How long is long enough to grieve?

I suspected January was going to be a rough month. In the first place, it usually is, with its gray skies and silent days following the holiday departures of our children going back to their own lives.

Now, I also have to navigate through the anniversaries of the deaths of both of my parents, and the first January 18th that we won’t be celebrating my dad’s birthday. I’m starting to think that in the future, January may be a fine month to pack up and head south for a few weeks. Change of scene. Distractions.

That’s the key, really, isn’t it? Distractions. It all clicked together for me this morning as I watched CNN’s “Sole Survivor” documentary. The wife of a sole surviving pilot of a Kentucky plane crash that occurred several years back said that she tries to make sure her husband has enough distractions. Things to occupy his mind. Reasons to get up in the morning.

I was better at living by distractions when the kids were all young and at home. In those days I frequently yearned for less distractions.

A year ago today we moved Mom from Hospice back to her assisted-living apartment. We wanted her to be able to go “home,” such as it was. She’d only spent four nights, total, there before she was taken to the hospital and then moved to Hospice. But her things were there to surround her. My sister Carol had hung some of Mom’s paintings, all original artwork by family members, while Mom was at Hospice. Mark and I finished the job the day before Mom moved back. The walls were covered in artwork. It was all a futile effort, just one more in a long line of many. When they rolled her back into the room on the stretcher from the transport, she might have glanced up and appreciated it. I don’t know. But after they lifted her from the stretcher to her bed she never got up in the two short days she was back—nurses coming in and out, the Hospice nurse setting up a table, the cook at the facility making her an endless stream of vanilla milkshakes delivered by the staff that we placed in her small freezer until the next one arrived. So many small details.

How long is long enough to grieve? Do I get a year? Do I get a year for each parent? Do I serve them concurrently or consecutively?  I read somewhere it usually takes from 9 months to 18 months following the death of a parent. How does someone figure this out? My sister-in-law told me she missed her father a lot at the Christmas holidays and cried this year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. He’s been gone five years.

 It’s not like I’ve put my life on hold, shut myself into my bedroom with the shades drawn and light low, snuggled under a comforter, surfacing for the occasional bit of food or refill of water in the glass I keep on the beside stand. In the past year I struggled off an occasional lame post and wrote a chapter or two; I’ve been to New Orleans, South Carolina, a wedding in Buffalo, a wedding in Indianapolis, St. Louis (two or three times), Los Angeles, and had a house full of people at Christmas. I’m skimming along fine on the surface with those distractions.

But there is a level of awareness inside my heart, mind, soul, wherever it exists, where I grapple with the fact that I can’t call my mom anymore. That I’ll never be able to hear my dad’s wisdom on the things life throws my way. That the middle has dropped out of the family of my childhood and the people who share my earliest memories are scattered to the wind. No more family celebrations of Mom’s birthday and Mother’s Day. No more Father’s Day cookouts. No more sitting around a Christmas tree.

Is a year long enough to get over it?

Should I just jump back into life and distract the heck out of myself with projects and trips and in that way forget it? Or should I mull over it until I can put it at rest? This is a core question that goes back to one’s belief system about what it’s all about, Alfie. I suspect you have your own opinion about this based on your particular worldview.

My parents were practicing Catholics, although my mom converted to it when she married my dad. For many years I also followed that bright shining beam. But recently, with the corruption that’s come to light and the gender inequality that is practiced, that beam of light has dimmed behind a clouded-over lens. Maybe I’ll eventually be able to clear it off. Maybe not. I wish I could. There was comfort there.

Some people think the only thing that matters is the here and now. Help other people if you can, or if you want to. But enjoy life. Eat, drink, and be merry. Don’t dwell on things that make you unhappy.

I just can’t get over thinking that we are more multi-dimensional than that. If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our sorrow deeply, understand it, learn from it. Then how can we expect to feel our joy deeply?

How long is long enough to grieve? I really don’t know.

Let’s make a deal, though. I won’t tell you, if you don’t tell me.

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53 thoughts on “How long is long enough to grieve?”

  1. Thanks for a well written and thought provoking piece. I live with my wife and dogs in a cabin that my brother built and died in. He died 10 years ago and I “grieve” almost every day, since I’m constantly reminded of him and have even been known to talk to him (when nobody else is around.) Our Mother died 3 years ago and most of the time she enters our discussions. No, I’m not constantly sobbing, but I feel that he and Mom are constantly with me, and I miss the counsel and love that both gave. Is this grief? It is to me. It’s just drawn out over the rest of my life rather than a few months.

