There is no timeline for grief
There is a lot of talk about grief in books and magazines these days about the right way to deal with it, or how there is no right way. Ruth Konigsberg wrote a book called The Truth About Grief in which she talks about the “new science of grief” and how it shows that we don’t need to do anything special to get through it. Her recent Op Ed op-ed in the New York Times cites a large-scale study that proves that elderly widows go through the grieving process much earlier than previously thought. In response, a wave of letters to the editor were published that strongly disagreed with Koenigsberg’s theories and her attempt to measure the grieving process by how well a person functions in everyday life. I am not alone in the opinion that functionality is not the important thing.
Of course, grief will interfere with a person’s ability to function at the same level they were used to at first and perhaps for some time. A mother who loses a child may have to stay in bed for a year. On the other hand, an elderly widow may settle into her routines and not slow down at all. Or the opposite may be true. The widow may have to spend a year in bed and the mother may have to stick to the routine. Grief is not predictable. I have little use for scientific research that attempts to quantify the grieving process. Professionals who work with grieving patients every day know that expecting grief to go a certain way or fit a prescribed pattern does not serve a positive outcome for the bereaved.
Yes, there are patterns of grief that can help the grief professional or bereaved person identify their grieving process as normal. But the preferred model, as outlined by JW Worden* in support of grief, has no timetable or prescribed outcome. It identifies milestones (or Worden’s term: tasks), but they are not in order. And as those of us who study grief know, all of these stages can occur within a single day.
“Aren’t you over this by now?” is the common cultural response that many face as they struggle to live with grief. There really is no timeline for grief. The keys to grief are patience and permission. The more of each we give to ourselves, the better off we will be.
As an artist, my approach has always been to explore. I explore feelings the same way I explore colors, lines, or words on a page. This has served me well in dealing with my grief. This allowed me to look at it as a project I was working on. Something I take responsibility for and look forward to seeing how it turns out. And in my opinion, a grief can last a lifetime. It can be integrated into the personality in a convenient way. I like Patti Smith’s description given in an interview with Terry Gross for Fresh Air in 2010:
“I think the idea that time heals all wounds is not really true. Our wounds are never truly healed, we just learn to walk with them. We learn that some days we’re going to feel a lot of pain again, and we just have to say, “Okay, I know you, ha. You can come with me today.”
Grief is something we all have to deal with again and again in our lives. It’s really just the painful reaction to loss. We will mourn other losses besides death: a limb, a community, a marriage, a job, a friend… anything we have come to depend on in our lives will be hard to lose. The better we are at acknowledging our feelings and taking the time to honor them, the better we can learn to feel through them.
Why? Why not let the feelings stay buried? Why dig up old stories? Rubbing salt in the wounds? Because grief isn’t just something you have to experience or manage or overcome. It really is an opportunity to get to know ourselves.
In my own experience of working with grief creatively, I find that writing or drawing or whatever I do in a state of sadness will allow the feeling to shift. If I let the pain slumber, it doesn’t go away. Instead, it becomes murkier and undergoes a slow destructive change. Anger builds up. Patience is running out. I may even develop chronic somatic diseases.
If I can get close to my grief and really open up to it, then it amazes me. The spirit of a dead man appears suddenly. Clarity arrives. Love floods my heart. Anything can happen. Combined with fear, grief can be isolating. But as we relax into it, we may find that the connection with the missing person is still strong enough to support our needs. Love doesn’t die. And we learn compassion. We learn to ask for help. And we learn to help others in new ways.
But this kind of processing doesn’t happen quickly or efficiently. In fact, the only way this can happen is if we are patient and allow ourselves to grieve fully and completely and for as long as necessary. For some, it will be forever. The more we suppress grief or tell ourselves we have to be done by a certain time, the more it slows us down. And if we can open ourselves to it and relax into it, the more grief becomes this interesting place to explore and find ourselves, bigger and better than we were before.
* Worden, JW (2008). “Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (4th ed.).” New York: Springer.