When Does Grief End?

Jane Biehl, Ph.D.

One of the hardest adjustments to accept after any type of loss is the never ending, always present, gut wrenching feeling of grief. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, the loss of a home after a fire or tornado, the loss of a job or a mourning of one’s health - grief is there. An excellent article on Family states that even the loss of a pet or a change in one’s life such as retirement or moving causes sadness. Both family practitioners and oncologists are realizing that the loss of health is a huge factor in grief and depression, and of course cancer qualifies.

But when does grief end? Recently I heard one of my friends talking to another one who had been recently widowed. The widow had just described a beautiful ceremony involving the spreading of her beloved husband’s ashes. The first friend asked “Are you OK now?”

I looked at her in amazement as did my friend. I wanted to shout, “Of course she is not OK – it has only been a year. She is better, but will always mourn those years she lost her husband and missing out on watching the grandchildren grow up together.”

My friend answered calmly, “Yes and no. I have my bad days, but I am better than I was a few months ago.” What she was describing was the difficult process of making the grief hurt a little less each day.

While I was driving home, I reflected on why I had reacted so negatively to an innocent question that was meant to be helpful and not mean at all. I did not say anything at the time because I was so upset. Then I realized I am still grieving my cancer diagnosis from 8 years ago. I have worked and worked on accepting this disease of myelodysplastic syndrome that is without a cure.

I know my life will never be the same again. I will not ever be well or free of chemo and treatments and shots and blood counts and bone marrow biopsies. I have slowly become used to my new way of life. Just as my friend is adjusting to being alone.

However, grief is not a straight line. Some days we cope and other days we cave.  Saying we are OK is not possible. My wise friend who said “I am better than I was a few months ago” said it all. That is how one copes with any loss or depression. Sometimes I know I have quality of life and other times I think about the old way I felt before cancer. I reminisce on these days when the shadow of a disease slowly worsening was not there. When I would work all day and go out every night and did not get so tired that I cannot move. When I did not have to schedule every single task around my chemo. I am still grieving, but I have to remember that this is a loss that is not a straight line or predictable.

Grief is strange – it undulates, it ripples, it moves up and down, it tantalizes, and it is tough. But then it recedes a little so I can cope and say, “Yes, I am OK today.”

That is all I am promised.  It is all any of us are promised and it has to be enough.
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