“It’s been two years and it’s still awful.” This from a fellow after his partner of over 35 years died. And he went on to say that people think he should, at the age of 86, “be better at getting over it by now.”
It may take years to process the trauma of losing a beloved, including the way the person died, how family members were notified, the behavior of family members, and other peripheral events. Initially, we may only be focused on the fact of death rather than the circumstances. Later, however, we may start to process how we were treated by others at the time, whether we felt like they were present for us and if we were allowed to be there for them. Given that shock tends to insulate us from reality, we might have delayed memories of events that only come to the fore years afterwards.
And those who treat us harshly or kindly during our most vulnerable moments have a huge impact. I will always remember how incredibly courageous one of my daughter’s friends was, to call me, someone he barely knew, to make sure I had been notified of her death. And her friends organized a memorial for her, helped us clean her apartment, and provided many hugs, songs, and stories to comfort us.
Mourners may believe they are through the worst of the grief, and then have it re-ignited years later from subsequent losses that bring up old traumas. Grief has a long memory. We may forget a few things, but our bodies do not. Mourning is an intense process that can impair our physical bodies and affect our mental health. Heart and throat issues, lung problems, and other ailments may be a direct result of loss that goes unacknowledged and unsupported.
I recently overheard a therapist say to a still grieving person, “But it’s been 5 years,” as if there is an expected expiration date for mourning. And that’s probably why so many of us do not grieve honestly and thoroughly. No one wants to hear that you are still sad years later, and may always be grieving in one form or another. Our friends and family members want us to be well. And everyone processes loss differently too, which may stress already shaky relationships.
There is a kind of grace that comes from honoring our losses, while still maintaining hope for the future. And that balance is the tricky part. Focusing only on grief without a break may lead to severe depression, while completely burying the grief in order to “move on,” plays havoc with our psyches. But even the most honest acknowledgement may not keep us from long term pain. Our bodies feel everything, particularly the deep ache of losing those we love most. And we have not only lost a person we loved, but also who we were with them; it feels as if a part of ourselves is gone as well.
Six years after my daughter’s death, I still have people tell me to “smile,” on days when grief is hitting me hard. I have moments of utter joy, and great sorrow. Some days my body hurts despite all of the support I receive. One bereft mom said it very well, “I still grieve deeply, but after four years I don’t share it with others as much. They really have moved on, and don’t want to hear that I haven’t, whatever the hell that means anyway. My son is gone, and I miss him every day of my life, and that’s just how it is. And sometimes no matter how much company you have, it’s a damn lonely business.”