“How long until you feel better?”

My sister asked me to have my therapist answer this question. It was 2-3 months after my son passed away.

She wanted to know so she could prepare herself for what to expect and also to know when to become concerned about me (i.e. if I failed to adhere to the timeline).

So the therapist’s answer was much longer with several disclaimers and caveats but basically, my sister and I could optimistically look forward to me feeling consistently better at around the 1 year point, give or take a few months.

The therapist’s answer seems to be a common rule of thumb based on … absolute nonsense. That’s my emotional response anyway.

My intellectual response is there is a hint of sense to the guideline. One could, in a very good case scenario, hope for a griever to have achieved the ability to function OK on a daily basis … get out of bed, eat sometimes, show up for work, maybe even show up for social events on occasion (like bbq’s or birthday parties) … this would likely be described from a non-griever’s perspective as “doing well all things considered.”

But what the non-griever wouldn’t know is, at the 1 year mark, there’s still TREMENDOUS pain, turmoil, crying, anguish and ALL the things that spell deep grief.

Why doesn’t the non-griever know about the griever’s continued pain? Because the griever is hiding and going through it alone … the rest of the world has made it clear it doesn’t understand.

Why doesn’t the world understand???

Well it starts with the long-time theory that grief has 5 stages. And presumably, after you’ve gone through the stages, you will have healed, accepted your loss, and moved on with your life.

You know what I think about this theory? It’s bullcrap.

(The 5 stages are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Click here for a comprehensive article on the stages, symptoms, myths, types of grief, types of support, etc.)

The 5 Stages of Grief are based on the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. In 1969 she studied patients facing terminal illness and the feelings they had surrounding their illness. Kubler-Ross then identified these “stages” for the terminally ill, not for grievers in general.

Unfortunately, the 5 stages thing stuck around for forever.

And they’re problematic in so many ways:

  • You may or may not go through all the stages
  • The word “stages” implies some kind of sequential order and there’s not — you may go through one or more of the stages multiple times, back and forth and all over the place
  • You do not have to go through all the stages to heal

But my main problem with the 5 Stages is the implication that there is an end … that when you’ve reached the “final” stage of acceptance, you are done with your grief. You have “moved on.” You no longer feel bad or sad over the loss of your loved one.

This false belief, that there is an end to grief … It gives non-grievers unrealistic expectations of how people in grief “should” behave. And this creates pressure on grievers to accept their loss and “get over it.”

Here’s what I know, 18 years into my grief journey, I’m never going to “get over it” and that’s OK. In fact, it’s exactly as it should be.

If I cry when I hear the song “Have I told you lately that I love you?” or when I see the scene in Top Gun when the medics force Maverick to let go of Goose’s dead body, it’s not a sign of unhealthy ongoing attachment or mental illness or Prolonged Grief Disorder. It simply means I still love and miss my son.

{Click here to read an excellent article rebutting the recent announcement of the American Psychiatric Association of a new disorder-Prolonged Grief Disorder.}

I’m not in denial nor am I depressed. I’ve “accepted” that Jackson is gone. I’m living a happy and meaningful and fulfilling life after loss.

But I’m never going to wake up one day and think, “You know what, I’m totally fine that Jackson isn’t here and I don’t even miss him anymore.”

Love never ends. It would seem pretty obvious then that grief never really ends either.

Something I learned in my training as a Grief Specialist is that you can let go of the pain without letting go of your loved one. (Click here to learn more.)

So when it comes to the concept of “moving on” … I prefer to think of it as moving forward … and taking my son with me.

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