Does Grief Ever End?
Would I say to someone with chronic pain: ‘you’ll learn to live with it?’ No.
This is at once an impossible question to answer, and the only question that really matters when you are the one who is grieving. That’s how it is with pain. When we are in pain, pain is all that we can think about.
So as a grief therapist, I’m often asked: when will this end? How long will I feel this way? Will I ever be myself again? I’ve offered many responses to these kinds of questions. They are to be expected, and I understand the need people have to ask them. So I do my best. Still, there are times when I am so struck by the unfathomable depth of such questions that words are hard to come by.
I’ve come to think that the quality of my response has a lot to do with the nature of my relationship with the person with whom I’m having the conversation. Of course it does, you might reasonably respond. But listen, anyway. With some of my clients, I have a felt sense of being asked to go deep, to do more than think: I am being asked to feel. And this request is one I take to heart.
One such client was L., a woman in her forties who gave birth to a much-longed-for child, a daughter, only to lose her a week later. In our first meetings, six months after losing her daughter, L. talked about her struggle to become pregnant, about the joy of anticipating her daughter’s arrival, and then, shortly after delivery, the shock of being told of her daughter’s respiratory difficulties and her death.
We talked through L’s trauma laden-memories and her feelings of guilt and failure, we talked about things L. could do to quiet her mind and soothe her spirit, we talked about the future.
Here is a conversation we had: it begins with L. telling me that she wants very much to be “the person I was before” and wondering if this will ever happen.
L: “We went to the beach on Sunday. It was beautiful. But I was still sad. Sometimes it feels like I’m sad all the time. I want to feel normal. I’d like to feel a little bit more like I was before. I feel like, I know I’m the same person. But I feel like a different person.”
Me: “I understand that. You don’t want to feel sad. I guess it’s hard for me to imagine how you could not feel sad.
I don’t worry about you being sad. I worry more about someone who experiences something very sad and doesn’t feel anything. Those are the people I worry about. Because I know that a lot of those people who don’t feel sadness also don’t feel joy. They don’t feel much of anything.
But to what you’re saying — I understand that you were — that you are a fundamentally happy person, and you want to be that person again. You are still that person. You are that person, who has had something very sad happen to them. And so you are that person, carrying that sadness, and feeling the emptiness of what you have lost.
As you become more comfortable carrying that sadness, and as other parts of your life fill some of the emptiness that you feel, you’ll feel more like yourself. But the sadness you feel is not going to evaporate. It’s not going to just disappear. And it will change some things about you. This experience, already, has changed certain things about you. For example, this experience of loss is what has made it possible for you to talk to other women about their pregnancy losses.
Would you have been able to do that a year ago? No. And let’s be honest — it’s not something that you want to be able to do. But when you meet a woman who is going through this, something in you makes you want to extend yourself to that woman.
You’ve always been a compassionate person. But now, something has happened in your life that has deepened your capacity to feel for another person, to feel their pain, and to want to help. Because compassion is active — it’s a desire to help. Compassion is: I understand what you’re feeling and I want to help.
So when you say — I just want to be who I was before — I understand that you want to be able to see the blue sky and to smell the ocean. Of course you miss being able to do those things, to enjoy those things. And you will. But it’s also true that you already are, in some ways, not exactly who you were before.”
L: “People say, it gets easier.”
Me: “There’s some truth in that. The way it’s always seemed to me is that grief is like a weight that you carry. And as you carry it, you get stronger. So in that way, it does get easier.”
L: “People say you learn how to live with it”.
Me: “So what does that mean. How do you learn to live with pain? I work with people who have chronic pain. Would I say to someone with chronic pain: ‘you’ll learn to live with it?’ No. But with grief — I think the truth of it is that in time, it’s not shocking to you in the way that it is in the beginning. In the beginning, the pain is so sharp that you can’t even believe that you’ll be able to keep breathing.
That’s what changes. The pain is not so sharp. And at some point you’re able to say to yourself — I’ve had a painful loss, and I’m changed as a result. I’m a little sadder, a little more compassionate, I appreciate certain things that maybe I didn’t appreciate before. And I wish I could go back and make the past different, but I know that I can’t. That’s what it is to live with something.
To me, all it means to live with something is that you’re not fighting reality anymore. You stop using your energy to defend yourself against reality. And there are some realities that it takes longer for us to do that with than others. Until finally we’ve done all the fighting were going to do. And when we get to that point we say: I accept it. And I live my life knowing what I know. What we know, what we learn from loss, is that we can love someone so much, and lose them.
And one thing that can come out of that is an awareness of how precious love is, how precious the people we love are. That’s what I think it means to live with grief. To know in your bones that there is no certainty. And that’s why we need to live fully and why we need to love with all our hearts. And we take that risk — because it’s a risk to love — a big risk. So for me, being in a place with grief where you’re living with it means that you say — I know how much it hurts to lose love, and I’m going to love anyway. As long as I’m alive, I’m going to love anyway.
And that is something that I know is in your nature. It’s not in your nature to say: that’s it, I’m done with loving. And you know that.
So that’s a long answer to your question.”
As much as this answer was for L., in the moment, it’s also probably the clearest answer I’ve ever given to a question about how we learn to live with loss. And looking back, I see that I wouldn’t have been moved to formulate it without L. Our shared sense of curiosity about the nature of grief and my desire to meet her where she was and explore with her got the wheels of my mind to turn. This is just one example of the truism that most of the really important things we learn, we learn from and with the help of others.