    1. Thanks for sharing your story, Harry. Maybe you feel the same way I do to some extent. I have some of my parents’ things here, and although they prick my heart when I see them, they also make me feel closer to Mom and Dad in some way. I can’t imagine how it might feel to live in a cabin your brother made. A mixed blessing, I guess. So many memories. Sometimes I feel Mom and/or Dad very close to me, and other times I can’t seem to find them. I hope with time I will be able to feel about it like you do. There are so many things I never realized about death before now.

  2. Christine, Grieving takes as long as it takes, and we each learn to get over our grieving process at various paces and in different ways.. Even today I went to visit my elderly aunt this morning my Dad;s sister, and her memory isn’t what it was.. She asked me how long had it been since my Dad had died.. I said it was 1998.. She said how old was he I forget? I said he had just turned 68 yrs old..She said they were funny days for you, as you came to look after your Dad, your a good girl you are.. I smiled and we then spoke of something else.. But as my hubby drove us the 40 miles back home, I sat tears behind my eyes, as I recalled those days like yesterday and I hadn’t thought of them in several years..

    So when you feel brighter and you will get those days when other things bring much joy, embrace them, and when you get those memories surface with the tears, acknowledge them too..
    There are no right or wrong ways no time line… but each time we relive a memory it becomes less painful as those jagged edges don’t appear so sharp as they pierce our heart..

    Love and Blessings and Best Wishes for 2014
    Sue xox

    1. Thanks for sharing your story Sue. Sometimes I expect to be able to get to a place where it never hurts and where I never cry about it anymore. It’s good to know that is an unrealistic expectation. Other times I think I have to keep remembering things or I might forget them forever. It’s good to know the memories stay, even when they are bittersweet. You are always so wise. I love what you say about the jagged edges of memories dulling each time we relive them. You may not realize what a light to me you and other readers have been and continue to be. Thank you.

  3. Condolences x 2 plus a zillion. Very well written piece… I still have the reflex to call my grandma after 15 years. I’ve moved from fearing that feeling to enjoying the still powerful urge to include her. I cannot put my finger one how long this transformation took but I hope you take comfort from that idea as your future. Distractions in the form of projects helped me, early on. Reminding myself of her pride in me and her, obvious, wishes that I would not suffer too terribly, also gave me strength. 😉
    Hugs, Susan

    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience, Susan. Your last sentence is what pulls me out of the depths when I fill myself going under. Mom and Dad would not want me to suffer either. Thanks for reminding me.

  4. You are right in that nobody gets to tell you how long. How long to grieve is a very personal decision. But think about losing Annie and how hard that was for you. You will never get over losing your parents. That what comes from having great people in your life. You were lucky to have them. It does make it harder to let go.

    1. I think that is what I’m grappling with right now, the idea that I will never get over losing them. And I know that over time the pain has greatly diminished. I think I’m a little thrown off right now because I’m re-experiencing some pretty serious grief. I’m sure it’s because of the anniversaries and the tendency I have to go back a year and remember. I also think that part of the problem is the knowledge that a whole year has gone by since I’ve seen them. Sometimes I wonder if I was really cut out for this world. 🙂 Lunch soon. OK?

  5. How does one get over losing both parents in a short span of time? I don’t suppose one ever gets over it. One figures out how to go on without them, it’s what you are stumbling your way through. So many emotions come swamping over you. My best friend, whose wonderful mother died five years ago now, tells me she misses her more, not less each year. No one can say what this grieving process will look like for you, in your own way, your own time, you are forging this new territory of life. I hold you in my heart, it’s all I know to do.

    1. Thank you, Joss. You are such a comforting presence. I’m afraid I will be missing my mother more with each year as well. I led a pretty sheltered life up to this point. But if you are an example, with loss comes wisdom. Hopefully I will grow in that way. Hope you are having the time of your life in Europe.

  6. No wise words to add to your own, Christine. Just hugs from afar. When my brother died it took me years to stop missing him, and it can still creep up on me unexpectedly, though now it no longer hurts quite as bad, and is more about sweet memories of him.

