I was working from home earlier this week when suddenly the dogs flew into a barking frenzy, jumping at the front door urgently and howling. They often get excited when someone is at the door, but this was different—there was a frantic quality to their barks and they were more exited than usual. I looked out the front window to see what they were reacting to and there was a white Sprinter van parked in front of the house. I found myself mid-sob before I even fully comprehended what was happening.
My husband drove a white Sprinter van. Before his stroke, seeing a white Sprinter van pull up in front of the house meant Tom was home and the dogs and I were about to be showered with attention. Tom never came into the house without kneeling to pet and talk to the dogs and then hug and kiss me.
Even ten months after his death—a year and ten months after his stroke—the dogs and I react viscerally to a white Sprinter van in front of the house. Will this response ever go away? I don’t know, and I’m not even sure if I want it to. I appreciate the unexpected reminder of the pure joy I felt every time he came home.
There’s a lot of talk in the grieving community about the difference between moving on and moving forward. When people talk about moving on, they typically mean getting back to the way things were before the death. The goal of moving on is to put the loss behind you and continue living life with the same mentality as you did before the loss occurred. People indicate a moving on mentality by
- using phrases like “get back to normal” or “back to the way things were,” as in, “When do think you’ll get back to normal?” or “I just want things to be the way there were before.”
- suggesting that the work habits, hobbies, and social commitments that felt right before the death should be resumed without modification.
- approaching grieving as a phase with a start and end point and a progression through known stages like “anger” and “denial.” Saying “Are you still sad?” or “shouldn’t you be past that stage by now?” are markers that someone has a moving on mentality about grief.
- believing that grief that lingers beyond that grief period is abnormal, disordered, and dangerous.
The goal of moving forward, in contrast, is to integrate the loss into your life so that grief isn’t necessarily something you stop experiencing but you learn how to carry it with you into your future. People indicate a moving forward approach by
- acknowledging that “getting over” a loss isn’t realistic or even desirable.
- recognizing that activities that the grieving person enjoyed before the loss may not be the same ones that bring joy and comfort after the loss.
- understanding grieving as an ongoing, lifelong process that begins with the loss and has no endpoint.
- resisting the urge to label sadness over the loss problematic, even if it occurs years later.
Moving on would mean having no reaction to a white Sprinter van parked in front of the house. Moving forward means saying to myself, “That white Sprinter van in front of the house reminds me of how happy I always was when Tom got home,” and acknowledging whatever feelings come up.
I think people have a mistaken notion that one way to judge how well someone is coping with loss is by how quickly they get back to being the same person they were before the loss. I think sometimes the admonition against making big decisions in the first year after a significant loss is part of the impulse that people should move on after loss and if you sell your house or change your job, how can you go back to who you were? I understand why the people around us want us to go back to being the person we were before the loss—they loved us as we were and they may perceive that if we weren’t suffering in the past, to get back to how we were means no more suffering. But we can’t possibly be that person again. We can be a person who isn’t suffering, perhaps, but not the same person we were before.
Well, you can’t go back to who you were, whether you make big decisions or not. Grief changes a person—the person you were before no longer exists.
This is why I prefer the concept of moving forward. I am moving forward when I allow myself to be swept up for a moment in intense emotion when I am reminded of the rich life I had with my husband, or when I take a mental health day off from work to give myself time to feel sad about an anniversary. I am moving forward when I accept that while others may wish for me to resume being who I was before I was widowed, they won’t get their wish. They may express disappointment about that, but their disappointment is not my responsibility.
My responsibility is to move forward, to learn how to carry the grief and allow it to change me.