The pain of loss can leave us feeling incomplete. Like a hole in your chest that threatens to swallow us whole if we flirt too long with the edge, stare too deep into the abyss. While we may pull ourselves away from the edge, it’s easy to find yourself again on the brink, brought there by a memory, a birthday, almost anything can trigger the feelings and we can be right back there again.
Maria Lamia, a clinical psychologist, explains how the notion of ‘getting over’ loss or working through grief is often a myth. This method of thinking can start as early as childhood, as Maria explains,
“Several years ago, as host of a radio talk show for kids, I asked listeners about the issue of loss. An 8-year old boy told me that his grandfather had died two weeks before and he wanted to know how to get over it – he thinks about him all the time and can’t concentrate on anything else.”
The Stages of Grief
Perhaps this misconception comes from psychology itself, in the form of ‘The Five Stages of Grief’. Here’s a quick outline if you are unfamiliar with these stages .
Denial: When you first learn of a loss, it’s normal to think, “This isn’t happening.” You may feel shocked or numb. This is a temporary way to deal with the rush of overwhelming emotion. It’s a defense mechanism.
Anger: As reality sets in, you’re faced with the pain of your loss. You may feel frustrated and helpless. These feelings later turn into anger. You might direct it toward other people, a higher power, or life in general. To be angry with a loved one who died and left you alone is natural, too.
Bargaining: During this stage, you dwell on what you could’ve done to prevent the loss. Common thoughts are “If only…” and “What if…” You may also try to strike a deal with a higher power.
Depression: Sadness sets in as you begin to understand the loss and its effect on your life. Signs of depression include crying, sleep issues, and a decreased appetite. You may feel overwhelmed, regretful, and lonely.
Acceptance: In this final stage of grief, you accept the reality of your loss. It can’t be changed.
This last step is where people may make the mistake of thinking that they will no longer be affected by their loss. And when they find themselves back at that hole, with their feelings right back at the brink. Maria explains further by saying,
“Clinical data makes it clear that any significant loss, later and repeatedly, brings up longing and sadness. Is it because these people have not achieved closure by traversing prescribed stages of mourning or because they have not “worked through the loss” as some therapists boldly claim? No. It’s because you never get over loss.”
Why You Can’t and Shouldn’t ‘Get Over’ Loss
While the initial emotions following a loss may soften, they never really leave us. These emotions can be brought up by anything from a birthday or anniversary of a death, to an activity that you shared with the person you lost. While the first time may feel like a huge wave that crashes over us and threatens to keep us under, over time the waves get smaller and smaller. Maria states:
“One of the reasons that grief happens to be triggered by external reminders, such as in anniversary reactions, is because grief is an emotion that sends a vague alert to help you to remember, rather than to forget.”
So how do we deal with grief? The answer is in the question. We need to embrace these emotions instead of burying them. While these triggers may bring those feelings of loss, they also bring the memories of times shared with those we loved.
“Even so, what most people do with grief is attempt to forget–to get over it–which is quite contrary to the purpose of the emotion. Rather than try to forget, one must attempt to remember and accept what the emotion is trying to convey,” Maria states.
By not ignoring these emotions, we also gain perspective on the state of our health. While it is clearly unhealthy to try and stifle emotions, if we are open and honest with ourselves we can determine if there is something more we need. Facing these feelings can tell us if we need help dealing with them, either with grief counsellors or a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Grief is a lifelong experience that stays with us for as long as the memory of the loss does. This experience is summed up in the first three lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, Secret Anniversaries of The Heart.
The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart.