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Short and Sweet Summary: It takes time to move through the sadness and sorrow that accompanies a monumental loss. Grievers often wonder how long it takes to recover from the death of a loved one. It’s hard to predict since no timetable exists and everyone grieves differently, but you can gauge your progress with these important signs you are healing from grief.
When someone close to you dies, you can’t imagine surviving the pain that squeezes the life force out of everything, making it hard to breathe. After my husband died of terminal brain cancer, I never imagined a day free from suffering such a monumental loss.
As much as my pain obscured my vision that anything would ever be good again, somehow, some way, little slivers of hope eventually started peeking through grief’s dark cloud. I’m not sure exactly how long it took, but time has a way of softening the blow of trauma. I always hated the popular platitude “time heals all wounds,” but now I appreciate the time required to move through so much sadness and sorrow.
Once you become a seasoned student of grief, you realize you can’t heal or grow or learn without honoring your pain and sadness first.
However, every griever wonders the same thing: How long does it take to heal from grief?
Well, that’s the thing about grief. No timetable exists, but the healing takes place whether or not you realize it. If you’re buried in doubt that you’ll ever be whole again, here are 9 surefire signs you’re healing from your grief.
YOU STOP USING WORDS LIKE ALWAYS OR NEVER
When someone close to you dies, it’s not uncommon to talk and think in absolutes. Phrases like, “I’ll never be happy again” or “my life is over” pepper conversations with yourself and others because grief holds your hope hostage. After a traumatic thing happens, you tend to believe it will always be traumatic.
When you’re stuck in the grief abyss, you’re convinced you’ll never find a way out. However, every step you take, even the little ones, propels you forward. Every inch forward provides proof that you can endure hard things and you will survive. It’s during this forward momentum that you slowly claw your way out of the deep grief pit and find hope on the horizon. While time may not heal all wounds, it allows you to see how those wounds change from then until now.
And then one day, you stop talking and thinking in absolutes. Words like “always” and “never” don’t quite fit anymore because you know that surviving deep grief requires faith. You don’t know how you survive, you just do.
A surefire sign you are healing from grief is when hope and faith sneak back into your life. You might not even know it’s happening, but one day, your faith becomes bigger than your fear.
YOU’RE NOT WORRIED ABOUT GETTING RID OF YOUR LOVED ONE’S THINGS
Grief plays tricks on your brain and makes you believe inanimate objects are more than just inanimate objects.
Like, they have feelings.
When you’re in the throes of deep grief, removing a deceased loved one’s possessions feels bad to you on a visceral level. It makes you feel sick to your stomach because it’s like you’re throwing away part of a person and it’s painful. But getting rid of the actual object or possession doesn’t cause the pain.
It’s the thought about getting rid of the object that throws you into a tizzy.
After my husband died, I felt immense guilt for giving away his clothes. Even though I donated his work clothes to the Vietnam Veterans of America organization (knowing he’d be proud of my choice), I hyperventilated after I drove away.
Thoughts like, what have I done? and I’ll never forgive myself hijacked my brain. I thought I made a horrible decision because grief tricked me into believing my husband’s clothes were actually bits of him. And because I got rid of his clothes, that somehow meant I got rid of him and his memory, too.
A few years later, I donated my husband’s cell phone. Only this time around, as I continued healing from my grief, I recognized that any pain and anguish I felt over getting rid of his things was a direct result of my thoughts, not the act itself. Instead of thinking guilty thoughts about giving his things away, I decided that’s what he would have wanted me to do. He’d be thrilled to know his clothes helped a Vietnam Vet and his cell phone helped the local domestic violence shelter.
I made my decision to part with his things less about me as a person and more about how those things could help someone else. I changed my thoughts about the process from extreme guilt to satisfaction because I was giving back to the community.
An important sign you are healing from grief is when you can look at inanimate objects for what they are – items on a desk or in a drawer. Not actual memories of your deceased loved one.
Those memories are alive and well in your heart where they’ve been all along.
YOU FORGET SOME THINGS YOU THOUGHT YOU’D ALWAYS REMEMBER
After your loved one dies, you swear you’ll never forget the sound of his voice or that funny way she used to talk in her sleep. When you’re grieving, it’s so easy to remember everything about them because you live in the past. You understand the past because your world made sense there.
But as you move forward with your grief, you stop spending as much time contemplating your former life. Today and tomorrow shake you back into the present and beg you to continue living because you’re still alive. You realize hours and then days and then weeks go by when you aren’t so focused on the pain. And that’s when you forget those things you promised to always remember.
As much as you want to convince yourself that forgetting means you’re a bad person, it just means you’re getting a much-deserved grief break. Forgetting is your brain’s way of forcing you to change the grief channel and tune into some different programming. These memory lapses allow you to forget your grief, not your loved one.
As your grief breaks get longer and longer, you understand you won’t forget all the memories because that’s not even possible. You’ve probably experienced situations when a random memory flashes by at the weirdest time and usually when you least expect it. Even though you forget some things sometimes, your brain stores your precious memories away for safekeeping.
