Until it doesn’t.
People who are grieving are often “encouraged” with the idea that their pain will be lessened with the passing of time. Following this reasoning, it would seem that after a few years (or decades) the pain of loss will cease to exist.
That has not been the experience of the folks I know. Although the passage of time can soften the sharp and shrieking grief that comes right after a loss, it rarely diminishes it altogether.
The common belief is that the first year is the hardest, but sorrow lasts far beyond the 12 month deadline. The first year is remarkable in its ability to keep the presence of the deceased foremost in our minds. We celebrate the first birthday without them while their memory touches everything about the date. The first Christmas, the first anniversary, the first summer barbeque can all strip our emotions bare and remind us poignantly of the loss.
It is true that loss becomes more bearable with the passage of time, but at any time on the journey, loss can hit us with the wallop of a major league fastball. Even a dozen years after a death all it takes is a song or a photo or a special date on the calendar to take us right back to the pain. Before her death in her late 80’s my mother could still be brought to tears by the loss of her younger sister in childhood. Now my mom was one of 11 children, so to the outside observer, the loss of one child may not seem like a tragedy of epic proportions, but she and her siblings never fully got over the loss of their little sister to childhood illness.
One of the hardest parts about loss is that life goes on without the one who has died. I have sat with newly grieving families and shared with them the disbelief and shock that come from watching the rest of the world go on as if nothing has changed. It seems particularly cruel that folks are still grocery shopping or falling in love or watching the Super Bowl when everything in your world is crashing down around you.
The other side of that coin is the guilt that can come when everyday life comes creeping back for those living with a loss. The first time you laugh at a sitcom, or enjoy a meal, or go a whole day without crying can seem like a betrayal of the one who died and an affront to the immensity of the loss. How can you enjoy a margarita and a burrito platter when the love of your life is no longer by your side. To go on living feels like a betrayal.
Luckily, even with the most tragic of losses, life provides a softening, if not a permanent relief. Minutes turn into hours turn into days when the hole in your heart is not the all encompassing focus of your day. Babies are born, meals are shared, new memories are made and savored. The absence of the one that we lost becomes a sweet reminder of the brevity of life rather than the constant chilling pain of grief.
It never goes away entirely though. In time, reminders that formerly cut us to the core become sweet touchstones that assure us of the presence of love in our lives. The flashes of memory come less frequently and the pain that accompanies them becomes less acute.
There is no hiding from loss. To live and to love means to lose. If we could wave a magic wand and make the pain of loss disappear, I doubt that many would do it because it would mean denying the love in the lost relationship. But we can survive loss because the love eventually overrides the pain allowing us to go on and to make new connections; connections that we risk even though they may lead to more loss. And that is the ultimate tribute to those that we have loved and lost; the gift of loving again, of loving still, of loving through death.