There are no experts on grief, and that includes me. As I often say in these blogs, “Grief is as unique as a finger print,” so no one can be an expert about any grief other than their own. Most of what I know about grief comes from the stories people tell about their unique journey. I am here to just report on the stories.
On one of my trips to New York after 9/11 one of the women who helped organize the conference where I spoke told me her story and gave me one of the best descriptions of grief I have ever heard. She said:
“My daughter died four years ago. She now lives on my shoulder and in my heart. I feel her presence there and I talk to her and find great comfort in her just being there.” She spread her hand in front of her face and said, “She used to be right here. She was in front of my eyes twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Every thought I had was about her. Everything I did was in light of what she would want. I stopped being a person and became a bereaved parent full-time. When someone asked me how I was I would want to scream ‘can’t you see? She’s right there, how do you think I am?’
“As time went by the family seemed to talk about her less and less. I resented their moving on. Were they just going to forget her? Is that all she meant to them? The holidays were especially hard. It seemed like everyone wanted things to go back to normal, but how could they do so unless we totally forgot she ever existed?
“In time, she began to slip a little bit at a time from right in front of my eyes. I would realize that I had not thought of her in a half hour, then it might be an hour, then even longer. I panicked. I thought I had to keep her right in front of my face or I was not properly honoring and remembering her. I was afraid I would not feel her presence if she was not right there. Matter of fact, I felt closest to her when I was hurting the most, so sometimes, I would try to think of things that would remind me and make me cry, so I could feel close to her.
“Gradually, it became harder and harder to keep her there. She would slip a little and I would pull her back, only to have her slip a little more. The day finally came when I was willing to let her move. She moved from being with me face to face to being with me heart to heart. That is a long and very hard journey, but it is healing. I feel her presence now in a far more relaxed and comfortable way. I don’t have to try to maintain it. I don’t have to worry about forgetting her. I know she will be on my shoulder and in my heart forever.”
What a beautiful description of one person’s grief. It is important to emphasize that this is the experience of one person. It is not the picture of everyone’s grief. I have told the story enough times and listened to enough responses to know that it is a story that speaks to most people in the journey. There will be variations in each person’s story, but the basic idea of our relationship with a loved one changing over time seems to fit most of the people I have talked with. Your story may vary, but that does not mean your story is not just as valid and just as beautiful as this one. I think this story suggest some truths that are important to us as we too make the journey.
GRIEF IS TRANSITION. Where you are today is not where you will be tomorrow. I do not believe that time heals all wounds, but I do believe that over time, we change the way we think, the way we feel, the way we react, and the way we cope with the loss. At first we seem to transition by the hour. We jump from being totally devastated and helpless to being angry at the whole world. Gradually, the transitions become more gradual in nature. Fast or slow, we do change.
CHANGING DOES NOT MEAN FORGETTING. Nor does it mean loosing the sense of the loved one being present in our lives. As the woman described in her story, her daughter moved from being right in front of her mind and eyes to living on her shoulder and in her heart. She still feels her daughter’s presence and in some ways that presence is even more real now. Grief is not forgetting. Grief is the slow development of a new way of being with someone you love. That is the journey of grief. That is the goal of the journey of grief.
Updated: August 12, 2015