It’s Okay To Not “Get Over” Your Grief

Thoughts from a widow of four years

Heather McLeod

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(Photo by Li Yang on Unsplash.)

In the three years my husband lived with cancer, and in the 46 months since he died, I’ve been curious about grief. What does “normal” grieving look like? How do different cultures and communities respond to grief? How can I explain grief to someone who hasn’t yet experienced loss, and is there someone out there able to explain my grief to me?

And then there’s the question so many of us ask: How do I survive this loss? Or, more crudely, how do I “get over” this?

Lois Tonkin’s “growing around grief” model

The explanation I’ve found that best reflects my own experience as a widow is attributed to Lois Tonkin, a grief counsellor in New Zealand. In 1996, she wrote an article about “growing around grief.” She credited this new way of perceiving grief to a mother whose child had died.

“You need to move on.”

The classic, cliche approach to grief assumes that the pain we feel will fade away, and perhaps disappear. In Figure 1, the grief is fresh and all-consuming: Figure 2 implies that grief diminishes over a period of time.

For some of us, this view of the grief process leads to well-meaning friends and family downplaying our sadness and urging us to return to our pre-death lives, regardless of how we’re feeling. They impose arbitrary timelines on when we should be “better” and able to go back to work, or stop mourning, or date again.

When we expect our pain to fade away, it can be frustrating when it doesn’t. “Why aren’t I better? Why is my brain still foggy? Why can’t I stop crying?”

Growing around grief

In contrast, the grieving mother who attended the workshop with Lois Tonkin described her grief as remaining the same: It didn’t diminish over time. So how was this mother able to function, given that huge loss?

In this woman’s case, she survived by expanding her life beyond what it was pre-loss. Tonkin’s article doesn’t detail how this particular mother achieved this, but her “expanded life” might have included new or revisited hobbies, traveling, friendships, work, a change in living…

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