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.
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.