If you or someone you care about has ever suffered a painful loss, you’ve likely heard, communicated, or thought something like the following:
- That earnest wish that a person could “move on” or “get over” the intensity of grief.
- The well-meaning concern that someone is “dwelling on,” “wallowing in,” or “stuck in” grief.
- That kind directive to “focus on the positive” or work to get one’s “life back.”
We often feel it, deeply, when friends or family members are grieving. Perhaps we experience their hurt empathically, or maybe we sense its weight because we wish for relief for them, or both. Whatever the circumstance, we may find ourselves hoping that people we care about might “move on” from or “get over” grieving and find some kind of “new normal” where living can happen. We might even impose this hope on ourselves, if we are the bereaved ones.
These usually well-intentioned sentiments insinuate that there is some sort of grief period, not unlike a maternity leave, after which you close the door on the worst of it and come back to something resembling the life you once knew. This can make the bereaved feel they should be happier and should be able to function better than they are, and shouldn’t be taking so long getting to where they can live again. For me, the “shoulds” pave the way down into a pit of self-judgment where I feel like my experience isn’t matching up to an ideal timeline, and I struggle to climb out.
One reason the idea of “moving on” or “getting over” a person is so problematic is because it seems to require leaving that person behind, like a decade or a stage of life – the exact opposite of what so many bereaved people want. When you have a connection that you never want to sever, you want nothing to do with moving on from it. To mourn is to keep the person you miss in your heart, as close as they can be now that they are no longer alive and breathing and standing right in front of you.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, although not because someone said I should move on (no one has, although I wonder sometimes if some believe I spend a little too much time grieving). Actually, I’ve been thinking about it because something occurred to me: When I was born, I became a daughter. When I was two, I became a sister. After that time, I became a friend and a student, many times over. As an adult I became a spouse, and then a writer, and then a mother, and then a teacher. I am still, and will always be, each of these. Once you assume these roles you have them for life, even when you are not actively playing them. When I am leading a critical thinking workshop for instructors, I am still a mother. When I am comforting my kids, I am still a daughter. When I am walking with a friend, I am still a spouse. As I am writing these words, I am still a sister.
June 20 of 2014 was just another day in my life as a loving sister, but on June 21, I became a grieving sister as well. I cannot separate the grieving from the loving, and I cannot separate the sister from the self. To be myself and a sister is to love my brother and grieve his loss.
It might seem counterintuitive, but to live means that I have to grieve, in whatever way grief shows up every day. Grieving is now part of being me. It does not define me any more than my other roles define me, but it is an essential ingredient in the recipe of who I have become. Without it, everything would fall in on itself, like a cake without leavening, and I would be diminished, neither fully myself nor fully alive.
There’s this idea floating around that to bring grieving to a close should allow love and life to flow as before, unburdened, but to me the opposite is true. Once it begins, grieving feeds into living like water from a new spring feeds a stream, then a river, then the ocean. It must flow freely to allow life to continue. To shut it off is to slow life to a trickle. In fact it seems that the more authentically we can experience grief’s ebb and flow as it comes up, the more we are able to welcome everything that life still offers us.
Grieving in some form will always be a part of me now, as I am always a mother, always a daughter, always a sister. So yes, I’m “still” grieving. That means I’m also breathing, laughing, crying, thinking, striving, living. If you want your bereaved loved ones to live and feel joy and peace, accept the new configuration of who they are. If you help them face what they feel rather than shut it off or turn away, they may be more able to live.
Tags: bereavement, coping with grief, grief, grief and loss, Grief Support, Moving forward
i lost my only son Destin he was 6 years old when his father decide to kill my child, He stabbed my son but they said it was superficial then he strangled him and that didn’t work so then he decided to suffocated my son and that killed him. The only thing my son ever did was come into this world. He loved the out doors sometimes it was so hard because he didn’t want to come in he loved playing outside. Then two days later after the police found his father he stabbed his wrists and then his chest and they took him to the hospital where he died. I miss my son so much and i am in recovery when this happened he was six years old and i went and got my 7 year medallion and i did it cause i know that is what my son would want his mommy to do. If it wasn’t for my family and friends i probably would be out there doing things i shouldn’t but i think about my son and i that is why i am clean and sober today and will continue to stay clean and sober, his father took my son from me but he isn’t taking my soberity from me.
