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How Grief Changes Over Time

"My passage through this pain is not over; I doubt it will ever be."

Key points

  • As time passes, grief remains but softens.
  • Joy can exist alongside the pain of loss.
  • The pain of grief can feel like an ongoing connection.
  • We all grow around our grief in our own way.
Ales Maze/Unsplash
Ales Maze/Unsplash

I recently marked three years since the day my husband went to work and never came home. On that day, I did what might become a ritual, as I did something similar last year: I took my dog on a road trip and a hike in a state park. The day was peaceful and soothing. I also got us some good Texas barbecue, Daisy’s favorite part.

Four days later, I had a milestone birthday. A big one. And I decided that I deserved a party after a particularly crappy stretch of life. So I threw myself one. If not me, who?

It was great. Friends came from all over and from all different parts of my life. The friend who was DJ at our wedding spun tunes. I talked and drank and danced and had a wonderful time.

And then, when it was all over but the cleanup, the missing Tom washed over me like a rogue wave. I missed him hard. And he has been making frequent appearances in my dreams ever since.

Grief Softens Over Time

And that’s what grief looks like for me three years out. I am sad within happiness or happy within sadness. I seesaw between living joyfully and dropping into melancholy. I am working hard at rebuilding my life in this new configuration while still yearning for a life that is no longer possible. I still attend support groups, but not as fervently. Grief is a defining experience, but it is also becoming part of my life rather than dominating it. It’s the rock in a jar. I am growing around it. And the truth is, I like who I am becoming. Yes, I am, in some ways the same. But I am also changing. How can I not?

Of course (and I can’t say this enough), everyone’s grief is different. I’m sure some people at my stage can’t imagine having a party, much less enjoying one. And that’s fine. We all navigate these choppy seas in our own way. (And yes, sometimes I wrestle with guilt if I have fun. Does that mean I didn't love him enough? Shouldn't I wear widow's weeds forever, like Queen Victoria?)

But I know that in the very fresh, raw throes of loss, hearing anyone talk about feeling pain years out is absolutely terrifying. Are you telling me this pain lasts forever?!

And I want to assure you that no, it does not, although you probably won’t believe me. I get it. Early on, the pain is so all-encompassing it’s impossible to imagine relief.

Now, the pain does last–I doubt it ever leaves us entirely–but not that kind of pain. Not the kind that can bring you to your knees, the kind that nearly suffocates you when you open your eyes each morning. Not that pain that addles the mind and wreaks havoc on the body.

A Different Pain

I still hurt, but it’s different, more like a constant, dull ache in the background at all times. I can still choke up talking about Tom, and I experience throbs of anguish, either at random times or because I have reached for them to reassure myself that I haven't forgotten. Healing from grief is complicated; it can feel like betrayal or like you are leaving the person behind as you move forward. The pain is a continuing connection, and I’m not ready to let go of it completely (as if that were even possible). But I can’t access that early agony that caused me to wail like a wounded beast. That was then. Now I simply cry. And I call his name–sometimes I yell it as loud as I can–just to hear it. (Sometimes, I listen to this over and over. We both loved the Beatles.)

The Matter of Things

Practically speaking, I have yet to empty Tom’s closet; I’m not ready for that. I have not spread his ashes and wonder if I ever will. They are on his dresser along with his wallet and keys and some photographs, and I still talk to them. I am finding that his possessions have taken on different meanings, some more meaningful (I wear his overalls to do yard work, as he did), some less so (I sold and gave away a large chunk of his record collection–it wasn’t easy, emotionally, but it was possible). I still sleep on my side of our king-sized bed. My king-sized bed? Neither sounds right.

I find myself feeling weighed down by all the stuff we accumulated in our 35 years together, and my relationship with much of it is shifting as well. I am very slowly changing the house from how it has always been to how I want it for the foreseeable future. It’s slightly painful to me to have everything preserved as it was but with a gaping hole. In fact, immediately after Tom’s death, I changed the pictures hanging on the wall opposite my bed, so I didn’t have the same view I always did when I woke up in the morning. I don’t know why that mattered to me, but it did.

Again, this is my grief. I know another woman, also three years out, who wants to leave everything exactly as it was before she lost her husband; it helps her nurture an ongoing connection with him. And that’s fine too. To each her own.

Three years out, I am living my life as fully as possible while simultaneously yearning for what is no longer and what will never be. I try to stay in the present while still cherishing memories from the past. I still hurt and cry, but I also let myself feel joy when I can.

My passage through this pain is not over; I doubt it will ever be. I have much more to process and experience (I will have to empty his closet eventually.) But for now, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge how I am growing around the grief. As people said I would.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: amenic181/Shutterstock

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