In the series “Light After Loss,” Modern Loss’s Rebecca Soffer discusses ways to navigate the long arc of grief and loss.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, grief is weighing heavily on our minds. Many of us are thinking about where we were on that day, remembering lost loved ones, or even just the stories of those who were lost who we felt like we got to know through the news. We might also be thinking about people we love who were with us at that time and are no longer here. The impact of absence plus time is real.
Grief is not an emotion to pass through on the way to “feeling better” but rather is in constant motion; tidal, easily and often reactivated by memories and sensory events, and is re-triggered as we experience life transitions, anniversaries, and other losses. Whether we want it to or not, our losses get folded into our identities as they develop. They inform our thoughts, hopes, expectations, behaviors and fears.
In a recent “Light After Loss” Facebook Live episode, Modern Loss’ Rebecca Soffer and Hope Edelman, author of the best-selling “Motherless Daughters” and “The AfterGrief,” talk about creating a new language for how we can describe and discuss the long arc of loss.
Here are some key takeaways from their conversation:
Grief is a lifelong process but doesn’t have to be a lifelong struggle
It will not feel like it does in the first weeks, months or even the first years. The “AfterGrief,” as Hope refers to it, is the period of time when hope and laughter and meaning can all come back into our lives almost in the same measure as before, and sometimes in an even greater measure. Any major catastrophe in our lives sets into motion a chain of events that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred, and some of those outcomes will be positive ones. That isn’t to say that we are glad that the original event happened; far from it. But this is what is known as “finding meaning” in the wake of a loss.
Learn about “new old grief”
New grief is what we experience right after someone dies or another major loss. Old grief is the recurrent aspect of loss, how it comes around on a cyclical basis on anniversaries, holidays, and of course even just during any time of day. “New old grief” is when we encounter an old loss in a completely new way that we couldn’t have pre-grieved because we couldn’t feel it until we got there. This happens a lot during life transitions: for example, if one of your parents died before you had your own graduations, weddings, or became a parent or had any major milestone, feelings of grief can be re-triggered in a completely new way because it would have been impossible for you to feel this particular aspect of loss until you got there. It can also come up with “age correspondence” events, which refers to when you reach the age that your person was when they died or were diagnosed with an illness that changed everything. This is completely normal.
What exactly is “post-traumatic growth”?
This process requires becoming aware and open to the possibility that there can be one meaning that can be created out of a loss. We create stories to make sense of what happened to us as we try to piece together the facts and emotions of a story that feels intellectually complete. That story can change but we have to be willing to allow it to change. Along the long arc of loss, our relationship to that same set of facts will evolve over time and can encourage a growth-oriented mindset. A simple way to start tracking these changes is to simply make a list of what you’ve learned as a result of your loss (this may not be possible until a good amount of time has passed). Write down what you know now that you didn’t know beforehand that might be helpful to at least one other person? Is it that you’re grateful for the little things more? Or that you can better appreciate the quality of time you have with your loved ones or activities that bring meaning to your life? If you sit and think for a few minutes, you’ll probably come up with at least a few things.
Your loss is a part of you; but it isn’t your entirety
Imagine a dark circle. Many of us might think that over time, the ball will shrink. If that ball – our grief – remains the focal point of our identity, then of course it will take up a lot of room. But if we allow other parts of life to expand and grow around it, then it’s still there, but smaller in comparison to the other things that are in our lives. Our life will expand around our grief but only if we open ourselves up to letting it do so.
This article was authored by ModernLoss.com, which offers candid conversation about grief and meaningful community throughout the long arc of loss.