On Grief: ‘Mourning Is Not Linear,’ Expecting Closure Can Add Pain

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(Anders Zorn/Wikimedia Commons)

Our recent post on therapy for “complicated grief” brought this important response from Dorothy Cotton, a clinical psychologist who leads spousal loss groups at the Newton Wellesley Hospital Charitable Foundation. She warns that there can be no set timeline for grief, and expecting one can cause added pain to those already mourning the loss of a loved one.

We, as widows and widowers, remain connected to the spouse who has died. History is not pre-empted by time. This is difficult to explain in a society that worships “closure” and “getting through.” How does one account for “extended mourning” to those who have not experienced this loss? In our culture, it is believed that mourning is a linear, sequential process that ends up “freeing” the bereaved. Mourning is not linear. It is circular and changes its rhythm daily…often from moment to moment. We own the memories and the connection forever. If we were ever attached, we remain attached.

There is loss of physical presence — loss of daily physical and conversational connection. “Hi. I’m home,” has vanished. The bed is empty. Flashbacks of spouse’s suffering repeat. Panic occurs in solitude. No understanding of death can soften the fact that it happened to your spouse. The intellect and emotions do not coalesce.

In our culture, we are discouraged from speaking of this amputation. That inability to speak the emotional truth adds a second burden — one of emotional isolation. This emotional loneliness is underlined when people (often in couples) are impatient with what they see as a lack of “moving on.” Widows and widowers are often accused of “wallowing.” Or, we are offered phrases like “he/she is in a better place.” “You should enjoy your own life.” Are these cliched placebos for the bereaved, or for the comfort of the speaker?

I have seen many widows and widowers “self-pathologize” when they feel they are “doing poorly” and cannot “get over” their loss. This self-incrimination leads to depression beyond loss.

Therapists have often used a “model” of mourning, setting a goal of “healing” at about 2 years. At that time, without major “improvement” the patient could be deemed clinically depressed. Has it occurred to clinicians that the fact that widows/widowers have been blocked/prevented from telling the truth has contributed to the so called “pathology?” Are they aware that a linear/scientific/mathematical model should not be imposed upon emotions?

For widows and widowers who have not found this elusive “closure,” it is imperative to link with others who know and understand the truth. The energy used to repress emotional authenticity would not be needed. A support group led by those who know the loss (not theoretically) would enable a process of “Un-feigning” and would encourage truth without correction. A genuine trust of not being judged would allow and even encourage non-socialized responses to “How are you doing?” One could relax in the safety of shared honesty.

Readers, your responses?

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  • SED

    I especially appreciated Dr. Cotton’s remarks stating that mourning is circular rather than linear. I just made reference to my experience of the fluctuation of grief when speaking with my 29 year old son. My husband of forty years died six years ago. I still have times when I just can’t move forward in certain areas or I am absorbed by thoughts of him I don’t know how my son feels. He is a very private person.

  • Cheryl

    A very helpful article. My dear uncle passed away at 93 years old. His wife of 69+ years finds little support from her sons or peers. The thought seems to be that he lived a long life and they had so much time together. I call her daily and travel across the country each year so she can have at least one person to share her memories. Certainly it is tragic when a young person dies but I would like to see widows who have spent a life together also have the support they need. My aunt has ‘gone on’ and lives a full life as best a 91 year old can but there is no time that she stops missing her soul mate. My heart to all of the kind people here who have shared their pain to help others.

  • commonhealth

    Posting for a reader:

    I read your piece with great interest and I think it is on the mark. It is curious (and perhaps the complex grief folks might consider) that for those who suffer from breast cancer for example are told to join breast cancer support and survivor groups led by those who have experienced the disease and know that there is no ending: you always are a cancer survivor with fears. And chronic conditions like addiction are always led by alcoholics anonymous. And support groups for my patients with rare congenital conditions always yields best results from parent to parent contact or teen to teen seeking to help them be happy in their own skin; skin that will never change.

  • CircusMcGurkus

    Grief is the expression of loss. People may mourn – a spouse or a parent or a close friend or a child or body parts/function or (prepared for attacks on this one) an animal companion in ways that may not seem reasonable to others who have gone through “something similar” but not with the same emotional response. When we try to make emotions like love and grief “scientific” and measurable and even comparable we have completely abandoned what is actually happening.

    The point is that this personal loss cannot be “replaced” or supplanted by other, also good, joyful people and things. It is not just the memory that is owned but who we were when that other being was fully part of our existence. It is not the memory or even the habit (“Honey, I’m home”), but the very essence of who we believed we were because ALL of that changes with loss.

    It’s not “complicated” – that is insulting. When there is such a deep connection between people or beings that allowed the survivor to feel completely whole and that is gone, there is no resolution. There can be other things that can make life enjoyable and worth living, but that grief is not going anywhere. That grief is as much a part of the present as the person or relationship was of the past.

    When Aaron Burr’s daughter died, he changed (and he had suffered countless losses before then including his beloved wife); when President Wilson’s wife, Ellen, lost her brother and his young family, she changed (and she had suffered countless losses including her parents at a young age). Seeking to analyze grief or (ugh) help people “get over” their loss and “move on” is not productive. People who have significant losses (and again, it is NOT a specific relationship or person or being, it is part of an essential narrative that is gone) may be forever different, forever melancholy and forever sad about this loss even if they do “everything right” and have support systems around them to help them heal. Some losses are too enormous and we really do not know which ones they are unless and until they are gone.

    We know that events can change brain function, hormonal levels can affect behavior and that emotional trauma has physical ramifications in the body. Why do we then assume that a major grief can be overcome or that someone who has experienced profound loss should “bounce back” to his former self. THAT is irrational. It is that expectation that is inaccurate and should be analyzed, not the person in grief and mourning.

  • GracieMarie

    My college-sweetheart husband died unexpectedly about 120 days ago. After the first few weeks, my family treated me like I was some happy-go-lucky single person. (“You should enjoy your life!”). My “sustained” loss, i.e., weeping when speaking of or remembering him, makes them uncomfortable; they know not what to say. Mostly, they want me to go back to the way I used to be so that they can be comfortable. Trying to have a heartfelt conversation with folk that lack capacity for such depth is like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree. And not nearly as fun. There is honor is grieving the loss of one’s partner, lover, best friend, and co-ruler of the two-person country that we founded when we got married. It was just Us. I have loved him for many happy and some not-so-happy moons, and he is irreplaceable. Only those who have felt this devastation can stay with me knowing what we both know, maintain eye contact, be still. There is respect in the quiet witnessing of the sorrow of another. Sudden loss of one’s spouse is like being hit by a train. One should treat oneself accordingly, because it is such a severe injury to the heart and the psyche. Just because I can walk and talk does not mean I am healed. Only other widows/widowers understand this…..so I stay away from number folk; they mean well, and they know not what they do. ts

  • Chris

    I have been widowed for the past three years and find my grief to be constant. My day to day existence goes on. I am thankful for my children and close friends who bring light to my life. Still, the isolation one has even with a full room of family and friends is always about. No one is meant to live forever and so when you loose your soul mate there must be a larger reason for that kind of loss. My soul has been evolving in a way very different than if my life had stayed the same. I believe everything happens for a reason however painful the experience. There is a reason! My faith guides me that we will see our loved ones again, and this life experience is only a small part of a much larger picture.

  • Ray

    I feel I should have added that I have known the pain of loss of parents, close friends, and family from divorce. As awful as each of those experiences was, losing my dear wife was indescribably worse.

  • Ray

    I appreciate this writing, as well as the comments that follow it. I have been gradually “moving on” for over three years. I have a life, but still have moments of joy and total crashes of remembrance that i believe will never pass away completely. There are so many commonplaces of living in a partnership that I see all around me every day and miss so profoundly and bring the tears. Some people, not widowed, have told me that they “get it”, but I know that they don’t, and can’t. I grieve for those who are in happy relationships, for the time when they will know this loss, and “get it”.

  • John Haas

    Dr. Cotton is a wise person, having personally experienced what we all are going through. I’ve found that in the 5 months since my wife’s passing, I still think about and miss her constantly. I don’t resist this at all, and hope and expect it to continue for some time. Sometimes, the memories are wonderful, and sometimes sad. Still, I am trying to be active and involved with family and friends, and move forward (if on “on”) as best I can.

  • Cynthia Taibbi

    While I agree with and value Dr. Cotton’s thoughtful and insightful words, the grief felt from divorce is rarely included in conversations concerning the mourning of a spouse. I would argue that it should be.

    When a marriage ends through divorce, there are no acceptable mourning rituals; no funeral services to say goodbye, no bereavement days built into employment contracts, no casseroles from kind neighbors filling the fridge, no flowers or donations made to medical research, and certainly little capacity from our culture to understand that with divorce, like death, “the intellect and emotions do not coalesce.”

    It has been over six years since my former husband decided he didn’t want to be married to me any longer, and there are still days where I feel the weight of this “amputation.” Not only is he physically gone from my life, my grief also includes the added weight of knowing that he chose to leave my arms for those of another.

