Update: This post was linked by a reader over at the YWBB (aka widow board) in response to someone asking if it really takes 3 – 5 years to “get over” the death of a spouse. I read the responses, and while everyone who replied made a point to stick to his/her own experiences, there was still a bit of self-serving justification going on and the real issue was never addressed.
You don’t “get over” the loss of someone you love. Over time it becomes a part of you like every other experience you’ve ever had – good, bad or unexpected. And as someone pointed out here in the comments, life is not a process so it makes sense that grief – like joy – is not something we 12 step through. Loss is an experience. More quickly than most people realize, we move on from even the worst events and back into the mainstream of life. And life changes. Even if my first husband hadn’t died, I would not be the same person today as I was the day I met him. Life is change.
It’s disingenuous to say that it takes years to find happiness, meaning or a new life. That happens quickly and in spite of ourselves. Whether or not a person chooses to cling to grief or not is the heart of the so-called “time line”. Bonanno makes this point himself in the book. People who chose to hold onto good memories and push on for the sake of the lost loved one generally are back to whatever normal means sooner than those who cannot get past the event or the feeling of unfairness. He also points out that people who experience complications in grief usually had underlying issues to begin with that the loss simply made worse.
I won’t post on the widow board, but if I were to answer this poster I would say this:
Life is what you decide to make of it. We carry loss with us always but whether or not it defines or dominates you is up to you. And even in the first months to the end of the first year, most people experience happiness and find meaning. Anyone who tells you it took three years or more to feel anything other than misery or that year two was worse than year one either had issues before or is not being all that honest – with you or with themselves. You can be happy. The choice is yours.
I just finished reading The Other Side of Sadness by George Bonnano, an associate professor at Columbia. It basically sets the record straight on all the ridiculous notions that surround grieving.
For example, “grief work”, the idea that grieving requires a thoughtful and painful laundry list of activities that a person must do before he/she can move on with his/her life. The notion exists thanks to a throw-away idea by Freud. How he can be the father of all that is counter-intuitive and the father of modern psychoanalysis at the same time is one of life’s minor mysteries, but essentially he briefly pondered the notion that in order for a grieving person to move on in life, that person must “detach” from the deceased and that this process was “grief work”. And that’s about all he said on the subject but those two words have been a millstone for me. I’ve been told more often than I can count that my wanting to move on was keeping me from grieving properly and wasn’t possible.
Bonnano has done quite a bit of research over the years, and he has discovered that pretty much the opposite of “grief work” is not only the norm but is healthier.
People who endeavor to move on and be happy – usually because they feel the deceased would have wanted that – have better lives and outcomes than those who succumb to the idea that grief is a process that must be worked through.
“Do you feel vindicated?” Rob asked me after I told him about what I’d read.
And I do.
Take that widow board with your nonsense about distractions and “grieve now or grieve more later”. Neither of those things is true. Distractions are what healthy people do to keep from being overwhelmed in the beginning. It’s about balance. And the notion that grief can be suppressed and come back to cause havoc later? Based on a flawed study back in 1944 that was later proven to be wrong in its conclusion.
The book acknowledges that grief has ebb and flow and never completely disappears, but it debunks the notion that a person can’t get along without grief counseling. In fact, it says that 6 months should be the cut-off point as far as seeking help for complicated grief goes. Before that, sadness and emotional swings are normal.
And that’s the heart of the book, that grief is normal. Human beings are built to grieve and if we simply followed our natural instincts, we’d be better off.
So, there is no grief process. No 12 steps. Distractions are good. Being determined to move on is the norm.