Grief doesn’t follow neat chronological stages. It’s not a clear-cut path. It’s not a case of improving and improving until you’re healed – because grief is natural and normal, not a sickness for which a remedy needs to be found. We don’t get “fixed” but we learn to live with it.
People ask, “how long is this going to go on?” I wish I knew! So as long as we love, we will grieve.
However, the intensity of our experience of grief does change.
I see it like this.
First we face “immediate grief” – from the time of a loved one’s death up to and including the “death arrangements” – i.e. the funeral. This is the time of raw agony, confusion, disbelief. It can be a very emotional experience with lots of tears, whereas others find themselves numb, as though they are just going through the motions. Some people remember this later in a moment-by-moment detailed way, whereas for others the period is a blur.
Then there comes what I term “early grief” – getting accustomed to life without a loved one, with all of the many changes this involves, and the wide variety of emotions that come with loss. It’s a rollercoaster ride, not a straightforward journey through neatly delineated chronological stages. It could last weeks, months, a couple of years, many years. It’s during this time that we figure out how – and why! – we’re going to keep living without the person(s) who means so much to us.
For someone who has been a carer for their loved one, perhaps due to disability or a progressive illness, it’s finding other reasons to get up in the morning, now that they are no longer here to be cared for.
For someone who has been in a long-term relationship, married or otherwise, it’s finding the motivation to cook for one, to sleep alone, to wake to a quiet house, and a multitude of other practical changes. (See also: One step at a time; life and grief after the loss of a partner.)
For every griever, it’s managing birthdays and holidays. It’s going to old places and finding yourself lost in a maelstrom of memories. It’s going to new places and wishing you weren’t there without that special someone.
It’s discovering that grief doesn’t end after six months and not after a year. In fact, it may be finding that the second year is in some ways more difficult, as we come to understand just how permanent our loss is and how much has changed.
It’s riding that rollercoaster of emotion, but hopefully discovering as time goes by that emotions are not usually quite as intense as they were at the beginning. So many days at the beginning were simply unbearable; those very difficult days start to be replaced by middling days and even “okay” days.
There are still times when the heartbreak, sadness, loneliness, anger, guilt, misery, yearning, confusion are overwhelming, but we gradually find ways to get those emotions out, to face them, to work with them, until they are not always governing our days.
“Early grief” is figuring out how to live with what we’ve got now. It can be exploring a new identity.
And then, after an indeterminate time, we find ourselves having arrived in a future that we didn’t expect. We wake up in the morning and we face the day living in the present. This is what I call “life grief”.
The sense of loss and missing our special person(s) never goes away completely – like the often repeated quote, “Grief is the price you pay for love”. We love forever and therefore we grieve forever. But in “life grief” we are managing in that reality. And although we can easily have setbacks and times when we suffer “griefbursts” and more difficult periods – particularly when there are subsequent losses in our life whether other deaths of our close circle, loss of health, livelihood, etc, – generally we’re getting on with life as it is.
As it is.
Not as we would have chosen.
Not as we might have expected.
But as it is.
What to read next: Starting again after loss — can it be done?
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