  7. I can’t help but think that grieving the loss of one’s parents has to be different than grieving anyone else you have ever lost. It runs so deep & the connection is so strong that we never truly ever stop grieving the loss of them. They are the reason we are here. We came from them & they are a part of us. We have a longing to save them as we know they would us. Therefore I don’t think we ever stop grieving….we just learn how to grieve in a quieter way.
    From my experience when I lost my Dad ( I was 28, he was 50), from the moment I lost my Dad I felt his prescence. He was with me spiritually more than he ever was in life. God has a way of helping us deal with our loss. He knows our hearts & He listens to our prayers. I got through my loss by the grace of God. I still weep on my Dad’s birthday….when I look at his great grandchildren & think of his & their loss….on the day of his death & so many more days in between. It’s been 27 years, but I still grieve. But I grieve with the thought of my Dad in heaven, standing before God, knowing I will meet him there one day as soon as my job on earth is done. Faith, we live on faith. And I thank God for his saving grace every day.

    1. Thanks, Cindy. I suspect you’re right about the loss of parents. But one thing that bothers me a lot about this whole thing is the idea that if I felt this bad about Mom and Dad, how will I ever survive if I lose my husband Mark, or God forbid, one of our children. It’s very frightening to me.

      I’m glad you find comfort in your faith.

  8. At first, grief is a blanket . . . a solid bank of clouds blocking the sun.

    With time, the clouds part and we have moments of blue sky interspersed with rain.

    As more time passes, the blue sky expands and our grief is transformed into the occasional passing cloud.

    Once we have processed our grief, we are able to choose whether to turn our attention to the clouds or focus solely on sunny skies.

    “We can only live happily-ever-after on a moment by moment basis.”

  9. Grief is so damn painful. And I think it comes and goes. I’m still grieving for my father after more than 30 years. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong way or any prescribed length for the grieving period. I DO agree that there is a lot to be said for distraction. Hang in there, my friend!

    Hugs from Ecuador,
    Kathy

    1. Thanks, Kathy. It helps a lot to hear from individuals like you who have a longer life experience with grief. The longevity of it has come as a surprise to me. I’m not sure why. I guess I led a pretty sheltered life—in large part because of my parents.

  10. Grief hurts. I like the description that someone (above) made of a wet gray blanket that covers us. The lifting is slow, but soft, like the beginnings of morning light. Some feel guilty when the grief blanket lifts, but I think instead it’s a letting go of our sadness of not having a loved one nearby, and an allowing that loved one to be in a brighter, better place now. And yes, I believe it is brighter and better, where our ‘departed’ ones go.
    When my dad died 7 years ago, I called his phone every day, so I could listen to his voice on the answering machine. God, that hurt, but I just couldn’t let him go. Now, I talk to him (in a way) every day, and even though I miss him, I feel joyful.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. We disconnected their phone shortly after their deaths, so that was never an option for me. Probably thankfully so. We do like to torture ourselves. I do, however, have several audio tapes that I recorded both Mom and Dad on for Dancing in Heaven, and now for the book I am working on about my dad. I have resisted the urge to listen to them. Someday I will face them again. I do try to talk to one or both of them often. I just have an unquenched longing for a clear response. I believe the joy will come.

      The thing that helps me the most is to think about how they would want me to go forward in my life. That thought alone makes me cry.

  11. Grief is so different for every person just as every person is so different and unique. No one can tell anyone else that it is time to be over it. No one. Whatever you experience is your own and uniquely yours and rightfully so.
    You had a great deal of loss in a very short time and I think that has got to make it feel even more painful. Grief hurts. My dad died in 1994 and I still think of him every single day. Do I grieve? Yes, especially when I hear a song that reminds me of him or see a bird that he taught me what kind it was. It is all good, Christine. Feel deeply because that is who you are. Thanks for sharing. Wonderful post even if it was difficult to write.

    1. Thanks, Beth Ann. It actually makes me feel better to know that people like you still keep their lost parents in their thoughts after quite a few years. I guess I’ve been afraid I would lose even that.

      Clearly, there’s no going back, as much as I may yearn for it. So forward it is.

      1. Absolutely,Christine. It is a process. While I am not consumed by it I do have moments every day when something will make me think of my daddy and they are always wonderful memories. I can’t not love that feeling even though I miss him still.

