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Is grief always & forever?
Q & A | What human experience & science say
After fielding many questions about about grief, living with loss, finding joy, and the life-healing power of mindfulness & the natural world, I’m now picking one question to explore each month with this e-community. Let me know if it’s helpful ;-)
Most Q & A posts will be short, though I want to tackle this big question first. If you’d rather listen than read, I’ve recorded this Q & A above.
“Almost every week I see something on Facebook or Instagram or on the television telling me that grief is forever. Somedays I’m in such pain and feel so, so lost. It makes me feel hopeless about life and my future.
Is it true that I’ll always feel grief . . . forever?”
Mostly, no, though for a small percentage of people, it’s possible.
That said, we need to take a step back and ask: What is grief?
Grief is a natural response to losing someone or something that’s truly meaningful to you. The death of a loved one or a special animal companion usually comprise our deepest losses, though loss can be related to serious disease (yours or a loved one’s), natural disasters, unfulfilled hopes and dreams, divorce and broken relationships, conflicts big and small, and life events with a traumatic impact.
The grief response happens not just at the emotional level, but is also rooted in the mind, the body, and the spirit (how ever you may conceive of it).
The purpose of grief is to help you negotiate a world that’s been changed by loss, to adapt your sense of self and integrate your loss, and ultimately to create space for a reimagined life to emerge and endure.
While grief doesn’t have a clear ending, and sometimes not even a clear beginning (as can be the case with caregiving and anticipatory grief), it is a process, not a permanent state of being.
Grief is not one thing. Grief is a kaleidoscope of thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and spiritual shifts.
It’s not only sorrow and sadness, or longing and feeling lost.
Grief is also anger, fear, anxiety, regret, shame, abandonment and more, much more.
Grief is even courage, connectedness, gratitude, love, and happiness, yes, even happiness.
How is that possible?
Grief and joy co-exist.
I know, it often doesn’t seem that way, but unless there’s some innate condition blocking the ability to experience positive emotions, the possibility of joy, contentment, well-being, and laughter is ever-present.
For example, in the final moments of my mother’s death, without going into detail, my mother had slipped into unconsciousness. My father, my brother and sister, and I found ourselves in that strange, waiting-for-it-to-happen space. We decided to let my young niece join us at my mother’s bedside—she was truly the joy of my mother’s last years.
As my niece was interacting with my mother’s quiet, slow-breathing body, she said something that only a child would say, so unexpected, that we all reacted. How? We started laughing. That’s when my mother released her last breath. She’d always said she wanted to go out with everyone laughing.
How could we have laughed at such a desperately sad moment? We were human, and the process of grieving is expansive enough to include laughter.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, we laughed as well as cried. Moments well-lived with our beloved others in the past, can be remembered moments with our beloved others well-lived in the present.
From that holistic perspective, one could say grief is forever, because we’ll always have a huge range of ongoing experiences with the people and animals we’ve lost throughout our lives.
But. That’s not what most people are thinking of when they consider the possibility that grief may be always and forever. Pain, sadness, and despair are what tend to come to mind, and no one wants to envision those as a forever experience.
Grief is tidal. While psychologists and grief researchers like to use the word oscillation, meaning it comes and goes, I think tidal is a much more accurate description.
When a loss first happens, grief emerges like an immense, overwhelming tidal wave. You’re caught in a force that’s pulling you down into dark depths, as if you’re drowning. You may even find yourself literally short of breath—a common grief-stress reaction.
Over time, the tidal wave recedes into a series of frequent big waves, then into more periodic smaller waves. Over a lifetime, the ocean that is the flow of your life becomes calmer.
Still, sometimes years and even decades later, a sneaker wave (as we call them here along the Pacific coast) will just rise up out of seemingly nowhere and try to pull you out to sea . . . but usually it won’t.
In that sneaker-wave of grief, there will be a rush of thoughts, feelings and emotions, and you’ll likely experience them deeply. Then, usually, the sadness will flow away. You’ll go on living the life you are meant to live.
While the physical loss of a loved one is always and forever, grief is tidal.
Grief is about resilience. There’s a reason why most people will not get stuck in grief. Thousands of years of human experience as well as well-conducted, science-based studies of grief and grievers reveal that most of us are hard-wired to be resilient.
What does that mean? Resilience is often described as bouncing-back from difficulties. But. Few ‘bounce back’ from a deep loss. In my book, Grieving Us: A Field Guide for Living With Loss Without Losing Yourself, I defined resilience:
Resilience is the capacity to keep on living with purpose and joy despite the many forms of loss and catastrophe that will interrupt your life.
While the length of time that one might experience the deepest and most difficult waves grief can vary wildly, most people ultimately begin to heal their lives and step into the future with a sense of purpose. They can and will be happy again.
