“You’ll get over it.”
If you’re a parent who has experienced a loss, you know all too well the pain of those well-intentioned words.
It’s not surprising that others say that to us. I mean, I didn’t get it myself for a long time. I remember the first time it dawned on me that my son’s death, and the grief we were experiencing, was not going to be a brief ‘phase’ of our lives.
We were at a support group of parents who had experienced miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss. Simon had just died two weeks prior, and his death was so fresh in our minds that when one mother began telling her story and merely describing walking through the hospital, my wife and I began shaking and crying.
As she told her story, choked with intermittent sobs, she concluded by saying, “Today is the 6 month anniversary.”
My wife and I–eyes a little wide–looked at each other, surprised that her emotion we saw was so raw after such a ‘long’ period.
But then, another parent spoke up, talking about the pain of watching students in her neighborhood preparing to graduate from high school. Breaking down into tears, she cried, “My son died 18 years ago this month…. He should be with them….”
It feels foolish to write this now, but I remember sitting in the car after that meeting, surprised and scared at the sheer vastness of time that had just opened up before us. This would not be a spike of pain followed by a brief tail of sadness.
But, having someone tell you something and then actually internalizing it are not that same thing. In those first few months, I still had it in my mind that, eventually, we would “get over it.”
Half a year later, we were still sad and I was looking for answers. Talking to another dad, I asked, “When does it stop feeling like this. Like, how long did it take before you had the first day when you realized that you hadn’t thought about your son yet that day, because–you know–things were starting to heal a bit?”
He looked down and paused for a long time, then talked into his pint of beer: “It’s been over seven years, and he’s still the first thing I think of every day. I don’t think it’s like other things–like a breakup or a friend who’s gone, where you just sort of mentally move on. He’s always there.”
I shouldn’t have been, but I was–again–blown away by the magnitude of all of this. How could it hurt for that long? It just didn’t make sense. I had it in my mind that you could “get over” this tragedy, and that we–especially me–were failing to do so. I would get frustrated with myself for not moving on quickly enough, and had to fight the urge to not get frustrated with my wife for continuing to “let” sadness run our lives.
I reached out to one final father for advice, a friend who had been a mentor and boss to me. He lost his daughter when she was three, holding her in his arms as the brain tumor finally stole her last breath. I asked him, “What did you do to get over it? Did you find any books that had good advice or stumble upon any activities you could do to speed up the process of feeling better? I feel like I’m not doing enough, or I’m not doing the right things.”
He thought about it for a minute, quietly searching for the right words. He finally broke the silence: “You know, you don’t really get over it, or speed it up. It’s going to take as long as it’ll take. It’s more about how you live with it.”
In that conversation, if finally clicked for me. You live through the pain; you live through the hurt; you live through loss. It’s more about finding ways to cope with this new thing rather than “getting over it.”
It took a long time before I realized that it’s not about getting back to my old life; it’s about adapting (and accepting) this new one. It took a long time before I realized that I’m not failing if I’m not “getting over” this or immediately getting better.
It took a long time before I realized that it’s going to take a long time.
And that it’s not going to be the same.
And that’s ok.