved one died. We both received the message from people around us that we should be moving on. That we were dragging out our grief and wallowing in it. (Not that anyone said it exactly that way). And that we were young and needed to get on with our lives. And we both did our best to comply with those expectations, at least on the outside. Only we didn’t talk about it at the time. So it looked to me like she was moving on just fine, which perhaps made me feel a little guilty that I still felt so miserable. And she was a bit peeved that I was, apparently, fully recovered – like that’s ever possible when your future is snatched away from you by fate.
Meanwhile, we both felt alone in the morass of grief that we couldn’t seem to escape, no matter what we looked like on the outside. A wise woman once said to me “don’t judge your inside by someone else’s outside.” How true that was in this case.
People are uncomfortable when confronted with someone’s raw grief. And as time goes on, they are impatient. Such people have either never experienced the life-changing loss of someone important in their lives or they are not in touch with their feelings if they have. Because there is no timeframe after which you “should” be over your loss. Many people never fully get over it. They carve out a new life without that person, but there’s a hole in their hearts where that person once was.
I’m almost forty years past the loss of the young man who was the seed of my novel, Autumn Colors. But I can still be brought to tears by memories or music. I still consider the “what ifs” of what my life would have been like if he hadn’t died. I relive the gut-wrenching pain and disbelief I experienced when I learned of his death any time I think back to that day. I was so ashamed by my own tears back then. And in reality, I would have done myself (and those who shared the loss) a favor by letting them flow freely.
I guess I’m trying to convey a message about dealing with your own grief. Don’t let others tell you when it’s time to stop feeling sad and time to move on. Talk to others affected by the loss (or a similar loss). They may look like they’re coping better than you, but they may just be trying, like you, to meet the expectations of the people around them. Admitting how hard it is for you may free them to share what they’re going through. You can help each other.
Recognize that such a loss becomes a part of you forever and will shape your future to some extent, and don’t feel guilty or embarrassed by that. Don’t let other people tell you how you should feel. If you’ve recently lost someone – a spouse or fiancé, sibling, child, parent – give yourself permission to grieve now. Write out your feelings. Create a scrapbook and/or photo album of your relationship. Immerse yourself in ways you can hold on to that person forever, while allowing space to create a new life when you are ready.
And forty years from now when you still miss him or her, send this message to others who may have been told that there’s a deadline on grieving.