Is grief really the price we pay for love? How do we keep going when those we love have gone? Emma Winterschladen shares her findings and feelings…
“Small things such as this have saved me: how much I love my mother – even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger.” (Cheryl Strayed)
While staying at my dad’s house, I climbed into my daughter’s cot, to settle her back to sleep. As I lay there, nose pressed into her hair, I realised I was in the same spot fifteen years earlier – my own mum’s nose pressed into my hair, on a morning that would be one of her last.
There was nothing to do but let the grief in. The enormity of my loss – the unbelievable, unbearable truth of it – reared up angry and raw, and seemingly untouched by time. Grief is the price we pay for love.
These moments, tethered by a shared mother-daughter intimacy, were a visceral reminder of all that I’d lost in losing mum. But the grief was also accompanied by a feeling of deep love.
Moments like this can hit years later, often unexpectedly. They prove that the process of grieving never truly ends – and nor does our relationship with, and love for, those we have lost.
The grieving brain
‘The brain enables you to carry your loved one with you through the rest of your life,’ writes Mary-Frances O’Connor in her book The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss. Informed by more than twenty years of studying the effects of grief and attachment on the brain and body, the book offers a fascinating and hopeful insight into the ways in which love and loss are intertwined.
Grief, O’Connor suggests, is a learning process. And because the voices, quirks, touch and presence of those we love are encoded in our brain, learning to live without them is hard. ‘For the brain,’ she writes, ‘your loved one
is simultaneously gone and also everlasting, and you are walking through two worlds at the same time.’
How do we exist in two worlds? According to O’Connor, understanding that grief is a natural response to loss – and one that, for most of us, unfolds and
adapts over time – is crucial: ‘You will have discrete moments that overwhelm you, even years after the death when you have restored your life to a meaningful, fulfilling experience.’
The notion that ‘grief never ends’ may feel like succumbing to hopelessness, particularly for those in its painful throes. But for me, knowing that our brains are wired towards resilience and learning to live with loss, while never needing us to ‘get over it’, is comforting. Knowing that grief is the price we pay for love reminds me how lucky I am to have loved. A changing conversation
O’Connor’s book adds to a growing conversation around grief. Books, articles, podcasts, radio programmes, TV shows and even a Good Grief Festival are now devoted to the subject, with a new generation claiming their right to grieve out loud and online.
With this has come an understanding of the ongoing nature of grief; a concept that may seem directly opposed to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s ‘five stages’ model. The widespread acceptance, and subsequent rejection, of her ideas are due in part to misinterpretation of her 1969 book On Death and Dying. The ‘denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance’ stages were, at the time, groundbreaking observations of those who were terminally ill and at the end of their life – not those left behind.
So what about those of us who are left behind? At the forefront of the new grief movement is comedian and author Cariad Lloyd. Her book You Are Not Alone speaks to both the personal loss of her dad when she was fifteen, and the conversations with fellow grievers on her podcast Griefcast. It offers a friendly hand-holding for those at the beginning of their grief journey, and a normalisation of what Lloyd calls our ‘grief-mess’. You won’t find toxic positivity in her words; just reassurance that, despite our heaviest, hardest moments, there will be a time when the loss feels lighter. Lloyd is a testament to living, loving and thriving – while still grieving.
From grief to mourning
How and why we love people is unique to each of us, and so is the way we grieve them. For author and psychotherapist Juliet Rosenfeld, here lies the most profound link between love and grief: ‘Only the person suffering knows what they are feeling, just as only they really knew why they loved the person that has died so much. Eventually, we become our own grief experts.’
And yet, she says, there’s a universality in our grief – and it’s this that can help us empathise with, and support, the recently bereaved. ‘It is not a silver lining, but perhaps some way of reminding oneself of what it is to be a human – which is that we will all suffer the loss of someone we love at some point.’ Juliet’s memoir The State of Disbelief: A Therapist’s Story of Love, Death and Mourning recounts the loss of her husband and explores her slow transition from grieving to mourning. ‘It is not until we accept at an unconscious level that we will never see the person again in life that mourning starts,’ she says, ‘which is still very sad, very slow and occasionally hits us hard in the face, but allows us to gently begin to live again.’
Legacies of love
Learning to live after loss, for many of us, looks like living in spite of it. It looks like, eventually, being able to welcome and enjoy Good Stuff again. But a meaningful, fulfilling life does not mean one without pain and longing, and moments of really, truly missing our people. My grief is part of the fabric of my life – and the longer
I live with the loss of my mum, the more familiar it becomes. So when my ‘grief moments’ arrive, like in my daughter’s cot, as painful as they are, I knew I’ll be okay. They’re a reminder of how sustaining and sustained love can be, and how our important relationships continue to influence the way we are – long after the one we love has gone.