A New Normal

What does it mean to "get over" the loss of a loved one?

Posted Dec 06, 2018

There’s a phrase I scan for in bereavement interviews and articles like some kind of macabre Bingo: “You never get over it.”

Almost without fail it pops up—and it’s never sat well with me, either as a therapist or a person with experience of traumatic loss.

In the early days of raw grief, those words can feel like your own death sentence. They can seem equally bleak in the dull ache of the months that follow, as reality seeps in creeping and cold. This is life now.

Of course, like all clichés, it prevails because of the kernel of truth at its core. The grieving loved ones who speak these words mean them completely. But I would argue that (a) they aren’t particularly helpful, and (b) they’re just one facet of the highly complex structure of grief.

What we know about bereavement based on research is that ‘normal’ responses can include any and all of the following: sadness, despair, rage, emptiness, loneliness, nightmares, inability to sleep, oversleeping, exhaustion, weight loss, weight gain, isolation, increased dependence, lack of affect, hallucination…

In other words, almost anything is ‘normal’ following the trauma of losing forever someone we loved in life, and continue to love through the agony of their absence.

For most people, however, their "normal" (albeit incredibly disturbing and upsetting) grief symptoms largely dissipate within 18 months. While the griever has not necessarily ‘moved on’, the most acutely painful sensations have shifted. As researchers Jordan & Litz put it, over time, “the griever is able to come to an acceptance of irrevocably changed circumstances and re-engage in life.”

So if you’re grieving, know that you’ll most likely return to a place of psychological wellbeing and a "new normal" in time—but the key word here is "new." The truth in the phrase "you never get over it" lies in the fact that you will never again be the ‘old’ you—the person you were when your loved one was alive.  

We are, to a large extent, created in the relationships we have with others. We bring forth different parts of ourselves with each and every person we share our lives with. We are a certain way with them, they are a certain way with us, and we are a certain way together. We mirror each other, we reflect one another back.

And when our beloved dies, it is not only them that we lose forever—it is a piece of ourselves.

So how to reconcile the fact that we will "recover," in psychological terms, and yet we will be permanently and irreversibly changed? Most of us are rather attached to our sense of self and identity and find the idea of such change unpleasant (if not outright terrifying). It might be better than drowning in grief forever, but it’s not exactly sunshine and cinnamon buns.

In my view, we can draw some comfort and sense from the words of Dr. Russ Harris, a key proponent of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). In his book The Reality Slap, Dr. Harris poignantly describes the intense grief he felt when his son was diagnosed with autism. He goes on to muse that it would be theoretically possible to remove the part of his brain responsible for this agony. A seductive thought, and yet one he would never choose—because that same part of the brain contains his love and concern for his son. Without it, he would no longer feel anything towards his child. He could watch him suffer or even die and not care.

I imagine that whoever you are, whatever your loved one meant to you, and however much you may be hurting right now, you would make the same choice. Your suffering exists alongside your love, bound up in what you and your lost one meant to one another. Grief wounds us, scars us and inevitably changes us, but it also honors something that mattered. It’s the mark of something meaningful, the price that must be paid for love.

With the healing influence of time, each of us in our own way will fill the hole left behind—while acknowledging that whatever takes up that space isn’t the thing we miss.

You’ll never "get over" such a loss. But in time, you’ll become a new you—and you’ll find a new normal.

References

Harris, R. (2012). The Reality Slap: Finding peace and fulfillment when life hurts. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Jordan A. H., & Litz, B. T. (2014). Prolonged Grief Disorder: Diagnostic, assessment, and treatment considerations. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 45(3), 180-187. doi:10.1037/a0036836