Grief Recovery: What 'Recovery' Will and Will Not Mean

By Therese Rando, Ph.D.

Knowing now what is necessary to resolve grief, and being armed with specific suggestions on how to achieve its resolution, you may be wondering precisely what "recovery" will and will not mean to you in your mourning. This chapter looks at the goal of recovery and what it entails. It ends by looking at the signs indicating whether you are reaching this goal.

You will note that the word "recovery" has been placed in quotation marks. Like resolution, the term is a relative one. Recovery does not mean a once-and-all type of closure. It means to regain your abilities to function at your previous levels, and to have successfully resolved and integrated your loss as discussed in chapter 34. In some ways, however, you technically can never recover totally, because you will never be exactly the way you were before. The loss of your loved one will change you in numerous ways. What can be recovered, however, are your attributes and your capabilities, despite the fact that other aspects of you necessarily are different. You now have a slightly different self, arising from the changes in you and your world as a consequence of your loved one's death. For the rest of this chapter, recovery will not be enclosed with quotation marks.

The Goal of Recovery

The goal of your recovery should be to learn to live with your loss and to adjust to your new life accordingly. The adjustments must take place in yourself (through your new identity), in your relationship with the deceased (through the development of a new relationship with her), and in the new world (readjusting to it without the deceased and, at the appropriate time, reinvesting emotional energy in new people, objects, goals, ideals and other pursuits). This does not mean that you would have chosen your loss or that you ever wanted it. It merely means that you no longer have to fight it. You "accept" it in the sense of learning to live with it as an inescapable fact of your life.

Recovery means that you can integrate the past with the new present that exists. You will never forget, but you will not always be acutely bereaved. Recovery from your loss will leave a psychic scar, like a scar that remains after a physical operation. This does not necessarily interfere with your present functioning, but there are certain days and particular conditions when the scar will ache or throb. It will remind you of what you have been through and you will have to do something to tolerate the pain until it passes.

What Recovery Will Mean

Grief will bring many changes to you. You can expect to have a changed identity and redefined roles, relationships, and skills. Their changes can be either positive or negative. As someone who has loved and lost, you either can be the richer for it or be diminished because of the parts of yourself that are irretrievably gone. Again, like the physical scars, our psychic scars can give us character or be sources of vulnerability. It will be up to you to determine your response to your scar. This means that you will need to choose how to respond to the rest of your life after you have worked through your grief.

While you may have had no control or choice over your loved one's dying, you do have a choice over how you will let the loss affect you. I am not speaking now about the acute period of grief in which you will be subject to many varying psychological, social, and physical effects in all realms of your life. I am speaking here about what type of perspective or attitude you will take toward the rest of your life as your mourning brings you to a recovered state. For example, will you make the most out of the rest of your life, or will you be bitter? Will you incorporate your loss and have it be a catalyst for growth, or will you stay stuck and mired in it, never to take risks again? Will the death of your loved one cause you to make sure you will never have any unfinished business with others you care about, or will it give you the sense that "the world owes me"?

Countless bereaved individuals demonstrate the positive benefits that can come from a major loss. This does not mean that you would have chosen to have lost your loved one, but that you have chosen to recover from it and capitalize on whatever good can come from this bad. This is not a sappy or unrealistic, overly positive view that denies the pain of grief and the price of the loss of your loved one. Rather, it recognizes that even in undergoing the pain of separation through death you can decide that it will have some positive meaning for the remainder of your life.

The positive responses can be many and varied. Those who have loved and lost have reported that their eyes have been opened to new experiences and priorities that were formerly overlooked. For instance, they were made more aware of those loved ones they still had. Many have found a commitment to living life more fully and meaningfully because of the death. The increased awareness of life's preciousness, fragility, and brevity has become a positive, life-enhancing force, pushing them to avoid putting off until tomorrow the things they can say and do today. They live their lives in such a way as to have the smallest amount of unfinished business possible with their loved ones.

Other mourners have reordered their priorities toward increased family commitment and unity. They no longer take for granted those they love. Bereaved individuals have become more compassionate and caring towards others, closer in relationships, and more sensitive. The pain of their loss has led many of them to fuller expression of feeling and more open discussion of sensitive emotional issues. Many have experienced greater personal growth and increased religiousness and spirituality. Losing a loved one has heightened perceptions and raised slates of consciousness in many grievers. Like dying patients, many now can open themselves up without fear of vulnerability, since they have faced the ultimate loss of death. They truly can "take time to smell the roses." Such people often report increased productivity in their lives, and many have used their loss experience creatively, transforming their pain through art, literature, music, writing, and other creative efforts.

