THIS quote on grief I’ll never forget: “I believe it takes a full three years to get through loss.” (Pastor Craig Vernall, April 2017)
The quote astounded me because it seemingly broke with traditional grief wisdom that pegs it as a two-to-twelve-month acute phase process, and something we never truly overcome, but learn to accept.
But there was something about this quote, and the pastor’s testimony, along with my own, that caused me to become curious. At that point it had been less than three years since we had lost Nathanael. It had been an extraordinary experience of loss where we coped so well, but something still didn’t sit well. It was in reflecting over this philosophy, that grief takes a full three years to find its way out of us, that I found hope.
You see, the overall passage of grief we experienced didn’t involve disabling sorrow, but a sorrow that we could visit or that would visit us just briefly — painfully, but briefly. Nathanael’s memory never left us, and we could always talk about him, without duress, in ways that also helped others. Our grief didn’t bear many of the features of typical grief, probably because we grieved for four months before we ultimately lost him. Yet, I think grief did affect me by accentuating parts of my character — some good, some not so good. I was open and approachable in the way I would write about our experience, and how I interacted with others. But I was also susceptible. What surfaced for me in certain situations was an attitude of entitlement; pocket entitlement to be exact. My vulnerability was exposed whenever I perceived a lack of compassion, because I sensed that compassion was the appropriate response to a person’s pain.
We all have vulnerabilities. Grief is something that draws it to the surface, because in a time of loss, when defences are down, we’re at our weakest. In the final analysis, it was a cruel lesson, but sometimes God allows what seems cruel so He can be kind, and teach us something gently over time by His grace. I learned what I needed to learn, the pain is in the past. That’s what counts.
These reflections can only come with time — years of time. In the pre-three-year period we really haven’t received the benefit of a fuller perspective yet. The time hasn’t been worked through. And if grief is anything it’s the negotiation of time within a reality of radically forced change. We cannot say we’re there yet, because the journey always takes longer than we would wish it would take.
I would be the last person to say that grief has a definitive time period, but for me, for us, given our experience at the time, and given Vernall’s testimony, I was convinced it takes a full three years to more fully recover from grief. This is not to say all of us will fully recover within that timeframe.
It begs the question, though, how long does it take to adjust to loss? It varies from person to person, and, given that grief changes not only our lives, but us ourselves as persons, we can be assured, life is never the same again.
Grief takes longer than we would like to recover from, and it is best that there is no pressure to recover within a timeframe, either from ourselves or others.
There are many reasons why people can expect us to be ‘over’ the grief of our loss before we are. But none of these reasons suggest compassion as an appropriate response to the reality of the grief journey.