In working with hundreds of grieving families over the years, I’ve witnessed how hope survives even the cruelest losses. Parents who have lost a child hope to live a life their child would be proud of; they hope to find ways to honor their child’s memory or prevent another family from enduring such a loss. They hope to find a way back to normal, or to at least establish a new “normal.”
But I’ve also heard people hope for the day they would “get over it.” Sometimes uttered by people who have closed themselves off to their own feelings, this statement is also repeated by people who are devastated. The former just want to erase this period of time and go back to their neutral state of being, never too ruffled or excited; the latter feel they’re carrying an extraordinary burden and can’t go another mile with it, so please, please let them set it down.
There’s nothing wrong with either impulse. Grief is a tidal wave that scoops you under and throws you back out, and wanting an escape from its roller coaster is common — even sane, some might say. When the actual circumstances of your life have changed, how much is it to ask to have one thing — your mental state — stay the same? Is it too much to ask?
The truth: You’ll never get over it. Your grief will mutate and change; it will feel like it’s dissipating and then return with a force. Some days will feel manageable, almost light; other days will feel heavy. Something will trigger a memory; something else will bring forth a smile. You’ll be happy; you’ll be sad. Your grief won’t stay the same, which may occasionally make you feel like you are getting over it, but you’re not. You’re processing.
“Getting over it” isn’t what you really want, anyway. “Getting over it” is tantamount to forgetting. It’s like overlooking a really important chapter of a good book. What happened before that part of the book and what happened after are miles apart, and you have to get familiar with that chapter to understand the rest.
Leonard Cohen captured this perfectly in his song “Anthem”:
“Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
That chapter — that big crack — is painful. It’s also the path to letting the light shine in. Not fully processing grief can result in a much bigger crack over time, the kind that splits the frame. And grieving is a way of letting the earlier chapters live on, letting them build the kind of significance they deserve and don’t often get in day-to-day life. Between breakfast and work and practices and bedtime, we don’t pause to see those are the moments we’ll always remember. Not “getting over it” allows us to bask in those memories and let the good parts stand alongside the bad.
That’s the key: Getting over it gets rid of the bad, but it also eliminates the good. In “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brené Brown says, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” Getting over it makes the pain go away, but it also takes away the good — and isn’t that what we want back? Why would we voluntarily give it up? It’s like getting back at grief, only to hurt ourselves.
Wanting to “get over it” is a normal, very human reaction. Trying to make it happen, however, is unrealistic. If we get rid of both the bad and the good, we give up hope — and hope is the thing that must survive. Hope can survive the cruelest losses, but it needs us to fan the flame.