In their determination that some good should come from their loss, others have channeled their pain and rage into meaningful endeavors assisting both themselves and society. Bereavement support groups have been established to assist others, with some of them having a political focus such as Parents of Murdered Children, in which political changes are urged to ensure that no others suffer the same bereavement.

Many bereaved persons have discovered and developed new aspects of their identity that were previously unknown. They have realized new interests, found new relationships, or started living in ways that in some cases are more satisfactory and fulfilling than before. This does not mean that they were not grieved by the loss of their loved one. It only means that they responded to that loss, after the period of grief and mourning, in ways that made them become enriched by the pain. Successfully enduring the pain and suffering of grief and mourning have allowed these people to have a deeper sense of self-worth and to become stronger persons. The strength gained in facing and surviving the adversity has made them better, more concerned, and more compassionate people.

Many become capable of more intimacy than ever before. Many of them recognize that they have been through the worst, and now that they have survived, they want to get on with the business of living in as healthy a fashion as possible, focusing on their priorities and not suffering fools gladly. Many now no longer tolerate those people and things they put up with in the past. They are appropriately more assertive, and set more limits.

On the other hand, you may not want to use your loss constructively to have a better life. All of the aforementioned possible responses could be flipped and the reverse could be the outcome. You may become hardened, cold, closed, and unwilling to reach out for yourself or to others. This is your prerogative; it is your choice. Just recognize that you are making it and take responsibility for it. Do not blame it on the death. And do not think that if you do do something constructive with your loss and what you have learned from it, that this means you are unmoved by the death or that you are betraying your loved one.

What Recovery Will Not Mean

There are certain things that recovery does not mean. It does not mean that you forget, either your loved one or the old world. It does nor mean that you have no relationship at all with your deceased loved one. And it does not mean you are always happy, never to have any more pain. Just as you can decide what recovery will mean, you can decide what it won't mean. Recovery will not mean that you are not touched by certain reminders, such as that certain song, that particular smell, or that special location. It will not mean that you do not experience the bittersweet combination of feelings that holidays can bring, as you rejoice with those who are still present and mourn for those no longer here. It will not mean that in certain events in your life you do not painfully wish for your loved one to be alive to be present with you, share in your joy, or be proud of you.

Recovery will not mean that you don't mourn any longer; it means that you learn to live with the mourning in ways that do not interfere with your ongoing healthy functioning in the new life without your loved one. For those who have lost someone they loved a great deal, the mourning will never cease entirely. This is described below in a passage written by psychiatrist Gerald Caplan discussing widows. It can be applied equally to other bereaved people.

In our earlier formulations we had thought that a [bereaved person] "recovers" at the end of the four to six weeks of her bereavement crises on condition that she manage to accomplish her "grief work" adequately. We believed that thereafter she would be psychologically competent to carry on with the tasks of ordinary living, subject only to the practical readjustment demanded by her new social roles. We now realize that most [bereaved persons] continue the psychological work of mourning for their loved ones for the rest of their lives. During the turmoil and struggles of the first one to three years, most [bereaved persons] generally learn how to circumscribe and segregate this mourning within their mental economy and how to continue living despite its burden. After this time they are no longer actively mourning, but their loss remains a part of them and now and again they are caught up in a resurgence of feelings of grief. This happens with decreasing frequency as time goes on, but never ceases entirely. (Caplan 1974, viii)

Most bereaved individuals eventually come to terms with their grief and carry on with their lives in healthy and productive fashions. However, total resolution of mourning, in the sense of completely and permanently finishing it and never being touched again by some clement of the loss, usually never truly occurs.

Taken from Therese A. Rando, How To Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books, 1991, pp 279-283.

Related articles:

You Know You're Getting Better When...

What About This Thing Called "Acceptance"?

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds


Also by Therese Rando:

The Work of Grief

Myths About Grief

Family Reorganization After a Loss

Sudden Death

Dr. Therese Rando, author of How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, is a psychologist in Warwick, Rhode Island, where she is the Clinical Director of The Institute for the Study and Treatment of Loss. Having published 70 works pertaining to the clinical aspects of dying, death, loss, and trauma, Dr. Rando is a recognized expert in the field and has appeared on numerous television programs, including “Dateline,” CBS “This Morning,” “Today Show,” “Good Morning, America,” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”




Photo by dogfrog/Flickr Creative Commons

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Comment by jennifer a douglas on November 8, 2011 at 10:36pm
It's a pain so deep. I'm so lost and lonely. He wasthe love of my life. I hope I have the strength to move on.

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