I’m Trying to Move Forward, But…

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.

[T]he euphoria didn’t last. When I got back home I discovered that it is no small task to turn goals set on a beach in North Carolina into reality back in Texas. Putting the skylight in was just one example. When the carpenter came to give me an estimate, he found there was only enough space to put a very small skylight in the den roof. But, if we removed one wall of Greg’s office and incorporated that space into the den, we could put in a much bigger skylight. This was much more an undertaking than I had counted on…I knew I had to go forward, but what do you do when you can’t get free of whatever it is that keeps pulling you back? I knew I wanted to stop being a widow and just plain be a human being. (Adapted from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

We know that no two people grieve alike. We know there is not a right way to grieve. Yet we also know that every person who loses a loved one has the challenge of moving through a set of experiences that begin in chaos and shock and end — if grieving is healthy — in a place of new equilibrium, a place of “new normal.” The Institute of Medicine puts it this way:

Despite the nonlinearity of the grieving process, most observers of it speak of clusters of reactions or ‘phases’ of bereavement that change over time. Although observers divide the process into various numbers of phases and use different terminology to label them, there is general agreement about the nature of reactions over time.

What does this mean? It does not mean that there is some kind of lockstep 1-2-3 progression people make who are grieving. It also does not mean that there is a “phase” of the grieving process that a person “finishes” and never goes back to again. On the contrary, the grieving process is back-and-forth, unpredictable and messy.

What is important is to recognize that the complete grieving process covers a lot of territory. It’s not just the initial responses of shock and disbelief. It’s not just the time of feeling as if life will never have meaning again. It is also all those months (perhaps years) of what researchers call longer-term adjustive processes. When a new widow has to learn to deal with things like fence repair and lawn mower maintenance. When a partner has to learn how to be the only person at a gourmet club dinner that is there alone. When a mother and father have to find a new way to celebrate Christmas. When a widower has to learn how to make gravy. All of these are longer-term adjustive processes, and all are central parts of the complete grieving process.

Many people around us will think that grieving equals the first few weeks and months. But grieving includes shaping a new life that honors the loss we have experienced and also integrates that loss into the life we have now. I’ve often remarked that by the time a griever gets to the longer-term adjustive tasks, people are no longer bringing casseroles. Those around us may not even think of these new challenges as part of grieving.

But these challenges are central to our grieving. It’s just that the emphasis of our grief work has moved from internal to external. We start to take action that allows us to check out what is and what isn’t going to work for us as we design a new shape for our lives. We are now grappling with the necessity of making long-term changes.

This is a difficult time. We feel like an immigrant who must carve out a new life in an unfamiliar land, like a mountain climber who can find no sure footing. We have to remember that although we are making movement in our process, we are still grieving.

Edna St. Vincent Millay once commented on human beings’ ability to do amazing things even in painful situations: write music, play tennis, laugh, even plan. Her words remind us that we can be resilient. We can deal with the longer-term adjustive challenges that are as much a part of our grieving process as the emotions we felt in the first days and weeks of our loss.

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Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:

But I Feel So Guilty

How Long Is This Grieving Going to Last?

What About This Thing Called 'Acceptance'?

The Value of Reminiscing

People Want to Be Helpful, But...

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

(Author's photo by Joey Bieber)

Image credit: Serge Melki/Flickr Creative Commons


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