When does grief get easier?

By Sakuni Weerasinghe


It’s a rainy Tuesday. A client walks into the therapy session at their usual time. From the way they look into the far distance, it is very clear that although they are physically present in the session, their focus is on something else. When gently inquired as to what they were thinking about, the client breaks into tears. “Just today, crossing the road over to the therapy office, I was reminded of him. We would often take walks together, just discussing life – the good, the bad, and everything in between. He always knew what to say. I would never be confused or upset for long. It’s been a year since he’s been gone, but it feels like just yesterday. I’m sorry. It just suddenly brought up all these emotions. It’s just that I thought I dealt with them, you know. When does it get easier?”

The truth is that there is no timeline when it comes to the experience of grief. Whether it is one month or 12 months, you may still experience the memories and emotions of the loss just as strongly. This is why these intense experiences are not often given a diagnostic label (an exception would be in the case of Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder). When it comes to coping with loss, there are no quick fixes. As such, determining a period of time for things to get easier would be futile. What we ought to do is redirect our focus to the ways in which we are coping with the loss, to see if they are helpful for us to keep moving forward.

Grief is both an emotional and physical reaction to the loss of someone or something. From sadness to anger, guilt to numbness, there are many emotions that surface with the experience of grief. There is no one correct way to feel. All these feelings are normal. Grief can also make you lose sleep or lose your appetite. Grief is a process. Grief can bring up bouts of memories when you least expect them and experience the emotions as intensely as they were experienced in the situation itself. One moment you’re happily reliving the good times and the next moment you’re overcome by profound sadness. But moving through this process is how we come to terms with the loss. So, if anything, we ought to treat ourselves more compassionately. You’re doing yourself a disservice if you’re comparing your experience with that of others and telling yourself: “I should be fine by now.”


Grief comes in waves. At first, the experience can be intense with more frequent memories of what’s lost. Consider the first week without the loved one when you have to completely shift your life, from the way you sleep without the other person to the way you eat when the other person is not there to enjoy the meal with you. Then with time, the waves are more spaced out, with the tides coming every now and then. Consider your first birthday without them or when you receive a promotion but they’re not around for you to share the news with. Even a rainy afternoon, as you take a walk, can remind you of your walks with them, perhaps going over to the nearest roti shop. This can then bring about a surge of emotion, just like it did for the client above. It’s not that you forget them, but with time passing and continually employing our coping methods, the emotions become more manageable. 


There are ways you can support yourself in the process of grief.


Engaging in rituals: Rituals enable us to honour the person we lost. Each culture has its own rituals. Psychologically speaking, they help us come to terms with the loss. If we consider a collectivistic culture such as ours, it helps bring people together to offer social support to those grieving. You can also find your own idiosyncratic ways of honouring the loved one by reflecting on how you would want to honour the loved one and what would be personally meaningful for you.


Making a memory capsule: This can look like photographs on an album, a compilation of short clips of your time together, or even a box of their belongings. 


Avoiding avoidance: Just as with any other intense emotion, we may instinctively turn to avoidance as a strategy to cope with the loss – avoiding the rituals, avoiding people and places you both visited, and avoiding any reminder of the loss. However, in the long term, this avoidance can exacerbate the emotional experience. Instead, you can slowly pace yourself to face these reminders. 


Enlist social support: Make sure to reach out to others, whether it is to simply have company after the loss or to talk about what you’re experiencing alongside the loss. You can even share your story with others in a setting like a group therapy which can be beneficial. 


While grief is a highly personal experience, you don’t have to go through it alone.