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The Sliding Scale of Grief

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

When your loved one died, grief grabbed hold of you. For a time you believed that the tight grip would never let go. Your emotions ran wild: confusion, shock, anger, despair, guilt, helplessness, and replaying the moment of death over and over. Your most striking reaction was yearning for your loved one. Every waking moment you wanted this person back. You may have cried, wailed, and screamed to no avail.

Now, as time has gone by, the grip has loosened, the emotional intensity has subsided somewhat, and the pain isn’t as excruciating. However, the aching for this precious person has continued, perhaps even increased as you have now experienced events that came crashing into your reality telling you that your life has forever changed.

The cruel trick your brain plays on you during this time is this: At the same time the pain has begun to subside, the memories of your loved one may also feel they are fading. As the days march on, your loved one has begun to feel farther away from you. Do you understand that the constant pain of grief has, in its own way, kept you focused on your loved one? There’s nothing wrong with this. In the midst of your grief, your loved one has been kept front and center. Now, with the decrease in the intensity of your grief reactions, your brain has regained the ability to see and experience more of the world around you, a world that, in your shocked state, had been detached from you. You may have said something like this, “What’s wrong with me? I haven’t been thinking of my loved one.” You begin to panic and worry that you are losing the memories of and connection with your loved one. It’s called the sliding scale of grief because it is the belief among people in grief that if grief decreases, so will the memory of our loved one.

What many people in this situation begin to do is this: They grab back onto their grief. It goes something like this: “If I hang onto the pain, I will also hang onto the memories of my loved one.” The pain and the memories have become hopelessly entangled. Once you feel the grief subsiding, it scares you because you are convinced the memories will subside as well. People who observe you holding onto your grief for dear life do not understand how frightened you are that you will “lose” the memories of your loved one. All they see is, “He’s stuck in his grief. Too bad.”

As part of your grief work, your challenge is to disentangle the pain from the memories. As you know, you do this by finding ways to retain memories of your loved one. Here are suggestions from people who answered the question: “How did you retain memories of your loved one?”

  • Download all pictures of your loved one and place them into a photo album. Include captions listing the names of people, date, and location.

  • Find videos and place on Youtube with a private link for friends and family members to enjoy anytime.

  • Carry an item that belonged to your loved one. My dad worked as an office clerk and would often bring home office items—pens, paper, pencils, paperclips, and rubber fingers. When he died, we discovered more than 50 rubber fingers in his drawer. So, more than 20 years after he died, I still will, at times, stick it in my pocket and carry it around. As I go through the day, I will feel it in my pocket and sometimes smile and say, “Hi Dad.”

  • Wear an item of his or her clothing.

  • Write or audio record stories. Everyone has stories of things they said, they did, funny moments that can be enjoyed over and over. Ask family members and friends for their input.

  • Visit places you and this person enjoyed.

  • Set a place for your loved one at the next family get-together

  • Ask friends and relatives to send you any pictures or videos in which your loved one appears.

  • Make a quilt with your loved one’s clothing.

  • Talk to this person. Most bereaved people state that it keeps this person close to them.

This is just a beginning list. Choose two or three suggestions that you can work on right now. By doing so, you can strengthen the memories of this person, who, although physically absent, is still an important part of your life. And, isn’t that what love is all about?

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