My loved one died 20 years ago and I still feel grief-stricken at times. Shouldn’t I be over it by now?

If there’s one thing that can’t be slotted into a timetable, it’s grief.

Many of us are not able to deal with our grief immediately after our loss. The circumstances of the death may have been violent or otherwise difficult to deal with, we may be traumatized by what has occurred, and/or we may feel unable to contend with all of the feelings that arise when working through grief.

In addition, we may not have found the support we need – whether that’s from family and friends, from a therapist, pastor, facilitated group of suicide survivors, or from any other qualified individual or organization. (If you haven’t been able to access help and are seeking it, The Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors has many resources that could be useful, as does Alberta Health Services. This blog by The Loss Foundation is also helpful.)

Finally, we may have unfinished business with the deceased that needs to be addressed alongside the challenges of grief, which can slow down our coming to terms with what has occurred.

Everyone has his or her own timing and that must be honored.

Grief is Unpredictable

As I have learned from my own experience following the suicide of my brother, Steve, grief doesn’t follow a predictable, orderly, programmable path. It is chaotic, capricious, and wild. In his book, The Wilderness of Suicide Grief – Finding Your Way, leading grief counsellor and educator, Alan Wolfelt, says it well:

You might think of your grief as a wilderness – a vast, inhospitable forest. You are in the wilderness now. You are in the midst of unfamiliar and often brutal surroundings. You are cold and tired. Yet you must journey through this wilderness. To find your way out, you must become acquainted with its terrain and learn to follow the sometimes hard-to-find trail that leads to healing.

During the first few years following Steve’s death, I experienced the wilderness of grief in many different forms – sadness, fear, loneliness, despair, rage, extreme sensitivity, and other uncomfortable states that were part of its bewildering landscape. I discovered that it was best to abide by these difficult feelings and to extend to myself as much compassion as possible. As anyone who has lost a beloved to suicide knows, this is not easy.

For a number of years thereafter, I felt at peace so much of the time that it seemed as though I had finally passed through the dark wood and into the light.

However, one day, I was helping a friend by setting up the bed-and-breakfast suite in what had once been the home where I had been living when I had received the dreaded phone call from my sister conveying the bad news. I had stayed in that suite myself in the intervening years, had enjoyed it very much, and didn’t even consider that spending time there would be a problem.

But this time, upon entering the suite, I felt anxious for no reason that I could identify. The feeling didn’t leave me once I started changing the linens on the bed. After opening up the pine blanket box to put away some comforters, its heavy unhinged lid slammed down hard on my forearms. With tears flooding my eyes from the pain, I stopped to catch my breath and to let the pain subside, and then struggled to continue, but the simple task of selecting sheets and getting them onto the king-sized bed seemed beyond me. It was impossible to think straight. What was wrong with me?

Thankfully, the answer came almost immediately: You’re in grief. Just let the thoughts and feelings come. You’ll be OK. You are OK. Just keep breathing.

Just keep breathing became my mantra as I continued to slowly and methodically dust, vacuum, clean the kitchen and bathroom, set the table, and put fresh food in the refrigerator.

The task took twice as long as it would have normally, but after bringing order and beauty to these rooms, I felt at peace once again. Later, drinking a glass of wine with my friend and watching the sun set over the Georgia Strait and the mountains of Vancouver Island, I felt exhilarated, thrilled to be alive.

This experience not only reminded me that allowing grief to move through me makes room for joy, but it also brought home to me the realization that it’s not a matter of experiencing grief in the early years after a loved one’s death, and then it’s over. As I say in my book, “the journey through grief is more labyrinthine than linear. We cycle through its different phases repeatedly, becoming increasingly familiar with the territory each time.”

Grief Can Arise at Any Time

Visitations from grief can occur at any time after our loved one’s death. My B&B experience occurred eight years later. Another happened this year, 13 years after the event, when my sister and I each sprained our ankles right around the anniversary of Steve’s suicide. Neither of us thinks these were mere accidents, but rather expressions of our continued, often unconscious, feelings of missing our brother, quite literally our flesh and blood. Once we acknowledged that simple fact, our ankles healed quickly.

Grief is a mystery that cannot be contained by time. It is a wilderness full of challenge and sometimes pain which, if kindly and courageously permitted, can reward us with greater joy, creativity, wisdom, imagination, gratitude, and love.

May you find the courage to explore your experience, to encounter the wilderness, and to surrender to the mysteries of this extraordinary journey. Most of all, I wish for you the mercy to do so when the time is right for you and not before.