    1. Thanks, Paula. It’s good to hear from you. I hope all is well with you and you enjoyed your holidays with your daughter home. It makes Christmas take on a whole new meaning once they’ve left for college, doesn’t it?

  12. It hurts. It just cuts us down deep. In time we learn to live with it… somehow.

    You lost both of them so quickly, so it magnifies the loss. And Christmas is always going to be a hard one to get through.

    I was with my dad this Christmas, and it helped on Christmas Day being around my aunt, uncle, and cousins. I managed to get through it.

    1. I know you know how it feels, William, as it is so fresh and new for you. I agree that Christmas will likely always be hard. I suspect there will be no more Smith family Christmas celebrations of any kind. My siblings are scattered and all have children of their own. Mom and Dad were definitely the glue that held that together.

      I’m glad you are still able to be with your Dad, even though it must be hard to watch his grief. I think our extended family begins to carry more weight once we start losing those who are significant to us.

      I determined to make Christmas good this year. Last year was so completely horrible. And although Christmas Day itself was a little rough (and I cheated and took a leftover zanax I kept for emergencies), the rest of the week was fun once all our children and grandchildren arrived.

      You and I, all of us, will carry on. We can live with pain, as long as we don’t define ourselves by it.

      1. In regards to your question at my blog, I’ve left the book to sit for awhile before going back to finish final read throughs. The grief just drained that creativity out, but it’ll come back. Lately I’ve been putting energy into photoblogging.

  13. Jews “officially” mourn the death of a parent for a full year. Everyone else, even a child or spouse, for one month. But a candle is lit for them twice a year, on the anniversary of their deaths and on Yom Kippur. In fact, I think mourning for a beloved parent is forever, or at least missing them is forever. You never stop wanted to call and tell them about that thing that happened. My mother died in 1982 and I still miss her. You don’t have to feel foolish or wrong to grieve. Grief is a very real thing and it takes time, sometimes a very long time.

    1. I find that very interesting about the Jewish traditions. And as I was searching for an appropriate way to mark the day of Mom’s passing, I borrowed from the Jewish faith and have a candle lit today. I think I will go out and buy a special candle for Mom and one for Dad to use in the coming years. Thank you so much for offering that idea.

      The fact that you still want to call and talk to them about “that thing that happened,” after all these years, actually gives me comfort. If grief is all I have left of them, I’ll take it.

  14. I like your words: “If we don’t allow ourselves to feel our sorrow deeply, understand it, learn from it. Then how can we expect to feel our joy deeply?” That was especially true for me when my husband died fifteen years ago. It seemed wrong to let go of the grieving too soon. Our love demanded that I grieve, especially for the first two years. My mom died two years ago at the age of 90. My sister and I talk about her a lot, and that helps.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Nicki. I’m sorry about your losses. After the pain I’ve felt upon losing both my parents, I am very frightened of the thought of having to survive the loss of my husband. People like you give me courage. It helps me to talk to my sisters also.

  15. “Let’s make a deal, though. I won’t tell you, if you don’t tell me.” << Excellent words of wisdom about so many things in life, Christine. And especially this. Hang in there, Christine, and take care.

    1. I’m doing fine, Julia. Readers comments have helped me a lot and remind me why I continue to blog even though my enthusiasm is clearly waning. I need to get my bum back in the saddle. You take care too.

  16. Christine, I’ve come over from “The Sands of Time” because your comment there made me suspect that you’d been through a similar loss to mine. I won’t tell you how long is enough time to grieve…everyone grieves differently, as you know. I can tell you from experience that it gets better but it never gets all better. I know the fear you have that your life will always be this difficult, that you’ll never feel better, that this dark place you’re in will always be. Please believe me that it won’t.

    My Mom died unexpectedly of an aneurism in July 2004. My Dad was killed by a tired trucker in Dec of 2004, a couple days before Christmas. That was all 9 years ago, and what I’ve learned from it is that they’re always near me, I think about them every day and sometimes I still cry. But some days I laugh over a funny memory. I’ve learned I’m stronger than I ever thought I was, and I give them credit for that. Not every day is good, but not every day is bad. I miss them terribly, and I realize now I always will. You are right. They want you to be happy. Honor them by the way you live your life…but realize you will grieve them in some fashion every day. And that it is OK to do that.

    Hugs…hugs hugs hugs.

