When is this going to be over?
When am I going to feel normal again?
How long is this stage going to take?
These are just a few questions that I hear from grievers and the answer is always I don’t know. No one knows.
It probably feels frustrating and depressing to read that, but it’s the truth.
We are accustomed to knowing how long things will take. We get antsy when something is open-ended, but not fixating on the outcome is one of the lessons of grief.
Being patient with yourself and accepting where you are in the grief process is one of the most challenging parts of it.
You want a timeline. You want to compare your loss with someone else’s who experienced something similar before yours happened so you know what to expect and when, but that’s not how it works.
The time it takes to process grief is dependent on two things:
- Your relationship with the loved one that died.
- Your active participation in the grief process.
The significance of your relationship with your loved one that died isn’t determined by how long you knew them, the type of relationship or how good the relationship was, it is determined by the emotional intensity of how you feel about the one who died. That emotional intensity is often felt for the relationships closest to us, but not all relationships are the same.
For instance, someone could think of her mother as her best friend where someone else could feel almost ambivalent about their mother.
We tend to make assumptions that the most intense relationship is the longest, the best or the closest biological relationship, but that isn’t the case for everyone.
You could have known a neighbor most of your life, but that relationship could have been less intense than the one you have with a co-worker you have known for a year.
Someone who has never known their father might not feel the need to grieve that much, but when their beloved cat that they have owned for over 15 years dies, the loss feels very significant.
You could have a sister that you fought with most of your life, but you still had a very deep connection to her.
We all experience losses in our life. It is impossible to live in the world and have relationships without it happening at some point, but you won’t experience the grief the same way for each because your relationship is different with each one. Recognizing and honoring that you will grieve differently for each one at different rates is essential to having compassionate and patience with yourself during the grief process.
Your Active Participation
In “The Grief Recovery Handbook,” there is a story about getting a flat tire and how if time truly healed all wounds, all you would need to do is have a seat next to the tire and wait for it to miraculously fill up again. Of course no one would do that in real life, but we often expect that to work with emotional wounds.
The truth is that time is a component to healing, but you need to do something to make it actually happen.
So, what can you actively do?
- Accept and honor your feelings. Don’t try to numb yourself or push down your emotions. They will only come back with more intensity later. Let yourself feel how you feel with no judgment.
- Share your story with a compassionate witness whether that is a friend, a minister, grief support group, a counselor or a coach. Talking with someone who is only there to listen and be a witness to your story will help you to get your story out of your head and to release it.
- Honor your loved one by finding a way to memorialize them. Some ways to do that could include creating a collection of photos on the wall or a scrapbook, wearing a piece of their jewelry, donating to their favorite charity in their name or writing their life story.
- Use the Grief Recovery Method to complete any unresolved issues you may have had with your loved one. The activity of mapping out your relationship with your loved one and writing them a letter can help you to express any regret, guilt or anger that you may be feeling in a way that you lets you to finally release it. And it will help you to share your love and appreciation as well.
- Eventually deciding that the best way to honor your loved one is for you to live your best life.
Grief is a journey, but there is no real end in sight. The loss becomes your traveling companion for the rest of your life because you will have the memories of your loved ones for the rest of your life and don’t you want it that way?
I believe that grief actually transmutes into something different. At some point, if you’ve processed your feelings, you will look back on those that have died with a real fondness and appreciation for your time with them. What you learned in those relationships and what you learned about yourself while grieving are gifts that couldn’t have learned any other way.
But how long is that going to take?
Be patient. Do your work and surrender to the outcome. Don’t compare your timeline with others. Taking the time to understand yourself and your emotions may be the greatest gift your grief can give you.