Unrelenting grief that disables a person’s life long-term tends to be less common around the world and still not well understood.
I’ve met a handful of people during my career who made a very conscious decision to stay in grief. It’s true, a decision.
Losing a beloved child, partner, or parent, the person decided they didn’t want to be happy. They chose to live out their life in perpetual mourning, as if sacrificing the remainder of their life was the only way they could see to honor their love and their loved one.
For those experiencing what’s often termed prolonged, complicated, or complex grief, being happy is not a choice. They just seem to get stuck in suffering.
There are a range of explanations about why someone might experience grief as a relentless, debilitating shadow in their life.
One theory lies in the reality that grief is often about looking backward with yearning for what we know and is comfortable, while looking forward into a future that’s unlived, and so unknown, can kindle fear.
Imagining a future without a key ingredient—the one you love—often feels murky, uncertain, and for some, even dangerous.
Just as we’re wired for resilience, we’re also wired to pay more attention to what threatens us. If you live in a wild, untamed world, there’s wisdom in looking past the pretty flower to scan the horizon, vigilant, for vipers and hyenas.
Most of us living in the developed world, however, are blessed to be able to step out the door and literally pause to smell the roses if we want to.
Once past the reflexive, instinctual reactions of the body and mind, we do need to want and choose to pay attention to what might nurture us. It takes some level of intention and attention to invite what might bring joy, well-being, or a simple moment of feeling okay.
So the theory is that some grievers may be struggling with two opposing realities. On one hand, they deeply long to stay in a past that can’t exist anymore, and on the other hand, they fear a future without their loved one.
Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, life simply seems stark and uninhabitable, taking the form of forever-grief.
Alternatively, some psychology-based research with long-term grievers suggests that persistent grieving maybe tied to a kind of dependency on the person, thing, or situation that’s been lost and become irretrievable.
Certainly dependency on another can take many forms from emotional and mental to physical or financial.
Is love addicting? Is incessant, painful longing for a beloved other the same as craving opiates or alcohol? What do you think?
I do know from personal and professional experience that the nature and depth of a relationship, along with the place that relationship holds in one’s daily life, can be a significant factor in how well or quickly one gets back into the flow of life after a death.
As I’ve shared in my book, love is a habit. Love is an emotion, yes, but also action and thoughts, mostly automatic, a habit. How you love people takes shape in countless tiny rituals. Thus when you lose someone you love deeply and habitually, you can have deeply broken places in your daily life.
In many ways, your very sense of who you are is broken, because relationships play a major role in shaping identity.
So, forever-grief may happen when there are too many broken places in your daily life and too much taken from your identity, and you haven’t figured out how to bridge all that brokenness with a new way of being in your life.
Much of what’s written or said about grief is based on work with those struggling with the most intractable grief—not the majority of humans who will suffer yet learn how to live their heartbroken-and-still-beautiful lives.
I recently spoke with a potential client (I’m adjusting the details to preserve her privacy). She was concerned that she might not be grieving right.
“Can you grieve so wrong that you only think you’re okay?” she asked.
More than 18 months passed her loss, everyone around her kept saying, just wait, the other shoe will drop, it will get harder, you haven’t really confronted your grief, you’re not out of the woods, grief is forever.
We talked for a little over an hour. I asked her about her life now, the death of her beloved person who’d been an intimate part of her world for decades, what she wanted for her life moving forward, and if she felt at least some moments of joy.
On the joy question, there was a long-ish silence. I knew what it was. I’d heard that silence after that question before.
“Is it wrong to say, yes?” she offered, meaning yes, she’s experiencing joy.
“Actually, I’m doing quite well,” she continued, “at least I think so. I still get knocked on my backside by a memory sometimes, and I’ll cry until I’ve literally run out of tears and my cheeks hurt.”
“What happens after that?” I asked.
“I splash water on my face, brush my hair, and I go out and muck the barn and talk to the horses. Sometimes I work on the hats I’m crocheting for the newborns at the women’s shelter. I have another woman friend dealing with death, so I might call her, listen to whatever she needs to say, or if it’s right, try to make her laugh.”
“How do those things make you feel?”
“Good,” she confirms, “I feel really good then.” Another pause, and finally, “Do you think there’s something wrong with me?”
“Do you?” I replied.
“Honestly, no.” she answered. “There will always be the missing, the hole no one else can fill, but I’m here, so I might as well go on living.”
Grief is different for each of us. In fact, each loss that befalls each one of us is different. That’s okay.
The good news is that most of us find our way forward, sometimes with help, sometimes without. We can be happy, we can love, we can dream, we can cherish what we had, we can create something new, we can have a sense of humor, we can make our own meaning, and we can live with joy.
One request: I’d love to know how this Q & A landed with you. Please share in a comment using the button below, or if you’re reading this in your email and wish to be more private, simple hit reply and share with me directly.