One of the most striking, and perhaps even most appealing,features of soap operas is that the characters never seem to be permanently scarred by their past tragedies. They live through illnesses, miscarriages, adultery, multiple divorces, and deaths, but the next year, they move on to the next story line seemingly unscathed. Occasionally they refer to the past, but the characters never seem to be too deeply affected or traumatized by it. People even die and miraculously come back to life - sometimes it was all just a dream. We're willing to suspend disbelief because the fiction is so satisfying, so comforting, so unlike real life.
In the real world, tragedies and losses affect us deeply and profoundly. We may eventually move on to a new story line, so to speak, but we do not forget the past and we certainly do not remain unscarred. Our losses affect us irrevocably. When a loved one dies, the deepest loss of all, a part of us dies too and life will never, ever be the same again. That's the bad news. But our grief also has the potential to be transformative, leading to unprecedented levels of psychological and spiritual growth. That's the good news.
Grieving is one of the most universal of all human experiences, cutting across race, nationality, gender, and socioeconomic strata. The vast majority of us will outlive our grandparents, our parents, our pets, and some of our friends. May of us will also outlive our spouses, siblings, and sadly, even our children. Although grief is something we all must encounter eventually, talking about it, ironically, is still one of our great taboos. We can talk about diseases, social ills, politics, and even sex - especially sex. We've even become more comfortable talking about death and suicide, albeit grudgingly. But when it comes to grief, and addressing the ongoing, long-lasting feelings of those who are left in death's wake, we just don't want to face it and we certainly don't want to talk about it.
One griever told me that three years after her twenty-eight-year old daughter died unexpectedly, she was having a bad day and found herself quite depressed and sad. She called a friend hoping to find a sympathetic ear but instead was assaulted by the friend's exclamation, "You mean you're still grieving over her, after three years?" The friend's question was not meant to be malicious. She honestly didn't understand that to a grieving mother three years is nothing. She was sadly ignorant that major loss lasts a lifetime.
This woman is not alone in her ignorance. I've heard educated people tell me that they thought the average length of the grieving process was two to four weeks. Maybe that was just their wishful thinking. We're an immediate-gratification society that values quick fixes, a generation that prefers its emotions conveniently packaged for the swiftest consumption. So we expect grief to be a quick and easy process with no bitter aftertaste. But how can we expect to love someone, lose someone - and not be changed irrevocably? How can we realistically expect this to be a speedy process? Yet time and again grievers tell me they are being asked, "When will you be your old self again?" or "It's been three months already, shouldn't you be over this by now?" Perhaps you've heard comments like this too, and chances are that as a result, you feel quite confused and isolated in your grief.
Maybe you've been asking yourself the same questions. Let's face it, most everyone facing grief's darkest days and nights is hungry for relief. In my practice as a psychotherapist and grief counselor, I often hear brave souls wondering "When will this be over?" And I often see people who are in pain many years after the loss berating themselves for their ongoing grief. They ask, "Is it normal to still be hurting so many years later? Is possible that grief lasts so long?"
The reality is that it is absolutely normal to be still grieving, to still feel the aftershocks of loss for the rest of your life. Grief changes through the years, but the simple truth, which no one wants to admit, is that you will never be your old self again. You are forever changed. That's not to say that you won't heal, because you will find a way to heal. And yes, the raw jagged pain of acute grief will fade. But just as a very deep wound leaves a lasting scar, you will have an emotional scar that will, at times, still feel sore.
Grieving is not a short-term process; it's not even a long-term process; it's a lifelong process. "Having a future" now means that although your life will flow again, it will flow differently as a result of the loss. Your grief will become incorporated into your life history, become a part of your identity. And you will continue now, and forever, to redefine your relationship with your deceased loved one. Death doesn't end the relationship, it simply forges a new type of relationship - one based not on physical presence but on memory, spirit, and love.
I once had a patient in therapy who used to wish for a magic button to push or a switch to flick that would make all of her troubles disappear. Whenever we reached a particularly emotional or painful part of her treatment, she would half-jokingly say, "Now where is that switch for me to flick to make this go away?" I think we've all wished for such a switch, at one time or another. You probably want one now more than ever. But unfortunately, no such magic button exists no matter how hard we might wish it.
Grieving is a process. As this book will consistently reinforce, grieving is a lifelong process. And yes, the first year of bereavement is particularly acute, as the effects of the loss begin to sink in, as each important holiday, anniversary, and birthday passes without the loved one's presence. Confronting the first anniversary of the death day is also a major psychological challenge. An old adage asserts that true healing cannot begin until the griever passes through each of the four season without his or her loved one.
So what happens in the first year and how do you cope with it? The grieving process is different for each, yet intrinsically the same for all, falling into three primary phases: stage one, Shock, characterized by numbness and disbelief; stage two, Disorganization, involving a physical, psychological, and often spiritual breakdown; and stage three, Reconstruction, or rebuilding one's life. "Stage" is an artificial concept in the sense that you don't progress linearly from one stage to the next, easily closing the door behind you. Most people tend to flow back and forth between stages two and three, at first spending more time in stage two, and eventually more in stage three.
Essentially grief is a tearing down and then a building back up - a death and a resurrection. The death of a loved one irrevocably alters your life; in effect, it destroys your life as you knew it. Hopefully, through the grieving process, you begin to rebuild your life. What often happens, however, is that people want to avoid the painful aspects of stage two; the breakdown is to terrifying. So they rush right ahead to the stage of Reconstruction, telling others - and themselves - that "Everything's just fine, I'm okay, I'm adjusting just fine." They attempt to skip to the end before they've gone through the middle.
One fifty-eight-year-old widow told me that after her husband died, she was searching for answers and was hungry for information. She read every grief book she could get her hands on and attended lectures on bereavement. One speaker, she said, told the room full of widows that, "Your husband now is nothing more than mementos in a scrapbook. You must accept this fact and move on with your life." This widow said, "I was so outraged that he had the nerve to say such a thing. I mean how incredibly harsh to say that to a room full of widows. My husband is just part of a scrapbook, and that's it? I have to accept that and be done with it?"
A popular belief holds that after a major loss, you can grieve it, accept it, and be done with it. Sigmund Freud promoted this idea in his influential paper "Mourning and Melancholia," explaining that for grief to be resolved, emotional energy must be withdrawn from the deceased and reinvested in something new. This is true to a certain extent. Freud, however, went further and postulated that one must "decathect" energy, that is, one must sever the tie, end the relationship. In other words, as the speaker told the widows, our beloved must become nothing more than scraps in a scrapbook.
My position is that you cannot and should not sever the ties. Your loved one is in your heart, in your soul, and wrapped intrinsically into who and what you are. You will spend the rest of your life remembering, internalizing, and renegotiating all that this loss means to you in this lifetime. Just because the person is dead, it doesn't mean that your feelings for the relationship dies. This lifelong stage of integration and reworking, which I call Synthesis, accounts for the fact that even after dozens of years have passed, grievers are still affected by their loss. Synthesis accounts for the fact that you will always and forever have a relationship to your deceased loved one. Synthesis accounts for the fact that you will never be quite the same person as you were before, for better or for worse. Society's common misconception is that grieving can be completed within a few months if not weeks, and that then life resumes. But grief's reality is that life is forever changed, you are forever changed, and you will continue to reprocess your grief throughout the years.