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How Long Do We Grieve

I took this photo of Veronica this morning when I dropped her off at preschool. It’s our morning ritual. After putting her lunchbag in her cubby, reading her a few books, and giving her a hug, I then stand outside the schoolhouse and draw hearts or flowers or smiley faces on the glass for her. And then I get in my car and drive away.

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This morning, like a lot of mornings over the last month, I thought about the parents of the Newtown. About how they once said goodbye to their children each morning with ease and confidence, and how that has forever changed. I thought about how it’s been 33 days since those children were killed and how so many of us have gone back to our regular lives, occupied by other news stories, new years resolutions, bills, travel plans. But while the rest of us are moving on, many of those parents in Connecticut are perhaps just now entering into the real throes of their grief.

The first year of grieving someone you love is like no other. There are whole swaths of denial, moments and days when it just doesn’t seem real. And then worse, it does start to feel real and then there are whole moments and days when the pain is almost unbearable. I can recall many times in my life when I’ve stood in empty rooms of houses where someone I loved once lived and how I sank to the floor, utterly consumed by what felt like endless waves of grief and torment over their absence.

One of the most common questions I’m asked, both as a therapist and as someone who writes about grief, is how long it lasts. How long will I grieve? Does it ever end?

My answer is always the same: It’s different for everyone. But I can tell you that grief almost always lasts longer than the people around you expect it to. Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them that grief can last years. Others are relieved to hear this, because they already know it to be true.

I do believe that there can be an end to active grieving. I think there comes a time when the real, raw pain of grief ends, when you no longer think about that person’s absence first thing in the morning. There comes a time when you move forward in life without thinking about how they’re not beside you while you do it. Eventually the regret and remorse, the unanswered questions and all the what-ifs surrounding the loss, start to soften. After a while the sad memories of the end are replaced by better ones from the beginning. Eventually enough time  passes and it becomes easier to talk about them without crying, easier to remember them without wanting to sink to your knees.

But just because grief has an end doesn’t mean your love for that person does too. I think we always miss the people we lose, that we never stop wishing they were still here with us. It’s just that we learn to live with their absence, we learn to live our lives without them, as impossible as that can often seem in the beginning.

I’ll don’t think I’ll ever stop wishing my mother and father were still around to see my girls, to meet my husband, and to see how I’ve grown into adulthood. But I can move forward through my life now without breaking down over their absence. There was a time when each new thing I accomplished — graduating college, getting a great job, publishing an article or entering into a new relationship — was bittersweet in their absence. But that is no longer true for me. The pain of it all is gone. In its place is a kind of weathering, not just the kind that comes with age, but one that comes with deep sorrow and yearning, a particular kind of crinkle around my eyes, or in the lines around my mouth. If you look hard enough you can see it in all of us who have mourned, how we have given ourselves over to time because we have had to, because its the only thing that brings us both closer to and farther away from the people we love.

So however long it takes us to find that place, however long it takes us to put one foot in front of the other again, however long it takes to smile, to love life again, is simply how long it takes. There is no right answer. Think about how much you love your most cherished people. While that love may have appeared instantaneously in some cases, over time it grew and grew until it was so big that there became no separation too vast, no amount of time too great, in order to reverse it.

We grieve until we don’t anymore, but we love forever.

10 Comments

  1. Hi Claire,

    I think we grieve forever, though time changes how we do it.

    Like you and so many, I was deeply affected by Newtown and wrote a post about it on Dec. 20, the 39th anniversary of my brother’s death. It’s here if of interest … http://mysydneyparislife.wordpress.com/2012/12/20/thoughts-about-newtown-on-the-anniversary-of-my-brothers-death/

    Love your posts and tweets! Take care and all the best.

    Comment by CarolynB on January 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm

  2. Thank you, Claire. My children’s father died over 8 years ago, when they were 9 and 12, and their grief and coping has changed as they’ve grown up. It hasn’t stopped, it has changed. I’ll admit that I do not know about losing a parent. I am fortunate. But one should never watch their children grieve and suffer. Believe me, it was my own personal nightmare–but not important compared to theirs.

    Comment by Amy Sue Nathan on January 16, 2013 at 3:03 pm

  3. Beautifully written…as always. xoxo

    Comment by Ron Stempkowski on January 16, 2013 at 3:15 pm

  4. I, too, like so many of us parents of small children, was deeply affected by the Newtown shooting. Even though, I didn’t know any of the families or children, all I had to do was look at my 7 year old daughters little face and I instantly “knew” many of the sweet souls that left the earth that day. I grieved right along with Newtown, and the world. In fact, I still feel like I am. I feel as if the world I woke up to on December 14th has completely changed, and I wish so much that something, anything could have prevented such a horrific moment in time. I watched an interview tonight with Daniel Barden’s mom and dad, and sister and brother. His mom said something that I felt all the way to my toes. It was that it’s only been a month, and her emptiness grows every day. That, she cannot imagine having to go years and years feeling this grief. It made me incredibly sad, because I know exactly what that feels like.
    Thanks you, as always, for your amazing words.

    Comment by Bridget on January 16, 2013 at 7:59 pm

  5. “If you look hard enough you can see it in all of us who have mourned, how we have given ourselves over to time because we have had to, because its the only thing that brings us both closer to and farther away from the people we love.” — love this sentiment Claire! You have so many gifts – writing and comforting chief among them.

    Comment by Lisa Lilienthal on January 17, 2013 at 8:34 am

  6. the part exactly like Lisa commented on…. spoke to my deepest part of my soul. it was what my grieving heart needed today and will make a place in my journal…. thank you so much for letting us in…i am half way through your book and you..my new “friend” are amazing..thankyou.

    Comment by kate on January 17, 2013 at 10:50 am

  7. Superbly said!

    Comment by Esther Bradley-DeTally on January 18, 2013 at 1:31 pm

  8. Claire~such beautiful words. “We grieve until we don’t anymore, but we love forever”. And “After a while the sad memories of the end are replaced by better ones from the beginning”. So wise. So true. Having lost both my parents, I live those words every day. Thank you for articulating in such a beautiful way.

    Comment by Maria on January 19, 2013 at 6:58 am

  9. Thank you for these wise and heartfelt words. Grief is one of the loneliest places in life. Only you are missing your loved one in the way you do, and it is in a way that mostly can’t be explained. I have learned in the past 13 years since my precious godson died that my grief has dulled (I love your use of the word “weathered”) but my longing to have him back in my life has not. I have just grown used to feeling that way. I describe my grief as “the empty chair”. So often, at special occasions, and on quiet summer evenings, I feel the space he is NOT in as keenly as I feel my own physical presence. I so appreciate your post. I am looking forward to reading your book.

    Comment by Carrie Souter on January 19, 2013 at 3:32 pm

  10. So true…”We grieve until we don’t anymore, but we love forever.”

    I lost my father when I was 22. Now, at 35, I miss him, but I don’t grieve any more. Strangely, I miss him only in my happiest and darkest moments, not in my everyday life.

    I have suffered two miscarriages in the last few months and I the grief I expereinced was unlike anyting I had ever experienced. But I’ll love both the kids forever.

    Comment by Kavita on January 20, 2013 at 7:01 pm

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