Monday, December 18, 2017

In Grief: When the Pain of Loss Won’t Go Away

[Reviewed and updated August 10, 2023]

It has been said, 'time heals all wounds.' I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.  ~ Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy

A reader writes: I wrote to you some time ago regarding a friend who had died by suicide. It's been two years now, and the pain is still just as strong now as it was when I first wrote to you. I've tried talking to family and friends. I've heard that talking about it will help ease the pain. Well, it doesn't. It makes me hurt that much more.
I still find myself wishing he was here. Just about every other thought is about him. I've even caught myself staring at every guy on a motorcycle, just hoping it's him. I know that I'll never see him passing me on a motorcycle, but I still check anyway. I still have dreams of him. I still somewhat long for his touch. I'm slowly dying inside and I'm not sure where to turn to or where to go. I thought since you took the time before to talk to me, that maybe you can offer something again. I hate this feeling that grows inside of me. Instead of the grief easing up, it feels like it's growing twice as strong. I now have a 7-month-old son and husband. It's hard to concentrate on them when my thoughts wander to the guy who died. Is there any way to control this or to at least "make it go away"? I'm in desperate need of someone who will listen, and I'm scared that if I go and talk to an actual doctor that they'll think I'm going crazy. Maybe I am. I'm not sure of anything anymore really.

My response: I do indeed remember you, and I've just re-read both the message you sent to me two years ago and the response I sent back to you the next day.

I'm so sorry to learn that you're still in so much pain. I completely understand your continuing to miss someone you love so much, because we're never really finished with loss when someone significant leaves us. This loss will resurface during key developmental periods for the rest of your life, my dear. You will have to face it again and again, not as the person you were when this man died, not as the person you are today, but as the person you will have grown to be in two or five or twenty years from now. Each time you will face it on new terms, but ~ depending on how you manage it ~ it won't always take as long and it won't be as difficult as it has been in the beginning. You will find ways to carry it as you learn to live with it.

The fact that you seem to be "stuck" in your grief ("the pain is still just as strong as it was when I first wrote to you") tells me that whatever you've been doing to cope with your grief may not be working for you and/or may not be enough to get you moving forward so you can progress along this grief journey. You say that you've "tried talking to family and friends" ~ but obviously that is not enough! If you've ever worked out on a regular basis, you know that it requires a great deal of time, effort and commitment (sometimes with a professional trainer) ~ but when done consistently over time, it produces physical, emotional, mental and spiritual benefits. So it is with grief work.

People say that "time heals all wounds," but the sad truth is that time doesn't "do" anything ~ it is what we do with our time that matters! Mourning successfully requires that certain work must be done, and from what I read in your most recent message to me, you've not been doing it ~ or at least you've not sought out and found the support you need to get it done. Much as you may want to forego this labor, whatever issues you don't address will simply lie there, waiting to be resolved. When feelings are acknowledged and expressed outwardly, they can be released. When they're held onto, they just fester and keep on hurting, making you feel crazy, depressed and alone.
It is when denial falls away, when you begin to recognize and experience most intensely all the reactions to your loss, that the real work of mourning begins. In ways that are personal and unique to you alone, you will gradually integrate your loss into the framework of your life, as you slowly give up the reality that included the physical presence of your loved one. 
Grief work can be done through private activities such as reading and writing, and with others through talking, participating in bereavement counseling or finding support in a group. It is an active rather than a passive process, not only of coming to terms with your loss, but also of finding meaning in it as well. Such work takes enormous energy. It is both emotionally and physically exhausting, and may well be the hardest work you’ll ever do, but it can also produce tremendous healing and growth (Finding Your Way through Grief, pp. 52-53).
You ask, "Is there any way to control this or to at least 'make it go away'?" As I re-read the message I sent to you two years ago, there is very little I can add. All I can do is to encourage you to follow the suggestions I've already given:

- Read what Thomas Attig has to say about "making the transition from loving in presence to loving in separation," at Grief's Heart.

- Educate yourself about surviving in the aftermath of suicide; see all the resources listed here, Grief Support for Survivors of Suicide Loss as well as those you'll find on the Suicide Loss page on my Grief Healing Web site.

- Do some reading about normal grief and how you might work with it. See, for example, the page listing links to all my articles, read my book Finding Your Way through Grief, or find some of the titles listed in our online Grief Bibliography. See especially the related articles and books I've listed at the base of this post.

- Join our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, and give words to your grief by sharing your story of loss. This site is available to you at no cost, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I completely agree with your opening statement: "I need someone to just listen and understand me." I said this to you two years ago, but it bears repeating here: There is an abundance of help out there just waiting for you to find it. If you haven't yet obtained all the help you need, keep on looking!

Finally, I want to share with you an important insight written by author and hospice pioneer Christine Longaker, two years into her grief at losing her beloved husband:
Instead of letting go of our attachment as we grieve, we can make the mistake of grasping on to the deceased person even more strongly. Halfway through the second year after my husband's death, the cycles of intense pain and sadness were continuing, and I felt a fresh fear that my grief would never finish. Part of me wanted to ignore this intense pain returning month after month, to push it down and avoid it all together. Yet I suspected that repressing my own pain would not help in the long run either, so I decided to bring more awareness to my situation. I asked myself if I was doing anything that might be prolonging the mourning process. 
Then I uncovered the secret thoughts I was generating each time I felt deep sadness and pain: I can't live without you. I hate being alone. I want you back. There was so much grasping in my mind, so many wishes that could never be satisfied! If I continued to think and feel this way, I realized, there would be no end to my grief and despair. It was clear that I needed to replace my grasping with a new way of thinking: I am letting you go and wishing you well. I am going to survive and be strong. I am going to make a new life for myself. When I felt the deep pain and sadness rising again, I began practicing letting go in this way. After a few months of taking this approach, my process of mourning finished (Facing Death and Finding Hope: A Guide To The Emotional and Spiritual Care Of The Dying, p. 168). 
This by no means implies that one day you will be finished with missing this person who died. The love you shared with this man is real. Love never dies, and the love you feel for him will be there always. Let that love remain in your heart. Allow yourself to feel it without feeling guilty. Your heart has the capacity to continue loving the person who died, even as you continue to love the husband and the child you have now.

I hope what I've said to you helps, dear one. Please know that I am thinking of you, holding you in my heart, and wishing you continued peace and healing. 

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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© by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, BC-TMH

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