Grief Returns with a Vengeance: How Come It Still Hurts So Much?

In my counseling office.  Spring 2011. Julia was inconsolable.  For the first half of our session she alternately cried and apologized.  The preceding Sunday had been Mother's Day-the first Mother's Day she had faced after the death of her infant son.  Julia had been seeing me for several months now and she was convinced that she was making great progress in going through her grief.  Today though Julia was uncertain of her progress and even hinted that the last few months of counseling may have been an utter waste.

Julia reported to me that Mother's Day had been more than devastating for her.  She had isolated in her bedroom and refused to let her family come near her.  She had cried throughout the Friday before Mother's Day, that Saturday, and nearly all of Mother's Day.  She didn't know whether she was more devastated by the special day without her baby or devastated by the fact she had slipped back to where she had been earlier in her grief.   I sat and listened.  I had recognized immediately the inconsolable despair of a bereaved mother and realized that nothing could be said during this session that would be comforting to her.

"I thought you had said things would get better with time," said Julia looking at me with intent anger.  "You'd also told me that the dread of a special day coming up was usually worse than actually going through the day itself in grief.  Well, it wasn't.  Mother's Day was far more horrific emotionally than I could ever have imagined.  Is something wrong with me?  Why aren't I getting better?"

I knew nothing that I could say right now would make things better, give her any comfort or take away the pain that she was experiencing.  I bit my tongue and fought the urge to say or do something that would instantly “fix” her and that would make it possible for her to leave my office smiling.

"Yes, you're right.  I did say all that.  But we also know that everyone's grief is different, and that there are no set rules in grief that every grief follows.   Everyone’s grief experience is unique to the mourner. Also we know that grief comes in waves and sometimes those waves come crashing down on you.  On Mother's Day – your first Mother's Day without Jimmy – your grief wave was a huge emotional tsunami that not only crashed down on you but wiped you out.   I'm sorry the weekend was so rough for you, but grief – especially grief on your first Mother's Day – is never easy. "

In going through grief there is good news and there is bad news.  The good news is that because grief is overflowing love for a person who is no longer physically present that we can continue to have a spiritual and emotional relationship with the loved one.  This new relationship with our loved one who has died is fueled by memories and our need to always keep them close to us.  This means we never have to forget our loved ones.  They are with us always even when we don't consciously think of them.

Now let’s talk about the bad news in grief.   We never forget our loved ones (and of course, we never want to).  And because of that fact, we never forget that we miss being with them.  That means that we can still have painful grief outbursts, and sometimes those moments of grief make us question our health and sanity.

Grief does not get better continuously.  If grief were to be charted on a graph, the line of our grief would not go progressively upward indicating steadily increasing improvement.  With most grief experiences, there would be upward movement on the graph, but the grief line would go up and down in waves simultaneously as it inches upward.  Sometimes these devastating waves in grief would dip below where we were emotionally just a few days or a few weeks or a few months earlier.  That can make us as mourners feel that we are not getting better.  These grief waves plunging downward though would quickly regain momentum and move upward toward healing and grief reconciliation.

Grief is never easy.  But with knowledge about the true nature of grief, its purpose and its progression, the grief journey can become easier.  The grief journey becomes even easier with a good support system and self-care.  Part of that self-care for mourners is remembering to do the following things:

  • Be patient with your grief and yourself.  Grief has its own timetable.  It will take time and effort on your part to integrate your loss and adapt to the new reality in your life.  You can’t expect those huge changes to happen overnight.
  • Understand that there will be bad days and bad moments.  Don't let these bad days and bad moments discourage you.  Changes in your grief usually happen gradually.  In fact, your steps forward in grief may be small and very slow, but over time those many little steps and changes add up to huge changes in moving toward healing.
  • Don't be surprised when you are hit by a huge grief wave or grief tsunami.  The emotional turmoil caused by a grief wave does not mean you are regressing in your grief.  The emotional turmoil caused by a grief wave shows that you are still expressing your love for a valuable person no longer physically present in your life.  A grief wave does not mean you are living in the past and hurting.  Each grief wave in your progressing grief means you are continuing to heal, feel and honor the memory of a person worth remembering and worth missing. 

    Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble or

    The grief survival guide is also available in Spanish as “El Amor Nunica Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” on

    Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX