Getting Over Getting Over It
A medium once told my sister that our mother was living in a corner of her kitchen. Being our mother’s daughters, we took this news in stride. She’d raised us to be open-minded and humble. Who were we to believe we knew better than anyone else? Also, our mother in a kitchen made good sense. Hers had been the nucleus of our childhood home, the place where she’d spent much of her time: standing at the kitchen island, prepping chicken cacciatore in her Crock-Pot, drinking Maxwell House coffee at the speckled Formica table with neighborhood friends, sitting at the corner desk and winding the avocado-green phone cord around and around her index finger as she settled into a leisurely call. With three children and a husband for whom tidiness was forever an abstraction, she was always struggling to keep the space clean. My mother would have loved my sister’s kitchen. Mine surrendered to chronic disorder long ago, but my sister’s kitchen is always shiny and pristine. I’d choose to hang out there, too.
My sister and I live across the country from our family’s burial plots and rarely get to visit the graves. So she placed a framed black-and-white photograph of our mother in the corner of her kitchen between a neat row of mason jars and the countertop range. When I dog-sit for her boxers I give them treats from a jar and we say hello to my mom. I might let her know that her children and grandchildren are doing fine. If I’m facing a big decision, I’ll brush my fingertips across the glass and silently ask her for advice.
I have to imagine how she’d answer. We had only seventeen years together, and I was pretty much tuning her out for the final two. I’ve long since forgotten the sound of her voice and the timbre of her laugh. She died in 1981, and we never made tapes of her talking. In my dreams she speaks in an unfamiliar pitch, her words sometimes garbled, sometimes clear. I haven’t heard her real voice in almost thirty-nine years.
Thirty-nine years. I know. That’s a long time. Says pretty much everyone, ever. Thirty-nine years and you’re not over it yet?
Anyone with major loss in the past knows this question well. We’ve spent years fielding versions of it, explicit and implied, from parents, siblings, spouses, partners, relatives, colleagues, acquaintances, and friends. We recognize the subtle cues—the slight eyebrow lift, the soft, startled “Oh! That long
ago?”—from those who wonder how an event so distant can still occupy such precious mental and emotional real estate. Why certain, specific nodes are still so tender when poked.
How many of us have wondered the same?
still not over it yet?
As if the death of a loved one were a hurdle in a track meet that could be cleared and left behind.
I wish there were a foolproof method for “getting over” the death of someone we love. So much, I do. Except everything I’ve experienced, learned, and observed over the past thirty-eight years has taught me otherwise. Since the publication of my first book, Motherless Daughters,
in 1994, I’ve collected stories from thousands of women in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Europe, India, and the Middle East whose mothers died when they were young. I’ve spoken to, emailed, and met with their brothers, husbands, fathers, daughters, and sons. Five file cabinets in my office are filled to capacity with research into how the human body, intellect, and spirit respond to major loss. In nonfiction writing classrooms for the past twenty years, I’ve helped graduate students and aspiring writers identify, question, and articulate their stories of trauma and loss. And for this book, I conducted in-depth interviews with eighty-one men and women who had experienced the deaths of significant loved ones in the past—most of whom were children, adolescents, or young adults at the time, and whose bereavement needs were frequently mismanaged or misunderstood.
Taken together, that adds up to a staggering number of losses. Which is how I can report with assurance that the death of a loved one, especially for someone at a tender age, isn’t something most of us get over, get past, put down, or move beyond. That’s a myth of diminishment. Instead, a major loss gets folded into our developing identities, where it informs our thoughts, hopes, expectations, behaviors, and fears. We carry it forward into all that follows.
“It’s phenomenal, how it never really goes away,” says author and therapist Claire Bidwell Smith. “It changes shape and form all the time and comes back in different ways, even when you think it’s gone. I’m twenty-four years out from the death of my mother and seventeen years from the death of my father and those losses have been with me, in some fashion, every day since they died.”
When psychologist Leeat Granek and author Meghan O’Rourke surveyed nearly eight thousand adults who’d lost a close loved one for Slate
magazine in 2011, they observed—in their words—that “the alterations of loss are subtly stitched throughout one’s ongoing life.” Nearly one-third of their survey participants had experienced the death of a close loved one eight or more years earlier. Instead of feeling “over it,” they wanted to keep talking about how grief had shaped their present-day experiences and how it might continue to affect their imagined futures.
“This process is a longer one than most people realize,” explains psychologist Robert Neimeyer, a professor of constructivist psychology at the University of Memphis and the founder of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition, “unfolding over years rather than months, and involving periodic ‘grief spikes’ years or even decades later.” The Slate
survey found the same. One-quarter of the respondents said they’d felt normal only one to two years after the loss. More than one-quarter said they’d never gone back to feeling like themselves afterward.
Nonetheless, when random cross sections of Americans have been asked how long grief should last after a significant loss, their answers range from several days up to a year. The majority of respondents in one study placed the outer limit at two weeks. Two weeks.
In some cultures that’s barely enough time to hold a funeral, let alone put emotional pain into any perspective and start making sense of the loss.
A terrible disconnect exists between what the average person thinks grief should look and feel like—typically, a series of progressive, time-limited stages that end in a state of “closure”—and how grief, that artful dodger, actually behaves. This means a whole lot of people getting stuck in the gap between what they’ve been told to expect after someone dies and what they actually encounter when it happens.