This post has previously been published by Tom Nickel on Medium.
We’ve got grief all wrong.
Its different faces are showing now, distinguished in part by how long grief remains a dominant presence.
In recognition, a new category has been created in the expanding system of mental health disorders called Prolonged Bereavement, recognizing that grieving plays out differently for different people and different losses.
Cool that we’ve been granted an extension, but I no longer believe in the whole idea of getting over loss in the first place.
We know that the actual experiences we have in life become part of us. When we lose people, the experiences we had with them are still part of us. So is the loss.
Loss is an experience. It is written into us like all experiences, only more so, because there are almost always emotions linked to loss and emotion is memory’s highlighter.
There is no getting over it.
The initial and on-going experience of loss is not an idea. It is an event that imprints itself on us and continues to do so using the energy our attention gives it.
But even when we give it no attention for a long period of time, the Loss is Still There. We are not over it and it is thinking that we can ever be over it or would ever want to be over it that makes us suffer. And be blindsided when a sadness tsunami hits us.
I know someone who lost a child many years ago and has made taking care of children central to his life, personally and professionally, in very satisfying ways. He might even have thought he’d gotten over the loss. Until he just happened to see a recent high school class graduation picture. It would have been his child’s year. He wasn’t over it.
Imagine a world in which we could state Loss Equivalencies in very nuanced units of time; like, ‘First Cousins Seen Once Annually during Childhood, three months, phew, there, now that’s done.’
In that world, do we imagine that there wouldn’t be another loss? That we’d be done with Loss?
What if we lose a First Cousin Seen Once Annually — and then we lose a First Cousin Seen Frequently during Childhood — before the first three months are up? Is there a Cousin Loss interaction? Of course there is and of course quantifying loss duration like this is absurd or worse..
Measuring anything, like grief, in units of time is what organized capitalist markets do. The human value of people, places and things we care about doesn’t use that scale, or any scale. Human value is complicated and completely wrapped up in social relations and local context.
To be living is to be grieving for loss, all the time, never ends. Loss is a natural process and natural processes don’t tend to be things we get over.
Another natural process that is a useful metaphor for loss is pooping. You can have a short easy poop or a long hard poop, but when you’re ‘done,’ you know you’re not done pooping. Pooping never ends.
Pooping is loss and some kids try to hold it in when they are very young and just figuring out life and their body and impermanence. Some pooping sessions feel more complete than others, but we know we’re never over it.
OK, so it’s not a perfect analogy. But it’s better than a timer.
Some people find it difficult to eat or sleep well or to enjoy life in any way as a result of deep personal loss. If getting over it isn’t working, my idea is to try not getting over it.
Talk with someone else about a deep loss that is causing difficulty for you and usually one of two things will happen. Either the other person will immediately begin talking about their own deep losses because raising the topic gave them permission, or they will say, you need to go one day at a time and it will be ok.
However, most of us know from experience that grief doesn’t actually get a little better over time and gradually become ok.
Grief is non-linear. It comes in waves and particles.
It can even lie dormant for years and then explode because you happened to look at a high school class photo.
Maybe if we stopped reassuring each other that we’ll get over it, people won’t have to worry so much about getting over it.
Or about doing grief wrong. People look back and realize they weren’t mature enough when someone died to really feel it then. Since they still feel something now, they figure they must have done it wrong, or they’d be over it.
I don’t think it is natural to be over losses. We just don’t want them to dominate our attention — except for an initial period in which we do want them to dominate our attention, with sadness.
I think being open to all the feelings in that initial period after a big personal loss can help us not be dominated by the loss later on. But there’s still no formula — no guarantee that feeling all the hard stuff when it’s there will bring peace in our time.
Everything we own, everything we’ve built, everyone we know — we will lose all these loved ones and all these things.
We start to figure this out in childhood and ask about it and are told, ‘don’t worry that’s all a long time off.’
It’s not a long time off. It’s always.
We could tell our kids right then that we will lose people we love, that we will be sad about it forever.
And then we could tell them about not feeling sad all the time by caring all over again about someone or something else, deeply, really caring, knowing we will lose that too.
Read an interview with Tom here.