    Dawn

    1. Thanks for your comment and support, Dawn. It really does help me to hear from others like yourself that although you will miss your parents, and sometimes still cry, you find a place to keep them in your heart that isn’t so painful. I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

      1. I’m glad. The light shines bright and then recedes, then shines bright again as each day is different…but eventually most days will be lighter.

  17. Thanks for sharing your heart with us.
    I haven’t lost a parent yet, but my wife and I suffered a death of sorts when our daughter was born with a severe brain abnormality. It was the death of a normal life. No talking, no walking, no eating regular food, no college or marriage. A life of changing diapers, tube feeding, wheelchairs, and hospital stays.
    We mourned that loss at the beginning of life, then it left. Then, it came back at each missed milestone.
    I understand your lack of faith in the church. However, I do find peace in the actual words of Jesus, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
    There is no shame in mourning, but this too shall pass. Joy comes in the “mourning”. I won’t tell you when that will be, but be encouraged. It will come.
    Also, you should move to Texas. It is much more sunny and warm here! 🙂 Lot of “snowbirds” here!

    1. Thank you for stopping by. I remember reading about your daughter on your blog. I don’t know if you remember, but I had a severely disabled sister Annie, who died in 2009. Best of wishes to you as you continue to nurture and love your little living angel.

      Probably won’t be going to Texas any time soon. But I might make a quick trip to Florida to escape the deep-freeze here and soak up a little sun.

  18. Grief has no limitations but those we, ourselves, place upon it. Friday, January 17th was the date marking six years since my mother’s passing and I still miss her. I always will. The only thing different than before is the grieving has changed with the passage of time and my heart doesn’t ache so very deeply as before. But the grief will always be a part of my life, just different with the passage of time. Your parents will always be a part of you for they in part determined who you are. Do take care.

  19. Distractions are nice, but grief is a work in progress that will continue to work itself out. You don’t need to worry about forgetting your parents, they were and always will be a central part of who you are. You have so many great memories to draw on, I hope your mind takes you to the happy ones more often than those painful last days. Hugs!

    1. You know, I think that is part of it, the fear that I might forget them. I don’t have a lot of control over what memories happen to come to mind right now, but hopefully with time it will be the good ones. I do have memories right now that make me smile and even laugh.

  20. You’ve gotten so many good comments, I can’t add much more. What I found with Grandma though was that as she got sicker and more frail, I was the only grandchild that spent much time with her and when she died, I was the one that missed her the most. Part of your grief is because you were close to them. Would you want to not have had that closeness and not miss them so much? I don’t think so. I think my cousins missed a lot by not giving Grandma time after they grew up.

    Grandma’s gone now almost 20 years and I still think about her a lot, especially right now when I’m wearing her mink coat on these cold days. I put it on and think about her, Grandpa & my Great Aunt (her sister). I wouldn’t trade those emotions for anything.

    Nancy

    1. Thanks, Nancy. I tried to leave a comment on a couple of your posts at your blog but I must’ve too late and the comments are closed or something. Congratulations. You have been up to quite a lot with your daughter’s wedding. She looked radiant. I ‘m happy for all of you. I also wanted to say that I found your post about words of encouragement helpful. I struggle with change sometimes and when my life doesn’t follow the path I had hoped for. Thanks for the encouragement.

      1. I closed the comments for a while as I’m getting thousands of spams lately. It’s so frustrating that these people have nothing better to do with themselves. I should turn the comments back on and see if they’ve gone away.

        I’m glad you’ve had time to stop by. I’m finding the same thing you are. I don’t feel like blogging, but I am missing keeping up with everyone.

  21. My 17th year old asked me a few weeks ago if he would ever stop missing his dad who died in 2009. His question took my breath away. Death sucks. I don’t think we ever stop grieving, I think grief becomes woven into the fabric of who you are–we get through it, we move on, we let the memories flow, relish the stories, but we don’t get over it and I’m quiet sure I would not want too…
    I’m sorry for your loss. May your good and bad memories bring you comfort. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and helping me revisit mine.

    1. I am so sorry for your and your children’s loss. Most people who’ve spoken to me say the same about grief—that we don’t ever stop, but we get through it. When I was younger, before all this happened, I never realized how drastically I would be changed inside by the deaths of those I love. Thanks for leaving your kind comment.

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