Feeling Sad

Dear Dr. Hurd,
My father died almost 18 years ago. Though I consider myself fully ‘recovered,’ occasionally something will remind me of him. When I start thinking about it, the feelings of loss come rushing back almost as strong as they were when he died, and I get very sad and cry. Is this healthy? Do I need medication to keep me from falling back into mourning for him? Most of the time I am just fine, but when I allow myself to think about him, it all starts up again.

Dear Reader,
A major loss is not something you ever fully ‘get over.’ You simply get used to the feelings. When your father died, you felt the loss intensely every day. As the years have passed, you don’t think about it as often. But when you do, especially for any length of time, you feel it just as strongly. And yes, this is a clear indication that you’re not completely ‘over’ it — but why should you be? There’s nothing wrong with feeling loss over someone important to you. If you couldn’t function during your unhappiness, that would be one thing. But to feel it after all these years is normal.

 In his online article ‘Getting Over a Loved One’s Death,’ Rodney Grubbs writes, ‘Having a hard time getting over the loved one is completely natural ‘ As a general observation, the stronger the love, the longer it takes to get over them. And quite frankly, I’m not sure what ‘getting over them’ really means. If you truly loved them, you will never completely get over them. What you will do is learn to live with them from a different perspective. Then you will feel better about moving on with your life.’

 You don’t need medication for occasional sad feelings over your father’s death. Medication is for people who are unable to cope because of depressed or anxious feelings. By ‘unable to cope’ I mean unable to handle the basic activities of daily living without significant disruption. When it comes to medication, I find there are two schools of thought (both wrong) on the subject. Some people feel it’s always wrong to take medication because it’s a sign of  ‘weakness.’ Nonsense. If your functioning is impaired and if you can actually improve it with medication, then what moral or psychological reason is there not to do so? We don’t refuse medication for high blood pressure or diabetes on the basis of moral weakness.

 The other common mistake about medication is that people see it as a cure. It’s not — especially for something like depression over a great personal loss. When anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication works, it’s treating only the symptoms — but then so do a lot of medications. There are many problems for which there are no known causes, but people take medication to address the symptoms. With grief and loss, it’s not a mistake to take medication if, early on in the process, you find that you just can’t function. Why not try to relieve some of that suffering? At the same time, however, no pill can make you bypass the normal and natural process of grief. To escape the grief of having lost a loved one, you’d have to escape the experience of ever having loved them. Of course that doesn’t make any sense.

Look at grief as normal and good. When you feel the emotions, tell yourself, ‘This is healthy. It means I loved him and that he was, indeed, the wonderful person I perceived him to be. I’m crying not only because he’s not here, but also because he was a great person to have loved.’ Talk the feelings out with someone who experienced the loss along with you, or maybe even a counselor or a therapist. Don’t bottle everything up in the name of ‘getting over it.’ It doesn’t work.

There are different kinds of losses. Losing a parent can be difficult, but it’s expected. There’s usually not the feeling of ‘falling through space’ that comes with the loss of a spouse or a child. But loss is loss, and you’ll still feel it even years after the fact. The challenge is not to ‘get over it.’ The challenge is to reintegrate yourself back into a new and different life without your loved one.

How to do that? Try to get back to the daily activities you participated in before the loss. Secondly, take on new goals to fill the void. If your loss is a major one, you’ll most likely need six months to a year to let this process unfold naturally and comfortably.

You can’t replace your lost loved one. But, little by little, you can resume your activities and routines, adding new experiences and memories to the ones you both enjoyed before. Your new life is not required to be better or worse than the old one. It will just be different.