Why Does It Still Hurt?

I used to work with a woman a number of years ago whose son had died from a heroin overdose. She had come home to find him convulsing, and he died in her arms. It was a tragedy, but she seemed to be coping well, and her performance at work was largely unaffected. Knowing from my own experiences that grief doesn’t end at the funeral, I would periodically ask how she was doing. Most of the time, she would smile and say she was doing great. One day, about a year after his death, she seemed distraught and, with tears in her eyes, asked me earnestly, “Why does it still hurt?”

Both the newly bereaved and the general public seem to have this misconception that grief has some kind of endpoint. This seems to be perpetuated by the often passed around “5 Stages of Grief.” The final stage, “Acceptance,” is supposed to result in “peace.” What most people do not realize is that the concept of stages was originally developed to describe the emotional response people have to the news that they have a terminal illness. In other words, these are the stages that a person who has cancer would go through when they are told their cancer has spread and nothing further can be done: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The stages were also found in the response of loved ones of the terminally ill patient after receiving the news that the patient would be dying.

This was all based on the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who published a book in 1969 that contained the stages that were originally entitled “The 5 Stages Of Receiving Catastrophic News.” Her book “On Death And Dying,” was revolutionary in changing how terminally ill patients were treated in hospitals. Unfortunately, the stages were learned by psychology students who began to erroneously apply them to loved ones who had received the news that someone had already died, not that they were dying. This subtle shift in application has had profound results in society due to the fact that therapists, well wishers and even grievers themselves had become eager to reach that magical place of “Acceptance” so they could be at “peace.” Except that it doesn’t exist. That’s not how grieving the loss of a loved one works.

The prevalence of this theory has left mourners feeling unsupported as well-intended but ignorant therapists and friends who have never experienced loss themselves tell them to “let go” and “move on.” They begin to feel as though there is something wrong with them and that they have “failed at grief.” Rather than continue to expose themselves to criticism, they either cut off all unsupportive people and continue to grieve in solitude or suppress their remaining grief in the name of “moving on.” The latter can often have detrimental results when a subsequent adversity brings the unresolved grief back to the surface making the new adversity twice as painful. Grieving is the process of healing pain and needs to be understood, supported, and continued until the pain of loss naturally falls below the surface enough that the person can get back to functioning and enjoying life.

In the beginning, the pain, along with images of the death and memories of the deceased loved one, may constantly be in your conscious thoughts. A newly bereaved person may cry continually or for long periods at a time. What is often not understood is that each time you feel the pain and express it, you heal just a little bit. Crying actually expels stress. The healing process is so slow that it doesn’t feel as though you are healing at all. As the pain heals a little, it starts to sink below your conscious thoughts, and you’re able to think about something else for a minute or two, but it quickly comes back. After this period, it can sink even further below the surface, but it doesn’t take much to pull it back up. Triggers can pull it back up, so grievers often try to avoid triggers. But feeling pain when it is triggered actually helps to heal it a little more again. Each time you reconnect and feel the pain, it heals that much more and sinks even further down out of your conscious thoughts. Over time, a long time, it takes a lot to pull it back up, and it hurts less when it does come back up. This process can take years.

You have to be patient with yourself as you’re going through this process. Some people reach a point where the pain stays below the surface, and then they keep it there and don’t allow it to come back up, because it hurts! That’s understandable, but avoiding pain leaves it unresolved. Time alone doesn’t heal emotional wounds, feeling them does, feeling them over and over and over again. Think of this process as if you had thousands of pain neurons wanting to tell their sad story, and each time you reconnect with your pain, one gets to tell its story. Let them tell their story. Don’t shut them out. Doing this in a strategic, controlled way helps to lessen the pain over time and take the power out of triggers.

Some people get to a place of healing where the pain stays well below the surface, and then 5 to 10 years later, they experience something else painful that brings the old pain back to the surface. Many are surprised by this, thinking they had been completely healed. I had this very thing happen to me while I was going through the most painful period in my marriage. I had read the book The Denial of Death at one point while I was trying to understand the phenomenon of denial found in alcoholism. In the book, the author mentions that pain neurons are connected to one another. This was such a revelation to me. That’s why any new pain you experience is so overwhelming. Pain is like a barrel of monkeys and new pain pulls all your old pain back to the surface. That’s why people who experience trauma can have such difficultly with future adversities.

This is another reason why it’s so important to periodically reconnect with your pain even after it starts to sink below the surface. You may not feel it every day or all the time anymore, but it is still there. The more you let your pain “tell its story,” the more it heals so that when it does come up during a new adversity or trigger, it is not as overwhelming. You need to continue to nurse your emotional wound. After years, many years, it takes a lot to pull it to the surface, and, when it does come back up, it hurts a lot less. Once I gave myself permission to heal regardless of any timeframe, I really made progress, and now I no longer need to expend energy avoiding triggers.

Loss leaves you “forever altered,” and you will always be affected by your loss; but you do not need to be defined by it. No matter how much it hurts now, it will not always hurt this much. It does get better. What can get you through the darkest, worst storm is knowing that someday, there will be a rainbow. You have to look for the rainbow. There is no magic pill or easy path, but someday, brighter days will come.

See:
The Four Tasks Of Grieving