You know you’re healing from grief when you occasionally release those memories from your brain’s storage bank instead of letting grief take center stage every day.
YOU’RE NOT CONCERNED WITH WHAT OTHERS THINK OF YOUR CHOICES
Everyone experiences grief differently and on different timelines. Since no “one size fits all” grief experience exists, we can’t possibly know how another grieving person thinks or feels.
But sometimes friends and family members think they know what’s best for your grieving heart. Everyone is eager to give an opinion about what you should do and how you should do it. And in those early, confusing stages of grief, you might allow those opinions to direct your decisions.
As time goes on and you regain the ability to determine what’s best for you, others’ choices hold less sway. No one knows what it’s like to walk in your shoes, so you make your own decisions based on how the information applies to your life and your grief. When others say“just do this” or “if I were you…” you thank them for their concern and remind them you know what you need to do and how you need to do it.
As you grow with your grief, you learn to accept others’ limited ability to understand your journey.
YOU ACCEPT YOU NEVER “MOVE ON” FROM GRIEF
The finality of death permeates every waking hour when you’re newly grieving. You think of nothing else and torture yourself with regret over things you could have said or should have done.
In the beginning, you think there’s a limit to how much you can grieve. You assume there’s a timeline you must pass through to get to the “other side” of grief. As the weeks and months and years go by, you learn the hardest lesson of every griever; there is no getting over or moving on from grief.
Grief stays with you forever. So, you learn to make space for it.
You know you’re healing from grief when you stop expecting to move on and simply move forward with it instead.
YOU’RE HAPPY AND AREN’T AFRAID TO SHOW IT
In the early days of grief, it’s impossible to remember moments of happiness. Everything is sad and heavy and painful. Grief sucks the spirit out of everyday living, and it’s a long, laborious process to move from deep grief into a place of joy again.
It confuses you when those brief moments of happiness find their way back into your day. You might think to yourself, how can I laugh at this joke when my loved one is dead? Or you might avoid posting any social media pictures of your smiling face because you’re afraid others will assume you’re “done” grieving.
You know you’re healing when you and grief reach an understanding that you can be happy and grieving at the same time. Because being happy in your life doesn’t mean you’re happy that your loved one died.
You know how to make that distinction, even if no one else does.
YOU DON’T USE BUFFERING ACTIVITIES TO AVOID YOUR FEELINGS
Grief feelings are intense.
Those grief feelings not only feel bad emotionally, they can take a physical toll, too. It’s no wonder grievers use buffering activities to avoid feeling those uncomfortable feelings.
When you’re newly grieving, you’ll do anything to prevent the harsh reality you face every day. Activities like online shopping, Netflix binging and social media scrolling become commonplace. You might indulge in one more glass of wine every night, work more than usual, or rely on medication to sleep. Avoiding your feelings is the defense mechanism that gets you through those early days.
Another hard lesson every griever learns is that you can’t avoid your feelings forever. Grief doesn’t like to be ignored.
After all the running and buffering and avoiding, you realize the resistance is harder than feeling the feelings. The pain is intense in the beginning, but you slowly learn that every time you acknowledge your emotions, they become less intense.
You know you’re healing from grief when stop avoiding and willingly sit with your pain instead.
YOU FIND THINGS TO BE THANKFUL FOR
Gratitude is a ubiquitous buzzword these days, but when you’re grieving, it’s hard to find things to be thankful for. A sense of shame pervades your days when you know you’re blessed to wake up breathing, but still can’t find the appreciation for everyday wonders.
It’s OK to be cynical and thankless during deep grief. It’s a hard road to travel.
However, you reach a point in your grief journey where you’re still devastated that your loved one died, but so incredibly grateful for the time you had together. Instead of rehashing the death and the mourning and the sadness every day, you remember your loved one’s life and passion and spirit. The gratitude you discover for his or her existence, albeit brief, creates more gratitude.
You still miss your loved one with every fiber of your being. Only now you know you’re healing from grief when you appreciate everyday gifts like breath and sun and laughter and love, too.
YOU BELIEVE YOU ARE
When your loved one dies, you can’t think about anything other than how much it hurts. Grief seizes your ability to think past the next minute or the next hour because you’re left to wonder how this happened and what you’re supposed to do now.
The thing is, no one knows how to be a griever until she is one. It’s a learn-as-you go process. Grief is sad and lonely. It’s shocking, and it hurts.
But not forever.
You know you’re healing from grief when you believe you are. Your thoughts and beliefs are the cornerstone of healing. It doesn’t take much more than believing you’re doing the best you can and giving yourself the extra grace to learn how to live without your loved one.
Because, you know what? There’s no quantifiable evaluation or scale to determine your healing progress, anyway. You can’t measure it.
When you believe you’re healing, you are.
End of story.
WIDOW WRAP UP
It takes time to move through the sadness and sorrow that accompanies a monumental loss.
How much time?
Grievers often wonder how long it takes to recover from the death of a loved one, but once you become a seasoned student of grief, you understand it never really goes away.
You simply learn to make room for it and acknowledge the signs of healing along the way.