Counting Days, Weeks, Months and Years of Grief
Time is one of the most difficult concepts of sorting through “what’s normal?” in grief. Words like “move on,” “get over it,” and “it’s been long enough now,” often come as unwanted advice related to the speaker’s sense of grief in time. For the bereaved, time is marked by the calendar – seasons, last year, anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and special events. Grief swells not only during milestone dates for the loved one, but also with the passage of dates for the closest people in his or her life, such as your own birthday. No wonder that the pain of grief doesn’t seem to end in the years following a significant loss. There are always new dated reminders through time. Each one is counted: the first, the second, and on and on.
BC and AD
If you are a parent, you may be familiar with the reference phrase BC, “Before Child.” The change and transition into parenting is marked by the day you bring home your new life. What you could do as an adult couple in terms of freedom to move at will is suddenly gone. When life gets hectic or overwhelmed by parenting activities, or spontaneity is overruled by responsibility, then “Before Child” is the reference. You’ve had to adjust your mind to consider the needs of a dependent being. The recognition of that change and the secret code among the parents who know is “BC” – how you could behave before child: there was a time when life was different… Often noted in lightheartedness, nevertheless, BC is recognition of a major change in the lives of the entire family.
The same may hold true for you in your loss with the phrase AD “After Death.” You mark time based on “since my loved one died.” Now instead of the welcomed or chosen change this one is thrust upon you. As time marches forward the marker is After Death. Time is about what is missing, who can’t enjoy, he or she would have liked… Often this too is a secret code among those who know deep loss. But rather than in a lighthearted fashion, loss is heavyhearted. The impact of this change and the subsequent transition is just as huge and life-changing as a birth. But in American society, generally speaking, there is little patience for death. There is little patience to speak of it, to mourn for long periods or to recognize the major change a death creates for those left behind.
With birth comes a child, tangible proof to tell us change continues. In death there is emptiness, a void. Death is “out of sight, out of mind” to the outside world. Yet, for the bereaved, reminders are all around.
So how long do you grieve?
Time is in the eye of the beholder. There is active grief – from moment of loss to public mourning to a place of deep, personal adaptation – and there is life long grief, that is, loss – the continued gratitude or acknowledgement for having known your loved one and the fleeting bittersweet memories of wishing he or she was here. How long you might experience active grief is related to the many factors of your individual relationship, circumstances, and chosen path to “do something” about grief, whether on your own or in support programs. Your time on grief might also have to do with your own personal makeup and philosophy as well, including earliest memories of death. The time of active grief does differ for everyone, even people who grieve the same loss. This point alone can be the friction among family members about the way one grieves.
The societal gold standard that grief lasts one year is based on the calendar and traditions: walking the path through each and every first since. A year marks four full seasons of personal space to feel and live the transition for what was, to what is. Religious or family ceremonies often recognize the one year passage. Yet, widows and widowers often discover an unexpected “second year is tougher” reality. Child loss can leave an open wound for many years. There are studies and anecdotes to support that rather than a year, the bereaved themselves report two to five years as a more reality-based adjustment time period. Even so, many people note resiliency in the face of loss in the six months to the year marker. Complicated or prolonged grief over long periods, including severe depression, is diagnosed for less than 20% of people (on the high end), with 10-15 % more likely. Grief spills out as a complexity of accumulated past and present emotions. How do these varied responses help you view your sense of what’s normal?
That leaves a wide range of “normal” time of grief, that is, how long you respond to your loss.
Not everyone needs nor wants help during the time of active grief. However, short term or long term community and/or private support is often a great relief as it underscores just how normal your grief and feelings of loss might be, months and even years later. Trying to assign a time period to grief and loss only adds one more “should” to your list of getting “over it.” The real questions are: are you coping better over time (in spite of the pain and sorrow)? Are you finding outlets so your grief is dynamic, rather than static? Are you noticing increasing moments of happiness (or is it all grief, all the time?)? Are you healthy or is your body taking on the grief unknowingly? On the roller coaster of loss and time, the majority of people experience lessening of the pain and associations of loss across the timeline. If your level or sorrow and pain or ability to function does not change or actually increases since the death of your loved one, seeking out the support of a professional grief coach or therapist can provide you an objective viewpoint.
You might be surprised to know that there are many people who worry about if they are getting over the loss too fast as those who think they might be taking too long (or someone else tells them they are taking too long.) Here is where you can check in with yourself. What do you think? Do you want to be in a different place in life since your loss? Are you actually avoiding any feelings instead of grieving? Your instinct about whether you have grieved “long enough” or still have “more grieving to do” is usually right on. First, just listen. Listen deeply. How much time it takes to adapt to this major change in your life is subjective. After all, you are the expert on your grief.
What’s your story? Are you taking long enough time to grieve, or are you in in a hurry? What expectations do you or others around you offer about how much time grief, mourning and loss lasts? If you were (are) a caregiver before the loss, has the time of illness affected your sense of how long you’ve grieved?