Nancy, my heart goes out to you. You have been through more than anyone should have to experience. You are honoring your son by staying sober and living your life to the fullest that you can. I am so glad your friends and family are there to support you. Keep up your efforts and know that people care and that you can make a difference for others.
spot on. thanks sarah – frank g.
Frank, if I have put anything out into the world that makes sense to you, it makes life worthwhile. Peace and strength.
Of course all of us that have lost loved ones hear these remarks. My comment Sarah is that there is no wrong way to grieve. We are each individuals and we will grieve in our own way and that is the correct way for us. No-one walks in the same shoes as we do. No one has the right to judge the way we grieve.
Your article is wonderful.
Denny, I so completely agree with you. The experience is individual to the extreme. The more we avoid judgment, the more we can support one another through what we must manage. Much love.
I have struggled for a long time with the notion of “moving on” or “getting over” grief. I’m so grateful that more people are blogging and writing about this concept so that those of us who suffer and survive a loss know their process is as individual as a fingerprint. I got to the point where I resented having to defend where I was….
I can clearly remember a well meaning friend asking me what I was doing with my time–because surely if I occupied myself with meaningful activity, I’d get “through it,” as if that is the goal. Until you live it you can’t know how those words fall upon the bereaved.
Thank you for sharing your journey with us, Sarah. I may carry my grief in a different way than you do now, but it is still my grief. And yes, it’s woven into the fiber of my character–just like so many other defining experiences. None of them should fully define me: we are the sum of our experiences, not the fractions. Peace.
Laura, you are a guiding light to me in this experience. To see where you are, and to hear about the path you have taken as you have continued to integrate your grief into your life over time, is to feel the value of acceptance and lack of judgment and self-trust. Wherever you are with your experience, I’m with you.
Thank you. You articulated so eloquently exactly how I am feeling. I lost my best friend of 25 years in November; Karen was my “sister,” and she will always be my best friend. I can’t really think about her without my chest getting tight and tears immediately burning my eyes. People have been so kind–reaching out. But I can tell that some are starting to think, “You need to move on” or “She wouldn’t want you to be sad.” One friend even said I was just hurting myself more by dwelling on her pictures or thoughts of her. I am broken hearted, and in time I know I will heal. But the scar will be there–a reminder that she lives there now. At this moment, though, it’s just a wound and there is no healing in sight. Sending love.
Deni, even as you are grieving, you recognize that over time things can change for you. You have a breadth of vision that is admirable. Your most important job now is to trust yourself to know what you need to grieve. What looks like “too much” to others is probably exactly what you need to face the emotions that are coming up for you now. The more you are supported in what you need now, the more you will be able to find peace and joy over time, and the more that peace and joy will help you cope with the sorrow of this loss.
Sarah, this is very touching and insightful. I wish that I had known your brother, and I feel very fortunate to have known you.
Matt, you are so kind…thank you…I wish you had known him too. You would have gotten along famously! I am grateful for your friendship even though I have not seen you in so many years. I am always here for you and look forward to whenever it is we can meet in person again.
I lost my best friend July 14 2014. I had just spoke to her at 10:00 am. By 1:00 she suffered cardiac arrest. I was so overwhelmed at her leaving me that I grieve everyday. I do feel as though I am moving on but there are times that I just grieve. I truly understand that my friends want me to move on but until one experiences the pain of grief then one will be able to experience what happens when you lose you love one. I will always grieve and I am not ashame that I will. I will just grieve in different ways
Octavia, it is a wonderful thing that you refuse to have shame or guilt around your grief. Keep standing up for yourself and for what you need, trust your intuition and let those around you know that you are in charge of your grieving. You will find that some do not understand it and want you to just “feel better,” but others who have suffered loss will be more able to support you along the path. No judgment to either group of people, because it is nearly impossible to understand the grieving process if you have not been faced with it. Stay true to yourself.
