Q. My only son has been dead for a year now. Sometimes I think my heart will burst wide open. I will start a support group soon, I hope. Does the pain ever go away? I can't do anything but work. What else can I do to keep busy? -- P. Davis
It's natural for you still to feel painful longing and sadness. You've had emotional surgery, and--depending on the nature of your son's death--you may have had that surgery with no warning. (If, for example, your son died suddenly, it would be normal for you to experience particular difficulty in coping with the disbelief that accompanied his death. The longer the disbelief lasted, the longer your grieving process will now take.)
Attending a support group is a strong positive step toward easing the pressure of your wrenching emotions. Even if you don't wish to share your most private feelings, you might choose to simply tell the story of your loss, or even to remain silent. Whatever choice you make, there is a benefit to be gained by being in the presence of other survivors--if for no other reason than to soften the feelings of isolation that may magnify your sense of loneliness and despair. Experiencing the comfort of a warm hug or kind words from people who understand what you are going through can give you needed strength and reassurance.
You want to know if the pain ever goes away. No, it does not entirely go away. But even though it never completely disappears, it gradually lessens until it becomes integrated into your ongoing life. You will not always feel as if you are at grief's mercy.
For now, it is important for you to remember that emotional pain comes in waves. In the first year after a death, the waves are very close together and exceedingly strong. They crash with great force. But as the months progress, these surges get a bit further apart; they peak and resound with slightly less force. So when you experience a rush of pain that seems unbearable, as if your "heart will burst wide open," visualize the grief as a wave. Remind yourself that it will wash over you, but it will not drown you; that even though the waves will never go away, they will weaken and become less frequent.
It is important to be prepared, though, for exceptions to this gradual slackening of grief's tides. As you've already learned, surges of emotion are particularly forceful on the anniversary of your son's death, his birthday, holidays, and other times or periods that had special meaning to you and him. Because you are especially vulnerable on such occasions, it's better not to let them simply happen to you. Instead, try to foresee the challenge they offer, and plan to spend some of the time with someone you love: a friend or family member who also cares deeply about your son and who will understand your need to mourn. It is particularly reassuring to be with someone who will join you in sharing feelings and memories.
As for work, in moderation it's a blessing to any grieving person. But if it becomes a substitute for feeling or is used to delay the expression of emotion, work can prolong your grieving period. Allowing your longing, yearning, anxiety, wishes, regrets--or any other emotions and thoughts--to surface, is an absolute necessity in your steps toward healing.
At this point in your grieving process, it would be ideal for you to try to seek a balance between your work and your expression of grief. Give your job or chores the effort they require, but divert some of the non-working hours into a block of time for grieving. Choose a time of day, or a whole day, and a specific place (such as your bedroom, your church, the cemetery, your son's room, a garden or park, wherever you feel a sense of privacy and relief). Think of this time to grieve as an appointment that you must keep with your heart. Remember, if you try to suppress what you feel, it will simply find its own way to the surface, often in difficult ways. Emotional pain that is pushed down can transform itself into anger, fear, illness, or a multitude of other negative outcomes.
Let that same wonderful heart of yours that loves your son also love you. Know with certainty that the feelings you are experiencing now will gradually change. Today's deep, intense sadness will be replaced, slowly but surely, by emotions in which sorrow is mixed with a type of comfort. Eventually, when you focus on your loss you will also be able to recognize your compensations. Your yearning, sorrow, anxiety, or depression will give way to the calm recognition of the gifts you received from your son and the gifts you gave to him. As difficult as it may be for you to believe now, one day, instead of feeling only waves of pain, you will also feel surges of bittersweet pleasure in the many memories, joys, and rewards that are the result of your son having lived on this earth and shared his life with a loving, devoted mother.