Why Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over

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Grief may be triggered by the loss of a loved one or as a result of a life circumstance.

Many people believe that if you have effectively mourned a loss you will then achieve

closure. The idea that one can “get over it” to the extent that emotions about the loss

are not triggered in the future, is a myth.

 

The misguided notion that grief is a process that allows a final working through of a loss

is likely the fault of my own profession—mental health professionals who have

promoted this notion in their work with grieving individuals. Any significant loss may

later and repeatedly bring up longing and sadness. Is it because these people have not

achieved closure by traversing prescribed stages of mourning or because they have not

worked through the loss? No. It’s because you never get over loss. As time passes, the

intensity of feelings about the loss will lessen, you might also find ways to sooth or

distract yourself, or you can bury grief-related feelings beneath subsequent emotional

memories. But you’re not going to get over it because that’s impossible: you cannot

erase emotional memory. Besides, it’s not about achieving closure. Instead you have to

figure out what you are going to do when your emotional memories are later activated.

 

Emotions that have to do with loss are later activated throughout our lives. Usually they

are in the form of anniversary reactions, such as the birthday or death day of the lost

loved one or any significant holiday in which you might want to be with that person.

Reminders, such as visiting a place you’ve been with someone you lost, will trigger a

similar response. Grief can also be triggered by an age-matching anniversary

reaction—when a person’s age matches the age at which a parent died.

 

One of the reasons that grief is triggered by external reminders is because grief is an

emotion that sends a vague alert to help you to remember, rather than to forget. Even

so, what most people do with grief is attempt to forget—to get over it—which is quite

contrary to the purpose of the emotion. Rather than try to forget, one must attempt to

remember and listen to what the emotion is trying to convey. There are many ways to

remember. You can remember what you learned from the person you lost, remember

what you enjoyed, and you can cry if you feel like crying. Even if your grief is about a

relationship gone bad, there is always something that you can learn by remembering it.

 

Illustrating how misguided the notion of stages of grieving can be, a woman came to me

for help with the depression she experienced every summer. The depression occurred at

the same time of year when her 12-year old child had died 25 years before. She was

convinced that something was wrong with her because every June, for 25 years, she had

experienced a grief response. Simply knowing that she wasn’t crazy because of the

intense emotion that came up for her made it a bit easier the next time June arrived.

Rather than try to get rid of her painful feelings, she instead did something to remember

her son.

 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sums up the lifelong experience of grief in the first 3 lines

of his poem, Secret Anniversaries Of The Heart:

The holiest of all holidays are those

Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;

The secret anniversaries of the heart.

For more information about my books, see my website: marylamia.com.

About Mary Lamia Ph.D.

Mary Lamia As clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst I work with adults, adolescents, and preteens in my Kentfield, California private practice. I am also a professor at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. Teaching the public about the psychology of human behavior has been something I've done for over 35 years. For nearly a decade I hosted a weekly call-in talk show, KidTalk with Dr. Mary, on Radio Disney stations, and have provided opinions in many media interviews and discussions. My books include: Emotions! Making Sense of Your Feelings; Understanding Myself: A Kid's Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings; and The White Knight Syndrome: Rescuing Yourself From Your Need to Rescue Others. Forthcoming books include Procrastinator Or Not: Making the Most of the Motivation That Drives You and The Upside of Shame. For more information, please visit my website, www.marylamia.com.

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