Can You Grieve a Death Almost 30 Years Later?
How time impacts grief and loss
Posted Aug 23, 2017
“We expect to see a mourner in pain in the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one. After that, grief persists invisibly. Others can’t see it, but it never goes away. Instead, you learn to live with it, to move through your days and years accommodating your new reality.
But the true tragedy of losing someone you love unfolds over time. There’s the loss itself, the empty space that used to be filled by that person… And then there’s the fact that the sorrow you feel changes you, so that you are no longer the person he once knew.
My father’s death set in motion a series of changes in me such that I wonder whether he would recognize the person I’ve become. As the years pass, he is more and more lost to me. He died too soon to experience many important moments in my life. He wasn’t there when I graduated from college. He never met the man I married. He died long before I had children… He never knew my strength.”
When I read these words by writer Michal Lemberger earlier this year, I literally tore them out of the magazine. I had to keep them. Though our stories are quite different, the way she wrote about loss and grief resonated with me, especially in this 29th -- yes, 29th -- year after my father died by suicide.
Each year around the anniversary of his death, I write a post about what it means to me to be a survivor of suicide loss, where I am with this particular loss, and, often, a little about my dad. The year usually feels like it goes by quickly and I typically feel like I have a lot to say.
This year, I felt like I was anticipating this August post each month. As each month passed, I wondered what I would say. I found myself thinking that I have less and less to say, that I have said a lot, especially this past year, and that perhaps there isn’t much left.
And then, finally, August arrived, first the anniversary date on the regular calendar, then the anniversary date on the Hebrew calendar. (As a Jewish person, I observe the tradition of saying a prayer for the dead on the Hebrew anniversary.) I still felt like I wasn’t sure what to write. Lemberger’s essay felt like it was burning a hole in my laptop bag.
She said so much of what I might offer: That grief is invisible, that it changes you, that the relationships you could have had with those you have lost are forever altered because of their absence. That your life moves on and their lives do not. That you no longer know them and they no longer know you.
As I inch closer to the age my father was when he died, I feel both closer and farther away. Now I know what it’s like to be an overwhelmed parent of small children, to feel the pressure to do well in all parts of life, to want to be exceptional and to settle for mediocre. My father’s experience of adulthood wasn’t something I could know before I was an adult, (not that I truly can now), but these aspects I name I know to be true at least in part. And yet, as I live as an overwhelmed parent of small children, as I struggle to perform up against the pressure, as I work a balance between exceptional and mediocre, I do so without him as a witness or a source of support. This grief is the grief that persists invisibly. This life, especially the one I live now, so many years later, is me moving through my days and years continuing to accommodate my new reality.
Writer Rebecca Solnit offers this reflection, which feels particularly true to me this year: “The art is not one of forgetting but of letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”
Copyright 2017 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved
The Center for Complicated Grief at the Columbia University School of Social Work posits that grief is a form of love. For more information: https://complicatedgrief.columbia.edu/