Does Grief Ever Go Away? Here Are the Real Facts

To answer the question, “does grief ever go away?” it’s important to make some clear distinctions. There are a couple of things you could mean when you ask this question, and these have different answers.

Perhaps what you mean to ask is, “does my love for the person I’ve lost dissipate over time?” If so, the answer is: “no”. You’ll always know and remember the love you had for the one you’re grieving, and that won’t fade or be forgotten one bit.

Or perhaps you mean to ask, “will the pain of grief ever become easier to bear?” If that’s your question, the answer is, “yes”.

When Grief Begins, It’s All-Consuming

When you’ve experienced the loss of a treasured person in your life, the pain of grief can feel impossible to bear. Especially if you don’t know if it’s going to go on forever. It’s normal for everything in your world to shut down and you might have trouble eating, sleeping, being with people or generally just… living life.

This initial impact won’t ease up for a while. Your job is to acknowledge the pain. To feel the pain. To be brave enough to live through the pain, perhaps not fully knowing why you’re doing it.

(This article has some survival tips on how to cope with the first month of grief.)

It’s going to be sad. To the point where you’ll probably question whether you’re going to survive this. You might wonder whether it’s even possible to go on without your loved one. And on top of everything, you’ll probably feel isolated by your grief, cut off from the world where they can’t understand you and you can’t understand them.

The Healing Process Will Come in Phases

In the 60s, psychiatrists and psychologists viewed grief as something to be mended. A patient experiencing grief would need to go through several stages of the grieving process until they ultimately reached a healing point where, voila, the grief was finished.

Mental health experts today have a much different view. A  2014 paper from Dartmouth University talks about grief as a bit of a see-saw between 2 different types of stressors: “loss” and “restoration”. On one hand you have the emotionally exhausting work of sitting with your pain that we mentioned above (loss). On the other hand you have the equally difficult work of trying to rebuild a healthy life for yourself (restoration).

In this way, “the griever’s attention oscillates between evocative echoes of the past and present-focused activities”, one mode giving relief from the other mode. To take a break from crying, you go and visit a friend. When you’re exhausted from the visit, you go home and cry.

Over time, and with enough practice, you will be able to come to terms with your loss and start successfully re-engaging in the world.  This clinical review from 2017 says that “with time, the waves of grief will come more rarely, and the sadness and feelings of unreality will gradually recede”.

There’s a Healthy Way to Grieve, and a Harmful Way

Everyone grieves differently. The way you experience the grieving process will be quite different from how another person experiences it. In saying that, there’s a healthy way to grieve, and a harmful way.

The healthy way to grieve is to treat yourself with respect and love as you move through the process, however hard that might become at times. It’s also healthy to fully experience the feelings you’re having, even if they are scary or inappropriate.

The unhealthy route is avoiding the pain. You might drown it out with alcohol, or overwork yourself at your job to avoid processing things emotionally. You might just refuse to admit to yourself or anyone else that you’re fragile enough to be experiencing such pain.

The effects of repressing your grief can be very harmful not only to your mind, but to your body as well. It can result in sleep disorders, heart problems and severe depression. As someone who has survived terrible grief, the best way I can put it is this: When you don’t admit the damage that’s happened in your life, your life around you will get more and more damaged to try and get your attention.

The healthy way to grieve is to treat yourself with respect and love as you move through the process, however hard that might become at times. It’s also healthy to fully experience the feelings you’re having, even if they are scary or inappropriate.

Are You Waiting for Someone To Tell You It’s Okay?

Sometimes you just need to hear that it’s okay from someone else.

People around you might not have expressed this to you, but…
You have permission to fully grieve your loss.

People around you might not have expressed this to you, but…
You have permission to start the rebuilding process.

Find Your Community

Go out and seek others who have been through the same kind of grief you’re going through. These people are going to be able to help you immensely, and you’re going to be able to help them just as much.

If you don’t feel like leaving the house just yet, there are lots of very active groups on Facebook for people who are grieving to tell their stories and support each other. There are groups for people who have lost a pet and groups for people who have lost a child to drunk driving.

A Word on Prolonged Grief

If it has been more than a year and you still don’t feel like you’ve healed in the slightest, you could be suffering from what experts are calling “prolonged grief”. This is uncommon, affecting about 7% of people who have experienced loss, but it’s such a real thing that the World Health Organization is expected to include the disorder in its upcoming revision of the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases).

If this feels like it could be what you’re dealing with, reach out and contact a therapist who specializes in grief. They will have more and more resources to help you as this becomes an increasingly recognized issue.

Back to the “Yes” and to the “No”

No, your love will never fade.
It will always be as wild and bright as it is right now.

No, you’ll never forget about your loved one.
In 20 years you’ll be able to imagine their beautiful features as clearly as if it were yesterday.

Yes, you’ll grow stronger.
The excruciating pain you’re in will eventually grow more and more tolerable.

Don’t believe me?
Ask Robert Neimeyer, PhD, a professor of psychology and editor of the journal Death Studies.
“The good news about bereavement,” he says, “is that although it can leave us brokenhearted, it can also break our hearts open to levels of greater compassion.”

Or, in the words of great artist Henri Mattise, “The pain passes, but the beauty remains”.

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