Three Years into Grief Journey: A Surprising Struggle

As I get closer to the third anniversary of my daughter’s death, I struggle with opposite emotions. I feel the pain of death and the joy of living. The first year after my daughter died I cringed when people asked, “How are you?” Now I welcome the question.

For as the months passed, people began to forget about my losses. While this is normal, it was hard for me, especially since I had so much grief work to do.

A few days ago, I went to the florist and bought a holiday plant. The sales associate knew my grandchildren became orphans after their parents were killed in separate car crashes. She also knew my husband and I were raising them. Gently, oh so gently, she approached me and asked, “How are the twins?”

“They are high school seniors and straight A students,” I answered. She paused a moment and asked how I was doing. “I’m writing a monthly column for a new caregiving magazine,” I explained.

“How did they find you?” she asked.

“They heard about my work and contacted me,” I said. Then, much to my surprise, we hugged each other. It was a touching moment. “Thank you for asking,” I commented. I said this because the three year marker is turning out to be harder than I anticipated, and the return of emotional pain has caught me off guard.

Bob Deits, in his book, “Life After Loss,” describes mourning as a test of endurance. “It takes a long time to work through the various phrases of recovery,” he explains. According to Deits, the two year marker, or milestone, as he calls it, requires self patience. We expect normalcy because we survived the first year. “The second year proves how lonely it can be to make it without the one you lost.”

But few grief experts have written about the three year marker and it is also significant. A friend called me about this marker. “Three years have passed since my husband died,” she said. “It’s still hard.” I understand her feelings because I almost feel like I am starting my grief journey anew.

Jennifer Angel writes about this journey in a New York “Daily News” article, “Living with Loss: The Grief Process.” She thinks mourners need to plan ahead for grief triggers. “Develop some strategies that you feel are appropriate so you will be prepared for these occasions,” she advises. Her article ends with closure tips. Frankly, closure is not a word I would use.

I will never feel closure about my daughter’s death, father-in-law’s death, brother’s death, and former son-in-law’s death within nine months. I do, however, have a sense of reconciliation about these losses, and peace is seeping into my bones.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts offers mourners advice in its article, “Get Ready for Anniversaries of the Heart,” published on the Positive Aging website. Mourners need to be good to themselves, the article notes, and goes on to say that giving can be a source of comfort. How will I honor my daughter’s memory on the third anniversary of her death?

First, I will be good to myself. I will give to others, treasure my grandchildren, and my devoted husband. Since my daughter had a marvelous sense of humor, I am going to do something different. Maybe even silly. I don’t know what it will be yet, but I will enjoy it and smile.

Copyright 2009 by Harriet Hodgson

Harriet Hodgson

More Articles Written by Harriet

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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  • Laura says:

    After losing my son to bone cancer in 2004, I remember the 3rd year to be the most difficult. I still ask why this was the case. Maybe it was delayed grief? I have 2 girls who are his biological siblings and 2 step children. Maybe I didn’t fully allow myself to grieve.

    I’d heard from other parents they found the 3rd year to be the most difficult as well. Perhaps it’s because we come to grips with the profound sense of longing we feel for our lost children. The most helpful piece of information I held onto was given to me by a counselor who worked with cancer patients. He had a small dry erase board, he held it up and said “let’s say this is your heart” he proceeded to draw a black circle at the center that was about the size of tangerine. “Think of this as your loss, right now it seems to fill your heart.” He then began to draw other circles on the board and erased the initial one. “In time you focus on the love you have for other people in your life-husband, children, friends etc., and the loss of your son is moved over here to a corner, it no longer becomes the central part of your heart.”

    It made sense to me; I felt like it was ok to keep the pain in my heart and I felt relieved to know that one day it wouldn’t be the all consuming pain it was initially.

    • Hi Laura,

      Thank you for your wise reply. The heart picture is helpful because I can envision it. I’m already working on reaching out more to family, friends, and people I don’t know — the focus of my writing. Any parent who has lost a child, it seems to me, will always have pain in their heart.

      Harriet