Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
It’s been a year and a half since my husband died of cancer. I’ll soon be relatively healthy 70. He would have been 74. I am recovering but wondering if the grieving process brings any gifts or lessons other than the arduous rebuilding of myself as a person living alone.
Your very question suggests its own answer, as you make clear progress through an arduous transition toward a life that is rebuilt along different lines, but retains its value. There indeed can be gifts of grief that come into focus in this process, though they are commonly revealed only as months meld into years, just as you seem to be recognizing. And although these gifts are as individual as any given in the context of a specific and special relationship, there are certain themes that are nearly universal.
First, the individuality of grief—as we mourn in our own personal, familial, and cultural ways for this unique person—ensures that some of the unsought gifts or benefits of loss will take on different forms for different mourners. Some may encounter a kind of gift in the ending of a loved one’s protracted suffering, or in the lifting of the heavy burden of caregiving they willingly and lovingly undertook. These compensations for the loss may be relatively immediate, even if they are initially offset by the great pain of losing the loved one. Others become more tangible over time, as when we witness a child or grandchild grow to share distinctive interests, traits or talents of the deceased in a way that emerges more visibly as he or she matures. As our own sharp pain subsides, we may better note and value these living legacies.
Second, research and everyday experience also make clear that some of the gifts of grief are quite general, in the sense that they are shared with many others who have integrated the hard reality of loss in their own lives. Clinical investigators often call this post-traumatic growth, which can take the form of greater compassion and altruism in relation to the suffering of others—initially others who share a loss similar to ours, but typically evolving toward empathy for others suffering from a much wider set of circumstances. Alternatively, we can find reserves of resilience in ourselves that we never recognized, and perhaps even the seeds of long dormant interests that might be cultivated into new and valued forms of engagement with new people and projects. Yet another expression of growth might be the deepening of our personal philosophies or spiritual beliefs, as we wrestle with the problems of death and impermanence in intimate terms. And perhaps most subtly, we may find that we come to appreciate the preciousness of life, and cherish the moments of meaning that we encounter or create day by day, rather than merely taking life for granted. It might seem ironic that such gifts come wrapped grief, but they seem to open only for those willing to do the arduous work of uncovering them as life is reconstructed, one day, week, and month at a time.