Grief is not Linear: We Need Patience

In a just released piece, Robert Paxton wrote about the grief he is experiencing over the recent death of his wife of 52 years.

He observed that time does not seem to heal all wounds and Mr. G (with the G for grief) has moved in with him. He calls him an imaginary friend but in truth, grief is not imaginary and addressing it is not linear.

We make a mistake when we assume that everyone processes grief in the same way, experiencing the stages of grief in some pre-determined order. Grief is anything but linear; it moves through time and recircles issues and reappears.

It is worth noting that while this piece and Paxton’s focus on grief from death, grief can come from the cessation of a long relationship or some other relational end that was unexpected.

Here’s what I’ve learned as a trauma expert, an educator and a widow.

  1. Grief needs to be processed and that is not an easy step. One needs time to grieve, to reflect on the loss, to reflect on both the good and the bad of one’s now ended relationship. And, one is better off grieving with others, including a therapist.
  2. The end goal here is not to “get over” loss; it is to move forward with memories. Some people suggest (as did a former lover of mine), we should move forward with grief. Actually, I think we need to process grief so we can move on — without guilt, without anxiety. We need to move forward or we stagnate, which isn’t healthy physically or psychologically.
  3. Memories have power; they can enrich the present and the future. And, if we process grief, we don’t lose the memories of our past love. They stay with us; they replace Mr. G. This same lover referenced above kept saying he was losing his memories of his late wife. I think that was happening because his present was in some ways better than his lengthy and complicated marriage and he never processed his grief fully. And, it was creating an albatross around his neck — he couldn’t move forward in the most important of ways.
  4. We each find a path forward but the length of grief and its processing can take months or years. Mr. Paxton’s wife only recently died. He is way early in the process. I am not shocked by the depth of his grief. What does shock me is the expectation that it will “go away” speedily. Nope; that’s not how grief works. One remembers, if one processes well, the beloved is a forever memory.
  5. With all the deaths surrounding us, I do think we need to distinguish among deaths of one’s children as opposed to one’s wife/husband/lover. Losing a child is so out of order, so painful; it is like having a permanent hole in one’s heart. Sadly, I have been with too many parents who have lost a child. Losing a spouse who is not young and has lived a full life is tough sledding but we do all die eventually and our departure will be painful. Death of a spouse of 30 or 40 or 50 is not the same as losing a spouse of 70 or 80. Love enables us to feel loss and to reflect on what was with acuity. And we can find comfort in our memories.
  6. I worry that in our society, we want quick fixes and easy answers. Grief does not lend itself to that. Grieving is a process and it can continue onward for months or even years (if it continues beyond two years, counseling is a wise idea). But, to return to Mr. Paxton’s piece, grief is not an imaginary friend. It is neither imaginary nor a friend. It is a state of mind; it is a break of a heart; it is a pain in one’s soul. Give it air to breathe and space to move around. Give oneself some grace and some patience. It isn’t at all unusual to be angry and sad and lonely and disoriented. These are normal emotions. Feel them; let them appear and wax and wane.
  7. We would be wise to recognize how differently we all grieve and what retriggers grief. Holidays are hard. So are anniversaries. So are birthdays. So is a child’s wedding that can’t be shared. One widower I knew shared that he wished his late wife had known her grandchildren as she would have been a marvelous grandmother. Understandable grief mixed with memory.
  8. Finally, at least for me, grief is an affirmation of love and connection and affection and a life lived together with someone. That isn’t all bad. It is a tribute to a relationship. So, my advice on grief is to consider it one of the pieces of love that comes to many. And, as such, it isn’t imaginary; it is proof positive that one cared deeply.

As we approach the holidays, those grieving need to go easy on themselves. These aren’t easy times. Grieving is hard in many many ways. If one’s understands the need to process it, one will feel there is a way forward, a way to live with memories.

Note: To the former lover who struggled to grieve fully, I hope time and therapy have helped you and continue to help you to determine healthy ways to move forward with joy and newness with memories and without an albatross or anxiety or guilt. You deserve nothing less.

And a special thank you to KG who noted to me that grief occurs from many events in addition to death and grieving is needed in those contexts as well. I could not agree more.



Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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Karen Gross

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor