Can you get past grief and be happy again?

Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye, explains the experience of grieving her mother’s death and how and when she started to feel like herself again.

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Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye, explains the experience of grieving her mother’s death and how and when she started to feel like herself again.

Q: When and how did you first start noticing your grief lifting?

A: I noticed it lifting about 15 months after my mother died, in the spring of 2009. That was when I began to feel “like myself,” at least some of the time. But I think it’s important to say that the really crushing grief I felt after my mother’s death — when I found it hard to sleep, or concentrate, or relax in any consistent way — ebbed at six months. I was still in the midst of grief’s strange currents, but I was a little less at their mercy.

Q: What does feeling better mean in this context?

A: I don’t think people exactly “get over” or “heal” from a loss. It’s less like emerging from a period of illness, say, and more like learning to grow around the obstacle. I keep thinking that it’s like a tree that has to grow around something in its way; the tree is different, but it still continues to live.

Q: Did you do anything in particular to help heal, or was time the major factor?

A: I came out of this experience feeling that there are no “fixes” — no shortcuts or solutions. (And would we want there to be, really? We’re mourning someone we love.) But learning to be patient with yourself, to take time to sit with your feelings of loss — I think this is key to grieving. One problem is that in a hectic, fast-paced world it can be hard to take time to observe what’s really going on with us. And let’s face it, many of our emotions are subterranean. Our rational minds are like ships sitting on the surface of a great big sea. I found it was helpful to remember that, and to try to give myself a time of quiet every week, in order to just check in.

Q: Even when the grief started lifting, was it a struggle for you to allow yourself to feel happy at times?

A: No, it was never a struggle to allow myself to feel happy; I was always grateful to feel happy. I think that this can be one of the misconceptions of grief (especially grieving a parent). Before my mom died, I just thought I’d be sad all the time. But from early on, there were many moments when I could laugh with my family or friends, especially when we were remembering my mom; what I felt was bittersweet, but there was sweetness at times, not just sorrow. After all I was mourning because I had loved her. And because she was my mother, I knew she would want me to thrive and be happy. I think this might be different if you had lost a spouse, and certainly for those who have lost a child. Losing a mother when you are an adult — even if you wanted her to live past 53 — is “natural” in the scheme of things; losing a child seems unnatural.

Q: Was there anything you found particularly helpful or comforting?

A: Writing was an anchor. The act of putting down on paper what had taken place was strangely solacing — even if it was an illusory kind of solace. It created a sense of order, and I needed that, as it seemed to me that the world was a very fragile place, and our position in it was precarious.

Q: Do you have any advice for someone mired in grief and who feels like things will never get better?

A: The most helpful thing anyone said to me was to be kind to myself. I found that after my mother died I kept feeling I should be doing a “better job” with all sorts of things. I felt I should already have gotten myself together — it had been three months!  And so on. But grieving takes its own wayward path. So be patient and kind to yourself, if you can. And early on I realized I had to just take it one day at a time. I focused on getting through each day, and making sure that I spent free time only with the people who actually made me feel “good.”