Although grief is commonly associated with death, there are numerous types of loss, both tangible and intangible. Grief can be unpredictable and doesn’t generally follow clear milestones. Aside from lasting forever, it also has a life of its own. Thinking of grief as an active rather than passive process and moving forward in your own time without self-judgment can help. Below, we have some thoughts for you to see grief from a new perspective.
Grief episodes occur randomly and often quite unexpectedly and are not always predictable and milestone-related. Yes, for many, strong grief reactions are more likely to show up on birthdays, Mother’s or Father’s Day, and anniversaries of the death of a loved one. Other people are more likely to experience intense grief when a memory or a photograph is triggering or when receiving condolences from well-wishers.
My wife died in September of 2021 after a three-year-long battle with cancer. She and I considered ourselves extremely fortunate that this happened in her eighth decade of life and not sooner, that she was minimally symptomatic and pain-free until the very end, and that the original six-month prognosis turned out to be three quality years. The love and support from family and friends throughout that period—and still—remains a major component of first our, and now my, well-being. I believe that the nature and quality of one’s grief experience have a great deal to do with the quality of the care that one is able to provide for their loved one. My complete satisfaction regarding the care my wife received from me and everyone else sustains me to this day. That I have no regrets about her care means everything.
I need no assistance in continually realizing how much I have lost after a glorious 35-year love story. When I hear family, friends, and countless others describe how much my wife meant to them and their feelings about losing her, my own loss feels that much greater. Not surprisingly, those moments are emotionally mixed. When the sadness and the sense of loss are intensified, it also provides an opportunity to savor the gift of her presence in my life for all those wonderful years together. For me, that is grief at its best.
Joan Didion, in her book The Year of Magical Thinking, spoke of her experience after the sudden death of her husband after 40 years of marriage. One of her reported observations is something that I have experienced countless times. The frequent wish to share information with a departed loved one is ongoing and serves as another reminder of the loss. Didion writes, “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”
For me, this form of verbal intimacy is one of the greatest losses of all. Most recently, this was captured by the birth of our grandson, born four months after my wife died, who is the first child for our son and the first male grandchild after four granddaughters. Fortunately, my wife knew about the pregnancy but not the gender. The impulse to discuss this great event with her occurs frequently and probably always will.
A common fear among those of us grieving a major loss, and one that frequently has worried me, is what I call “memory fading,” as well as other “fades” like the sound of her voice and her laugh and the way she looked and sounded upon hearing stunning news of any kind. Of course, pictures are wonderful and videos even better, but the details of the interactions of everyday life for over 35 years are sometimes difficult to retain.
David Kessler, one of the foremost experts on healing and loss, says that, as a society, we don’t know how to talk about death. We are, he suggests, a “grief-illiterate society.” Grief is highly personal, and it defies logic and efforts to organize it into categories, timelines, and deadlines. Following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, I conducted a bereavement group for eight widows. The group was scheduled to last for 16 weeks; however, the group remained together for 41 months. That is when they felt their grief work had advanced to the point where the group was no longer necessary, while recognizing that their grief was not over… because it never would be.
J.W. Worden, in his excellent book Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy (1991), describes mourning—the adaptation to loss—as involving four basic tasks:
- To accept the reality of loss, which can be extremely difficult when it is sudden, unexpected, and tragic, like the 9/11 deaths
- To work through the pain of grief, as opposed to denying the need to grieve
- To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing
- To emotionally relocate the deceased and move on with life
Worden’s four tasks suggest an action orientation that I have always found to be useful in my work with grieving clients in my psychotherapy practice as opposed to the more well-known stage or phase schema for bereavement, which tend to imply passivity and a lack of action as the mourner passes along a continuum. Worden’s approach, which is more consistent with Freud’s concept of grief work, encourages activity and implies that the process can be influenced by outside intervention, like a participating clinician. Clearly, bereavement is not a process that progresses in a sequential manner marked by gradual and identifiable reduction in grief and other indications of a return to normalcy.
In many cases, however, indicators of “progress” are not reassuringly evident. The mourner may appear to be getting worse as months go by, causing needless worry by friends and family. In fact, feeling “worse” is not necessarily a bad sign. It may be an indication that the painful work of grieving is proceeding as it unavoidably must, in fits and starts. The bereavement process may take weeks, months, or years. It is not a path to “recovery” insofar as that means a return to pre-bereavement baselines. Instead, the process leads to the mourner’s increased ability to change, adapt, and alter his or her self-image and role to fit a new status.
Months before she died, my wife urged me to consider the possibility of a new romantic relationship after she was gone. She knew of my unwillingness to even consider such an idea based on two things: one, my high tolerance for independent living, and two, my belief that I had the love of my life for 35 years and could not imagine a second experience with a new “leading lady.” Thanks to a serendipitous encounter with a colleague I had never met before, I came to realize that perhaps another romantic adventure at this stage of my life was not entirely out of the question.
I felt conflict about the fact that this chance meeting—where the mutual attraction was immediately evident—occurred only two months after the death of my wife. Initially, I considered not acting on my desire for more contact; however, I also appreciated that I could not ask someone to wait until I achieved the arbitrary one-year milestone that widows and widowers are “supposed” to allow before it is socially acceptable to consider a new partner. Like grief, the heart does not operate in accordance with the calendar. Thirteen months later, I am glad I seized the opportunity to explore a new relationship however earlier than expected… especially since this was never expected at all!
The important insight for me was that mourning a lost love and embracing a new love were not at all incompatible. The new relationship has served to facilitate the transition from a memorable 35-year marriage to a new partnership that has been similarly meaningful, valuable, and life enhancing.
Every experience you ever had — including grief — created who you are today. And whoever you become, you’ll be shaped by what you live and learn in the future. Don’t take shortcuts — learn how to live to the fullest by creating self-fulfilling prophecies for the life you have always wanted. We are here to help! Contact us today to get the support you need – (512) 387-2467, or find us on Facebook.