I hope you don’t mind I paraphrased this article on my facebook to encourage others. I lost the love of my life to suicide a year ago, and I, like many people I know relate to this. Thank you for such a beautiful thought
Tiffany, I am honored that you chose to share my words, and welcome it. My heart goes out to you and I am grateful that you found something useful in what I’ve written. Strength and peace to you as you navigate this new path day by day.
Sarah, I’m reading your piece as tears stream down my face. As always, you beautifully and concisely hit the nail on the head. “In fact it seems that the more authentically we can experience grief’s ebb and flow as it comes up, the more we are able to welcome everything that life still offers us.” I have benefitted so much from your blog. Hopefully it’s making me a more empathetic and caring friend, spouse, sister, aunt, daughter, niece, cousin to those close to me who are grieving. (I didn’t include mom as my kids have not yet experienced the stinging loss of someone close to them). You continue, as always, to be in my prayers. Love you.
Mary Beth, your words touch my heart. I am honored that my posts have made a difference for you and I have no doubt that you make life better for everyone around you in every role that you play. And I hope that it is a long, long time before your beautiful children must endure the pain of the loss of someone close to them. I keep you and your family likewise in my prayers. Thank you for your kindness.
Yes, you are right, it does not matter how many days, moths, years pass after a loving one passed a way, and how many smiles, reunions, Christmas , grief it’s here , deep in our heart
Mayda, yes it becomes a part of us, and changes us, and changes how we live. We do our best to make the most of each day and in a way we understand more deeply how precious each day is. Wishing you peace and strength as you continue to forge ahead.
Tomorrow will mark 1 year of my wife’s passing after fighting breast cancer. Miss her terribly but when I read what other people have gone thru loosing a loved one I start to feel guilty. I guess we all miss our loved ones no matter what the circumstances. Have lost my joy in doing just about anything. Connect to think of it I guess we as human beings will sometime or another lose our joy . Guess it’s called the circle if Life. At 61 I guess its time to find a rocking chair somewhere. Oh well take care Wish all of you the best…
Jimbo — Although I understand that you might feel guilty, I entreat you to try not to. Your pain and grief is YOURS and you have every right to it, no matter what anyone else has gone through. We humans do this thing where we compare our good and our bad with others and so frequently we put ourselves on some sort of ladder and rank ourselves. I don’t see that it does us any good, ultimately. As a friend of mine told me once, “Your hill of beans may not amount to much in this crazy world, but it is YOUR HILL OF BEANS.” I really, truly believe that the more you give yourself permission to grieve and to feel what you feel, the more that you will find joy — different kinds — creeping in around the corners of your life and into that rocking chair. My heart goes out to you at the loss of your wife.
4-17-2015 I lost my 25 yr old son in a auto accident he was backseat passenger just coming home from work. But I didn’t just loose him The ems didn’t try to give him cpr didn’t hook him to heart diffbulator. an no one got him out of the car before they pulled it from the ditch,even though he wasn’t trapped I have police photos that prove it. He wasn’t even pronounced dead before they moved the car. He was taken to a building by police that has rafters showing no ceiling, where they took more photos but this time he had blood all over his face but in the car there was no blood. No one can tell me what killed him. an the wreck happened at 4:03 p.m. an the sole survivor of the wreck showed up at my house at 8:49 p.m. an told me my son was dead. No police notified me….So this has been a living nightmare an it seems Im all alone in my grief most think I should be past it but I had 25 yrs with the most remarkable young man I have ever known , my first born.The love of my life. whom I vowed from birth to be there for an protect but I wasn’t given the chance to go to him he had to be treated like a piece of meat an no one told me so I could get to him for almost 5 hrs he laid in some building with boards showing not even a ceiling. This has been a living nite mare for me so how can they expect me to be over it after only 10 months thank you for allowing me to share my grief….
Catina, what a horrific experience — and after 10 months, or 10 years, or however long, there is no “getting over” the loss of your son. What is available to you is time, time to figure out what helps you get through a day, an hour, a moment. Also available to you are others who have lost a child, who may be able to understand your experience at a level that many cannot. Look up organizations like The Compassionate Friends and Bereaved Parents of the USA and see if there is a group in your area. At the least you can find them on Facebook and their websites and, I hope, find support and understanding there. No one should have to go through what you have gone through. I am so sorry for your loss and for the exceptionally challenging circumstances.
