Michelle came to see me after the death of her young son, Shane.
“I guess,” she said, “I will always be in pain.”
I asked her why she thought her grief would never ease. She told me that one of the other mothers in her grief group told her that, adding that the pain was the last remaining bond of love with her child. As such, the woman shared with Michelle, she should welcome such pain as a testament to her connection with her son.
I assured her that she was only partly right. Years ago, we used to think that grief was about slowly detaching from the person we lost. At the time, the thinking was that “recovery” involved slowly withdrawing our emotional energy from the lost individual and reinvesting it in others.
But we understand now that we never lose the connection with the person we loved. We never forget our memories. The people who are part of our lives are now part of our biography—part of who we are and will continue to become. They have left their marks and legacies.
Every morning, for example, I write a “to do” list, a habit passed down to me from my dad. It is one way in which he continues to have a role in my daily life. We still may dream of our departed loved ones, or feel, at times, a sense of their presence. One of my colleagues, Dr. Dennis Klass, observed that one of the ways parents maintain a connection with their deceased children is that they keep an “inner representation” of their child. This means that they carry an awareness of their child at the age the child would be now. So, for example, if a child died at six years old, the parents would be aware that this is the time when the child would be graduating high school.
But while we always retain a continuing bond, and while we will always miss that person, that does not mean we can no longer find joy in life. I always tell people that the first sign that they are doing better is when they can recall and laugh at funny stories involving the deceased that were previously too soon and too raw to revisit.
Most of us, over time and on our own schedule, find the amelioration of our grief. We see our pain lessening. We are able to find a new normal and to re-engage with life. We find we can function again, and in some cases, we may even grow stronger as a result of our loss, gaining new insights, strengthened beliefs, and new skills.
Again, because we never fully sever that bond, we may, as we continue with life, have occasional surges of pain as we experience different milestones. For example, the birth of a grandchild may trigger a surge of grief as we wish a family member were there to witness the event. And though these surges may be bittersweet, they are not life sentences of eternal pain.
The author Thornton Wilder once said, “The highest tribute to the death is not grief, but gratitude.” We will always retain a continuing bond with the people we love. But it does not need to be—nor should it be—a chain of pain.
Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and counseling at the College of New Rochelle and a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America. He is the author of Grief is a Journey: Finding Your Path through Loss, as well as 33 other books, and over 100 articles and book chapters. He is also the editor of Omega: Journal of Death and Dying and Journeys: A Newsletter to Help in Bereavement, and past president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) and chair of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement (IWG).