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How Did Grief Get an Expiration Date?

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Certain things need an expiration date. Milk, eggs, mayonnaise, meat, fish -- there is a time we need to be done with them, and throw them away. I get all that. But does grief have an expiration date? For some reason, there seems to be an acceptable shelf life -- 6 to 12 months -- and then grief should be off the shelf, out of the home and permanently removed with the weekly trash service. If it was only that simple...

The grief expiration date myth must come from people who have never experienced a close death -- otherwise they would know the truth. Everyone fears facing such a loss. They are hopeful that should death touch their world, it will only take 6 to 12 months to recover. No one wants someone they love to die. So, until faced with the reality, it's easier to think 'this won't happen to me, AND if it does it will only be bad for a finite, short amount of time and then there's an expiration date and it is magically all gone.' What a wonderful world that would be.

I've heard time and time again there is a societal expectation to "get over" grief in six months, and at the longest, a year. Those who aren't grieving believe it, and often those who are also believe it -- this sets grieving people up for false, and ultimately disappointing, expectations.
The one year mark looms like some golden carrot over the heads of those who are grieving. It is a symbol of hope that if they make it to the one year mark they will be in a much happier and pain free place.

The reality is they won't be over it, nor should they be. If someone spent years loving another person, the pain of that person's death simply will not be removed due to a date on the calendar.

The opposite actually might happen -- people who are grieving may feel even more pain in year two because the initial numbness, which often serves as a protective barrier at the onset of loss, has worn off and they begin experiencing the full intensity of their feelings and grief. This is accompanied by the realization that life with loss is their "new normal."

I lost my mother at 9 and father at 12. I remember feeling the expectation of a grief expiration date myself. I remember being 15, five years after my mother died and three years after my father died. If I had a tough day missing my parents, people looked shocked, or avoided the subject, or avoided me. Sometimes I would hear insensitive comments, like "aren't you over that?" Or when someone experienced a more recent loss, I would get "Oh, poor [so and so]. What a tragic loss. Aren't you glad you are over that now?"

I remember beating myself up and doubting how well I was coping. If you allow yourself to believe there is an expiration date for grief, you will start to think you aren't doing well if you still miss your loved one 5, 10, 20, 40 years after the loss. In reality, it's normal. And it's okay.

This is what I know to be true:

Grief is a life-long journey. An emotional handicap you get up, and live with, everyday. It doesn't mean you can't lead a happy life, but it is a choice, and takes work.

The frequency and intensity of those grief pangs/knives should lessen over time, but the reality is every now and then for the rest of your life, you will feel those pangs. Everyone grieves at their own pace, and in their own way. There is no one way to grieve, and no certain order, and no timeline. There is definitely not an expiration date.

Grief will take on different forms in different people. Not everyone cries; others cry all the time. Some exercise a lot. Others talk about it a lot. Many seek counseling or join a support group, and enjoy the company of a good and understanding listener.

If years after your loss, thinking of your loved one missing a special day or milestone in your life, makes you sad, puts you in a funk or makes you cry, don't beat yourself up. Allow yourself the ability to grieve the loss of memories not created. As long as the frequency and intensity of grief eases -- even if it is slowly over time -- you are coping in positive ways. Alternatively, if years after the loss, you can't bear the mention of your loved ones name, you sleep all day, you aren't participating in your normal everyday activities, you do things to "numb" or escape your grief, those are warning signs that you are not coping well, and should seek the assistance you need to begin healing.

Grieving in a healthy manner, taking steps to move forward and rebuild your life with a new normal doesn't mean you won't have those tough days or tough moments.

There is no expiration date. Grief never fully goes away. That doesn't have to mean you can't and won't live a happy and productive life. What it does mean is the love you shared with loved ones lost, doesn't have an expiration date either.

Around the Web

Coping with Grief and Loss: Support for Grieving and Bereavement

How to Deal With Grief, National Mental Health Information Center

GriefShare: Grief Recovery Support Groups

Grief and Grieving: Managing Sadness and Depression Signs

Good grief

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