Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My 27 year old son died almost two years ago. The first year was hard but I mostly felt in a fog. Now it seems that fog is lifting, but this second year is proving to be a lot worse than the first. I am remembering more about the death and funeral and still cry almost daily. People tell me time will heal this sorrow I feel but I doubt it. Do you find this to be a usual progression when one is dealing with the death of a child or loved one?
Like our own breath on a mirror, the fog of early grief can soften the hard images it buffers, and in this sense protects us for a time from the sharper pain that may come. But the unreality of living in a familiar world made strange by the death of our loved ones typically gives way across the weeks or months to the harsher and unavoidable recognition of the keenly felt presence of their absence. In our research as well as in our practice and personal experience, we observe just what you are talking about–that negative feelings like depression, yearning and sometimes anger all show a visible up-tick as we approach the second anniversary of the death, which can leave mourners feeling like they are going backward instead of forward.
But sometimes this is what is required to place us in a position to change how we are living our loss. As the fog begins to dissipate, we may feel more exposed and vulnerable, but we also may see with painful clarity what now needs attention. For example, the prominent images of your son’s death and funeral may loom large, inviting closer processing. Some traumatic grief therapists, for example, join with clients in doing a kind of slow motion replay of the critical scenes of the death, staying with them and breathing through the hard parts rather than trying to escape them or push them away. Often this gives rise to important questions about the feelings, intentions, and motives of the deceased, of relevant others involved in the dying, and perhaps in our own hearts, and suggests further work in the form of journaling, writing letters to (and from) the deceased, as in AfterTalk, to help us make some sense of a seemingly senseless loss. This can be hard work to undertake alone or even in a support group, and it is for this reason that books like Techniques of Grief Therapy (described on this web site) have been developed to help counselors find the tools to support bereaved parents and others in sorting through anguishing stories of loss and find some meaning in them that makes living with the loss more feasible.
So while time alone may not magically heal the wounds inflicted by a tragic or premature death, what we do with the time can help. As we integrate the loss more fully, it does not so much fade away as step into the background of our lives, allowing a fuller and more positive engagement with our present and future, as well as our past. Every bereaved parent knows that the grief does not dissipate like the protective fog you described, but many can also tell you that lives of purpose and even pleasure can come into focus and help balance the burden.