All very true.
Suzanne, you are not alone. Sending strength and love as you cope day by day.
I am so glad to have found this site. I am the one who was left behind by my love. We both have been in love since university days. I KNEW that I was in love with him, the moment I saw him in the 8th grade. All I do know is that we have a bond that is beyond my description. We have been as one soul for the past 45 years. I am now retired at age 61. Kirk and I often joked around that we would go at the exact same time, as I always said that I could not live without him.
Well, almost 6 months ago, my Kirk had a massive heart attack, which led to his death. I heard him shout out to me, “Richard, I love you”. Then, chaos began! I gave Kirk CPR until I could get the services to our home. Kirk’s body lived on for two days. All the time, I was in shock.
I don’t remember much of the 1st month. My mind would not let me accept Kirk’s death nor anything else, for that matter. Thankfully wonderful friends led me step by step, and I moved within 2 months to a farm in the country. Kirk and I always loved this farm. I always felt close to him here.
Soon after Kirk’s death, unusual things would happen, just enough to catch my attention. He loved cardinals. I found a cardinal feather next to my bed one night. I would have vivid dreams of sitting with Kirk, just talking about everything. Normally I don’t remember my dreams. These dreams, I remember every little detail.
So, yes, after 6 months of grieving, I have discovered that my grief, loss, unusual happenings, vivid dreams, etc. are part of my life. I am not alone. Kirk can contact me, if I am open to listening and looking for the signs. They happen very frequently.
We always said “I Love You” to each other many times during the day, and meant it! There is no question that either of us ever had to ask, because we knew all the answers. We love each other in a deeper way than I ever imagined that a person could love another. I still tell Kirk “I love you” all throughout the day and night!
I am simply so happy to have found another person, with whom I can share some of my experiences with. Thank you for being here. Just writing this all makes me feel so good.
Richard, how it fills my heart to read what you’ve wrote. I’m so sorry for the loss of your love. He sounds like an amazing man. I am so glad that you found Open to Hope and that what you are reading helps you know that nothing you experience is wrong or weird — that your grieving is all real and what you need, and that the signs are there that connect you to Kirk in a new way. I am here for you as are all of us in this community. Love and peace to you.
I am a Manager of a small, family-owned funeral home in Norwich, NY (Wilson funeral Home). I have created, and wish to publish, a six-issue, monthly “newsletter” to be mailed to only those families who have used our services. The publication is intended to remain the same, and will end when the sixth issue is sent. It is intended for aftercare purposes, and to share some knowledge about how to handle post-loss grief.
The publication is entitled, “Hope Herald.”
This publication is not intended for advertising, but to help educate families we’ve served with ways to address their grief after the funeral services have been complete.
In the first issue, I wish to re-print an article I found on your website entitled, “The Capacity to Love.” I found this piece of yours to be very meaningful.
I have attached a mock-up of the “newsletter” we wish to publish. Please let me know what else I might need to do at this time, and I hope you will approve our reproducing your article.
Licensed Funeral Director & Manager
Wilson Funeral Home, Inc.
68 South Broad Street
Norwich, NY 13815
Sorry, Sarah….Would have to send you the “mock up” of the newsletter. Thanks, again!
Oops, again, “Yes, I’m Still Grieving” very helpful. Already had Dr. Wolfelt approve the use of one of his pieces for our newsletter (“The Capacity to Love”.
Husband passed 2010 . We were very close- faced life as a team . I’d never had that before him . I MY spirit is dead. No sense of well being Lost – empty . Fear Aging- illness -pain- its just too much ! I have tried everything Counselling, RX meds, talk therapy..exercise. No family that is able to help me..
Diane, I am so sorry for this terrible loss. It can be so difficult to find meaning in anything you do when someone you love so much and are so connected to is gone. If you can, keep trying different things to see if anything gives you the slightest measure of peace — meditation, yoga, talking with other widows, seeing movies, sitting in nature, many many other things. I won’t say that “time heals” but over time with trying out all kinds of ways of coping, you may find a couple actions to hang on to that keep you going. Love and strength to you.