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If all you can do is crawl, start crawling. — Rumi
How long do we get to mourn? Depends on who you ask. The standard answer from employers is three to five business days—about the length of time it takes to get a package delivered. If you can’t deliver yourself back to work in that time, then there’s obviously a problem. How long do we get to mourn? Most friends and associates will grant us about thirty days; then the expectation is that one “gets back to normal.” How long do we get to mourn? Almost always less time than we need, or can admit to needing, before being expected to move on. The reality is, with the exception of those closest to us, others around us have moved on and, by implication, so should we. Sadness is inconvenient and uncomfortable for those on the perimeter of grief. It’s understandable in the beginning, but not if it goes on too long. Who, however, determines how long is long enough?
It’s a strange thing to admit that we are uncomfortable with grief even though all of us have, or will have, suffered it at some point. If one is perceived as lingering too long in sorrow, others recoil. If one is seen smiling or, God forbid, laughing in public after a loss, others may respond critically, as in, “It sure didn’t take that lady long to get over her husband’s death!” How and when do we move on from the death of someone we love? Can we move on? And what would this look like if we did?
The forward movement of time is something over which we have no control. When we are grieving, it may feel as if we are being dragged along, despite our resistance. Even if we try to dig our nails into the last lingering moments shared with our loved ones, they will slip from our fingers and begin to recede into the past. This can be very scary. We are forced to move forward in time, but it doesn’t mean we are moving on emotionally. The heart has its own time. It is a clock that runs at a different pace. It can’t be rushed or set ahead an hour. It doesn’t ring like an alarm, signaling that it’s time to get on with things. We cannot be woken from or wedged out of our grief, but we can begin to ease ourselves into the flow of life again.
The donning of black clothes in response to death used to be a way for mourners to let others know where their hearts stood. In many communities, it still functions as an outward sign of what is happening internally. How long it is worn varies, but the message is basically the same: “I am grieving. Don’t ask me to do otherwise.” Except for the funeral service, many of us no longer utilize that black billboard of sorrow. And so we have to find ways to let others know that we are still in the throes of grief, that we are not ready to resume normal life, and, perhaps most importantly, that we want our loss to be remembered. We want our loved ones to be remembered. Even as we begin to move on from the epicenter of our pain, from the moment our loved ones left us, we want to plant our feet in what was. When we are perceived as “getting better” and “moving forward,” people around us may breathe a sigh of relief. But for the grieving, these terms can imply a letting go of loved ones that many are not yet prepared to do.
I am reminded of a 26-year-old woman who told me of standing at the coffin of her young husband. He had been diagnosed with a rare lung cancer a few months after she found out she was pregnant with their son. He died three days after the baby’s first birthday. At his wake someone remarked, with good intentions I’m sure, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. You are so young and pretty—I’m sure you will find someone.”
“I did find someone,” she replied. “He’s right there, lying in that coffin.”
Moving on, whatever that entails, is not possible if one does not stop to grieve, and grieve deeply in proportion to the loss. There are no quick fixes to heartbreak. The young widow knew this, and she bravely set her own course, at her own pace, for both her and her son.
In the end, “moving on” is rarely a term used by the bereaved. More often than not it’s used by concerned loved ones who want to help or by acquaintances who are uncomfortable with death. No one wants to see his or her friend, mother, father, or beloved suffer for a prolonged period of time. Those who are grieving the death of a loved one intuitively know they are not meant to stay entrenched in the deepest part of their pain. They are not meant to live in the past. Eventually, they must decide to live again, but no one can decide for them.
Perhaps the term “moving on” could be replaced with the concept of “living on.” For that is what we are called to do: to live on, despite the pain of our losses. Moving on implies that we are leaving something behind, that we have closed a chapter, like closing and locking a house. But we don’t leave our loved ones in the rearview mirror. We don’t leave them in the ground or scattered in the sea—we take them with us. We take the times we have shared and the love we still feel into whatever future awaits us. We don’t move on; we move with. Our spirits are embroidered with silver threads stitching us to our loved ones. They are adorned with the jewels of every moment shared and all that we cherished about them. By our choosing to live on, they can live on. If we dissolve into the darkness of despair, they cannot shine. Our loved ones do not want us to stop living because they have died; they want us to live. They want us to bring them with us into each new day so that a part of them can remain on earth through the stories we share. After a time, however long that is (and it is different for different people), sorrow ceases to be a tribute to the deceased. It distracts from their stories and puts the focus on us, on our pain, on our lives. They have not moved on from us; they are living within and beyond us. And we have not moved on from them when we take a step toward happiness, acceptance, and peace. We live on together when we live on in love.
Meditation: Today I will try to take a baby step from my sorrow toward a future that includes happiness. I will choose to live on, knowing that my loved one is living on with me.
Affirmation: I carry my loved one wherever I go.
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