“When will I be over this?” Many people ask this question in therapy after experiencing a loss. They desperately want to know when things will go back to “normal”. They want to know when they will be “done grieving”, go back to “being my old self”, back to who they were before. The reality is we might not go back to being exactly who we were before, because things aren’t exactly the way they were before, and that’s okay. Our lives are stories that are ever-evolving, being written as we live each day. Understanding how this loss will impact us – making meaning – can be a step on the road to healing.
While it’s perfectly normal to want to “get over it”, to move through the pain as fast as possible, and go back to who we were before, the reality is there’s no way to speed this up. Many people have heard of the 5 Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. What many people don’t know is that these stages were never meant to be linear. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross who first identified the 5 Stages, confirmed that these stages were never meant to be experienced in order or by everyone. These are experiences that commonly arise for the grieving, not a strict or universal path or “timeline”. With grief we often move around these stages or even experience elements of the different stages at the same time. David Kessler, a grief expert who worked closely with Kubler-Ross, found that a 6th stage was missing – Making Meaning.
This could mean finding gratitude for the time you had with a loved one, feeling changed by having known them, feeling changed by their death, or creating something of meaning for others. The elements of Meaning Making include experiencing a change in identity, change in relationships with others, a changed outlook on life, and even growth. For example, someone we love dies and we are not on good terms with them. A person with this experience may make an effort to nurture the important relationships in their life moving forward. Or consider the parent who loses a child to an illness, and creates a support group for others going through that experience. It doesn’t take away the pain of losing them, but it provides a way to honor the memory. Meaning does not equal understanding. We may lose a loved one to suicide and we never understand why, but we may find meaning in their life and what it meant for us to have known them.
When we are working through grief in therapy, the goal is to remember the loved one with more joy than pain. The pain may remain, but we will also be able to remember the happy memories, the laughs we shared, how they made us feel – the good and the bad. As we heal, we may also grow. The pain may not get smaller but we may get bigger, having been influenced and changed by the experience, meaning that the pain takes up less space. Consider a garden. As some plants bloom, others may begin to die. We may want to avoid these parts but if we prune the garden, removing what is dying, we make room for more new growth and beauty to emerge.
To heal our grief it is often essential that we are given the space to feel it. We may be tempted to distract, avoid, numb ourselves, but this can lead to the grief changing us in less than ideal ways. If we are able to feel those feelings and process them, we can begin to heal and decide how we want the garden to look, and how we grow from here.
You don’t have to do it alone. Being able to feel our feelings in the presence of others, whether it’s with family, friends, coworkers, or others in our lives is a crucial part of the human experience and healing. When others can share in our experience we can feel seen, understood, connected, and felt. Many find connection in sharing their experiences with others who have been through a loss of their own. Therapy can be a place to feel these feelings in a safe, supportive and healing environment. As a therapist who has experienced loss myself, I know what it feels like to grieve. I also know how it feels to be seen and understood. And I know what it feels like to heal and grow. The meaning I’ve taken from the losses I’ve experienced is that I now know on a personal level that it is possible to recover from the unimaginable, and even if it may not feel possible yet, I can hold that space for you until you’re ready.