    • GS

      While more attention may need to be paid to other types of grieving one goes through in circumstances other than losing a spouse, divorce for example, I think it is superficial and naive to think the grieving process is comparable– perhaps the same “general stages,” but the specifics are so very different… it doesn’t mean that there isn’t intense grief in other situations, but it doesn’t seem to do either process justice to compare such different experiences. Perhaps this reader needs more support for her own grief, but to try to compare divorce to losing a spouse to death seems inappropriate. It is not a competition, as this reader seems to portray… there are many different types of grieving processes. The comparison between divorce and becoming a widow/widower seems, to me, to be a very superficial view. As others have mentioned here, I have, devastatingly, lost my beloved spouse to cancer and have also had experience with other losses (including divorce) and nothing compares to the pain of losing my spouse.

      • Cynthia

        I’m stunned by your lack of empathy. My words were never meant to portray a competition as you suggest, rather they were meant to explain how the pain of a spouse choosing to abandon his family is also a form of grief that offers little societal support. I am sorry for your loss, I truly am, but to suggest that your pain is somehow deeper than mine, and to then add insult to injury by labeling me superficial, feels both unfair and unkind. Shouldn’t we feel safe expressing the depth of our respective losses in open forums such as these without having to worry about being insulted?

        • GS

          Again, Cynthia, it sounds like you are in so much pain– I can only imagine the pain you have from your experience. I hope you are able to find some healing. It also sounds like you need a lot of validation for your experience and i hope you are able to get that as well. I wonder why you would choose to write your story about divorce in the comments of an article written about losing a spouse to death and becoming a widow/er… I was responding to your need to compare your experience with that of becoming a widow/er… I am always interested why some people have to tell their story by comparing it to another story (as you did in your first comment) and not just tell their story without needing to compare or validate somehow based on someone else’s experience. Your experience is valid and does not need to be compared to becoming a widow/er. It seems perhaps you need to find support and I wish that for you. I hope you never have to know the pain of losing a spouse to cancer at the age of 35 and be one of those people that another commenter referred to as people who “get it” (referring to the pain of widowhood and all that comes with it). Good luck and take care.

          • Cyndy

            It’s also interesting to note that this same Cynthia is now in a relationship with a man who was engaged to be married and in his relationship for 7 years. Empathy, where is her empathy for the woman he left for her?

  • Barbara

    I have stepped through all the doors of “firsts” and then into year two. It is more intense in terms of sadness and acceptance. Tears come more quickly as the anesthesia of the first year has been wiped away. For me it seems that the first year was gripping grief and year two is a shroud of deep,deep mourning. My present experience and those of others that have shared with me, is that for all of us and for all our losses we are in an ocean of grief. We have to keep swimming and treasure those moments when we can just float.

  • Lina Marks

    Just finished reading the article and comment. They both confirmed the need for the non-afflicted population to remember the importance of understanding even if there is no empathy for the griever. Empathy is best, of course, but it is not always experienced and I believe that sympathy can at times prove restorative as well.

  • Lenore Goldstein

    Excellent! An important contribution! Dorothy Cotton brings her academic knowledge and her heart experience to her work. She’s walked – is walking the road.

  • Barb

    I worked for our local Hospice with bereavement support groups for 6 years, including small groups of women 30-50 who had been recently widowed. Studies had shown that younger women were less likely to know other women who had been widowed, leading to greater isolation, depression and physical illness. Two of us led these groups, both of us widowed at a young age. During these sessions I often thought that while our work with them was valuable, what was far more valuable was their understanding that we and the other women in the room “got it” about what they were experiencing. The other leader and I also served as living proof that as terrible as it was, you could survive it.

    • Barbara

      It seems strange that so few groups for the widowed are actually run by them. I think all groups need structure and it is wonderful that some of us are trained to do the “work”but they are hollow if the person has not walked the walk.

  • Sharon L. Rich

    I know that Dr. Cotton’s insights come from both a deep, personal space as well as from her work in psychology. I agree completely that grief cannot be measured linearly and it seems from what I have observed over time is that those who attempt to place timelines on grief do so to relieve themselves of the responsibility of caring for those whose grief seems to swallow them up.

    Memory is a blessing and a curse as Dr. Cotton implied. A long-term caring relationship which ends either abruptly or after a protracted illness carries the deceased to the grave but not the memories. Some come to terms with the reality and finality of a death while others do not enjoy the peace that is promised — ‘after a certain period of time’. It is not fair or appropriate to judge a survivor’s difficulty in letting go of something precious that is no longer accessible on a daily basis.