Most of the time, death isn’t something we voluntarily or frequently think about. When we do reflect upon death, it’s usually because we have no choice. It’s because death has taken someone we love, and we feel left in a dark place. The absence of our loved one sets in motion a range of painful emotions that we label as grief. This pain is universal. If you’ve loved in your lifetime, then you’ve sat beside grief (or someday will).
While there is some overlap across what grieving individuals experience, every person’s experience of loss is unique and should never be reduced to a “what-grief-should-look-like” template. This uniqueness is shaped by several factors: The grieving person’s psychological makeup, the relationship between the bereaved and the departed, and the nature or quality of that relationship.
The circumstances around the loss (for example, how the person died; was it known for some time that the person would die) can also impact how grief unfolds. Our grief may already be underway by the time a loved one is taken from us after a prolonged illness. While the pain may be as palpable in this type of loss compared with an “unexpected” death, the latter can bring a prolonged period of shock and disbelief.
“I feel his absence everywhere”
“Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.” ~ C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
When consumed by grief, a profound absence pervades our life. All experience seems to get pulled into the vortex left by the loved one’s absence. Grief goes beyond sadness. There is a profound ache that is now part of us. Anxiety and dread may also predominate. This experience is shaped by the immediacy of our intense sadness alongside a deep longing for the deceased. This longing reaches forward where it is met with an emptiness, and in this moment we are again reminded that our loved one is not there and is not returning.
How this pain is dealt with varies considerably. For a period of time we may feel broken. We may long to die too. We may not get out of bed or off the couch for as long as possible. We may look for ways to medicate the pain. We may seek out others. We may retreat from the world. We may attempt to stay busy and not think and feel.
“I started to notice that my pain wasn’t a constant”
She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts. ~ George Eliot
You may notice at some point that there is a movement within your experience of grief. This movement can be subtle. And it may go unnoticed for some time. It’s a movement away from your pain toward another experience. This internal shift is usually followed by a reentry into the ache of death’s finality. This respite from suffering may be brief, but its brevity should not detract from the reality that a space has opened up within you that has allowed something other than pain to exist.
There is no way to predict when this will occur. But it will.
This other-than-pain moment might feel like stillness. Like quiet. Or a momentary release from yourself as you engage with someone or something. Or simply, it might feel like an absence of pain.
Over time, these other-than-pain experiences will grow as your capacity to engage with life re-emerges. This is not about “getting over” or “moving on” or becoming “stronger” because of your loss. These are cliches that cannot do justice to what you are going through. As this space opens within you, it’s important to remember that you are not abandoning the memory of your loved one by finding ways to take part in life again.
“I’m not the same person but that’s OK, isn’t it?”
“And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” ~ Anne Lamott
When we lose someone who was central to our life, we are different without this person. A part of us is lost too. In a sense, there is the loss of the other, the loss of the relationship (our life in connection with that person), and a loss of the part of ourselves that came into being because of this person.
At some level the process of grief is the reworking of who we are without the deceased.
“Who am I without _____?” isn’t answered by the workings of logical thought.
The answer slowly emerges from deep within us. Arriving at this place may come in fits and starts, bits and pieces. There is nothing linear about the journey into this renewal of the self after a loved one dies.
This reshaping of your sense of self that occurs through grief is deeply personal. As time passes, you may feel it’s important to be active in this process, becoming a seeker in the discovery of who you are (or who you’ll become) after your loss. Or you may observe that the answer to this question seems to find you.
This is the journey back to a life where meaning is possible. A life (and a sense of self) that will always have space for the memories, presence and legacy of the person you lost. Depending on where you are in your journey now, this might feel like an impossibility, just words that have no place to land within you.
If you cannot fathom a life that can include more than deep sorrow at this moment, this doesn’t mean that your pain will always consume and overwhelm you. Remember, others have stood where you are. They also loved deeply and completely and had their lives shaken to the core after losing loved ones.
And they have discovered a life where their sadness can coexist with joy; where a longing to change the past can coexist with a future that brings fulfillment; where a sense of an unjust world can coexist with a world that also brings gifts.