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The ‘After the First Year of Grief’ Myth

Posted on January 09, 2018

For the last 18 months it has been a gift for me to gather with individuals who come to be with others who have lost a loved one. The group changes, people come and participate for as long as they find it a good place to be; they come to be with people and to share with others who truly understand what the journey of life after death of a loved one is about. I want to thank the many who have come and shared their journey; their story may be reflected in this article and they are used with permission.   

There are many emotions that load the table as we talk: anger, tears, resignation, anxiety, laughter, grief, conquered fears, new adventures, worries and feelings that just simply cannot be articulated. 

There are many questions and one that comes up more often than any other is, why do people think that after a year everything will be all better?   

 Jodi had to quit her job after her daughter was diagnosed with cancer. Four years ago, 14-year-old Anna died. Taking Anna to Mayo, paying for pills, and caring for her became Jodi’s life work. She lost her home, her job, her pension, her circle of friends, her identity that gave life meaning, “Mom.” Her adult children still struggle with the grief of losing a sister and it has broken family relationships. Jodi says that the pain consumes her heart and soul today as much as it did then. Now she is on a journey to find herself, who am I now? The job she had gave her life meaning, now she works, but it’s a job, not her chosen career. Medical bills will take years to pay and she worries. She has a home, a very small one, not the big two-story that was home. Her circle of parent friends has moved on, doing things with their kids. It is hard to make new friends. Jodi found her way to our support group after four years. She is with us because she lost her child and she has lost family, friends, home, work, financial security, purpose, identity and she grieves each loss. She wonders, why does everyone think that after a year all shall be well? (A joyful note: just before Christmas, Jodi found the perfect tree to take to Anna’s grave and knowing how much Anna loved lights, Jodi decorated it with solar lights. She says that “putting it out was the first time I have felt that Anna is okay, she is at rest, in peace!” Christmas was a gift.)

45 years ago, Marian lost her dad. He was just 56. She says that seven years after dad died, “I was traveling, when I got off the plane an old friend met me and as I hugged her I started to sob, hard. She laughed and said, ‘I had no idea you would be so happy to see me.’ In response I said, ‘Elizabeth, my dad died.’ She looked oddly at me and said, ‘Yes, seven years ago.’ I said, “Yes, but he is gone.” For seven years, I was angry at my dad, so angry I could not grieve the loss. Dad was an alcoholic, a shot of Cabin Still began his every day. He also died when my youngest sister was just 12 and I was angry at him for doing that. Seven years later, I began to grieve. He was too young to die, he would never know his grandkids, he was my golf buddy, my fishing friend, the one who took us to ball games, he let us play in his toy store on Sunday when no one was there but us kids. My dad died, and it took me seven years to begin to grieve. Something must be wrong!” After all that time, finding understanding and support was hard.

Gerald lost his wife 18 months ago; he was her caretaker, day in and day out, every day for over a year. Dorothy had lost most physical and mental abilities. He tells the group; “I really lost her when all of this started; I have grieved all of this time. But now I have no idea how to move on with my life. My love, caring for her, what gave me purpose each day is gone. It has been over a year and I still can’t move. What is wrong with me?”

Elaine has been coming to the support group for a while. She says, “The last six months have been the longest, loneliest, darkest days for me since Jerry died. It has been over a year. What is wrong with me? I miss my best friend, I miss a hug, laughing together, planning how we will spend the long winter days; I grieve so many losses.” 

For many, the common “understanding” that after the first year all things begin to settle, time heals, life begins to move ahead is a myth that sometimes creates a sense that something is wrong with them. After “a year” they feel like they must stop bringing up their grief; people ‘are tired of hearing about it,’ people feel that ‘you should be better’.  The reality for many is that they hurt every day and the “it has been a year” myth adds to a profound sense of isolation, loneliness and feeling a little crazy. During the first year the reality that in losing a loved one there are many hidden losses that come with death is driven home and there is more than one grief going on.

In the support group, each person hears you are not crazy, you are grieving, own it. Individuals begin to recognize that there is no magic, each person is different, healing is different, moving on is different. Many come to the support groups after a year or two because they are just reaching the point in their grief journey where they can begin to talk, and they need a place where people will understand.

During the first year many things change. There are material losses, people may lose their home, their treasured belongings. Some find it impossible to pack up the things that belonged to their loved one, opening the closet is grief. Financial security may be at risk and individuals grieve the losses that will come with changes in their estate. 

When there is a death, most often families come together and support and care for one another. But sometimes families and relationships break, death can tear people apart. These losses become part of profound, deep grief that again will not just heal in a year; the breaks may never heal.

Roles often change when there is a death. If one has been a caretaker for an extended time, there is a sense of a loss of purpose. Sometimes people lose jobs and individuals grieve the loss of colleagues, of work, of a place to go and purpose. When a spouse dies, maybe the cook died, maybe the one who did all the finances dies, maybe the one who maintained the car died, each person grieves and wonders what now? The loss of identity is profound. I am no longer husband, wife, mom, dad, grandparent. Children face new realities, I no longer have a mom or a dad, a grandparent. The title widow/widower does not feel right. Individuals struggle to find new identities and new places to be welcomed in. You and your loved one(s) had dreams; those are gone, how does one create new dreams and find the confidence to pursue them? We grieve what might have been. A year is not a magic time to sort out all the new realities.

So, what do we do? James and Friedman in the book, “Grief Recovery,” defines recovery as “claiming your circumstances instead of circumstances claiming you and your happiness. Recovery is finding new meaning for living, recovery is being able to enjoy fond memories without having them bring on painful feeling of regrets or remorse.” 

Today society says, “get over it,” but grief is real and there is no timetable for how we move through this. Grief is about you. How you recover varies; death is real and so are the hidden griefs like affection, familiarity, connections, place, that are part of each loss. Grief is an emotional journey, we grieve because we have loved someone. Grief is part of being a human being.

 

Grieving in good health matters, don’t get stuck, and if you sense that you are pay attention. Sometimes moving on means getting counseling. Paying attention to what you are doing to maintain good health matters. Are you sleeping and eating? A visit to the doctor might be in order. Having a support circle someplace matters. Each person needs to be able to own and touch their grief no matter how long it has been since you buried your loved one. Touching your grief will make you more understanding of others who grieve. 

 

One year after death for some might be magic, and if it is, alleluia. If it is not a magic time, don’t get lost in feeling like something is wrong. Something is right; you are owning where you are in your grief journey. Surround yourself with others who understand and know that in your own time you will walk on. That is an alleluia. 

By: The Rev. Maureen Doherty, Continuous Care Coordinator

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