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Grief Has No Expiration Date; You Don’t Need to Feel Guilty for Your Sadness

Woman Sitting Alone

“They say time heals all wounds, but that presumes the source of the grief is finite.” ~Cassandra Clare

I lost my father to a heart attack when I was sixteen. I went to school on the morning of April 14, 2008 having a dad and went home that night not having one. I soon found myself dealing with an unfamiliar cocktail of emotions, pain so overwhelming that I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Every time I thought I was pulling myself together, I’d notice his belt buckle sitting on the dresser, or a pair of his socks on the floor, and suddenly the haphazard stitches I’d been sewing myself up with would tear open with heart-wrenching sobs.

I lost the ability to make simple decisions like what takeout restaurant to order from or what to watch on TV. Nothing made sense that week.

Dad had been my best friend, though not in the sense that he tried to act my age or allowed me to get away with things. On the contrary, my father was quite strict, always pushing me to be a better person.

He was my best friend in that I could go to him with any worry and receive honest, unbiased advice. He forced me to see the good in myself instead of dwelling on the negative. I could cry in front of him knowing that he didn’t feel awkward or want to avoid me like dad characters on TV sitcoms.

On the day of his death I had to accept that I could rely on no one but myself. That in and of itself seemed challenging, but now I had the added burden of everyone else depending on me. I was the shoulder that my mother and younger sister cried on.

As the oldest child I became second in command under Mom. She relied on me for help with planning funeral details and making sure papers were in order. I didn’t mind the new role because it was empowering, as though by helping Mom I was giving back to Dad for everything he’d done for me.

My greatest character flaw has always been focusing on the future instead of remaining grounded in the present. Not surprisingly, my father’s death and my long-term response to grief were no different.

I cried for the entire week after he died. I cried along with everyone else at the funeral. Surely that’s all that grieving was supposed to be, right?

When the funeral was over and the house was devoid of mourners, I picked my life up from where I was before his death.

I avoided living in the “now” because the present was too painful, yet simultaneously tried to convince the rest of the world that I was a strong woman dealing with her pain. I stayed focus on getting into college and doing all of the things I knew my father would have wanted for me.

This worked well until my senior year of college. I was on the Dean’s List, I had just gotten accepted into graduate school, and graduation was right around the corner.

Then my boyfriend proposed.

Except, I never expected that he would propose with my mother’s engagement ring, the same ring my father bought and proposed with. There was now a reminder of my father glimmering on my finger every day that I couldn’t ignore.

Despite it being one of the happiest moments of my life, my engagement caused all of the sadness I’d buried to start bubbling up to the surface with such vigor that it felt like the day of his death all over again. I couldn’t run home and tell Dad the happy news. He wasn’t going to be able to walk me down the aisle.

I realized how much I had been lying to myself. I hadn’t finished grieving because I hadn’t started grieving in the first place. I had been so focused on taking on the role of adult of the house that I didn’t give myself the chance to feel angry, resentful, or depressed, or to find the acceptance I really needed in order to move on.

During the funeral people approached me to say that things would become easier in time. In truth, I don’t think this is ever the case. I have decided that grief never ends; we just find different ways of working with it in our lives.

At twenty-four, I pretend to be a stoic and emotionless professional woman, but discussing my father with people still melts me like butter. I think about him and write about him more now than I did seven years ago, and that’s okay. There are no time limits for grief other than the ones we force on ourselves.

If I could talk to my sixteen-year-old self, I’d tell her she shouldn’t feel guilty for her sadness. She’s entitled to grieve however she wants, for however long she wants. More importantly, I’d tell her that it’s important to take the time to sort out those feelings instead of hiding from them or putting other people first.

I admit that certain memories of Dad still trigger a twinge of heartache. I will always feel emptiness in my life without him here. But I am aware of how much of him still lives with me—in my smile, my hobbies, and in the shared memories of people in my life who had the honor of knowing him.

The key to grieving is not to try and stop it as quickly as possible. Grief cannot be shut off at will, despite how long I spent trying to convince myself otherwise. What matters is that we acknowledge that we are in pain and try to find the goodness in our life despite it.

I used to look down at my engagement ring and feel numbed by sadness, both for the past and for the things that can never be. But with a new mindfulness I can look at my ring, this gift from my father, and know for certain that I’m allowed to move on and find the same happiness that my parents had.

My father’s never going to disappear from my life; he’s just talking in ways that require careful listening.

Woman sitting alone image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Alyssa Pierce

About Alyssa Pierce

Alyssa Pierce is a freelance writer and children’s book author from New Jersey. She found her voice as a writer while attending college at Rutgers University-Newark. She’s currently working on her first novel. You can find out more about Alyssa by visiting www.alyssapierce.com or by connecting with her on Facebook.

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  • Andrea

    Absolutely beautifully written, Alyssa, and I think a lot of people will find solace in your words. It’s true; there’s no cut off point for grief, and I think once we acknowledge this, we can really allow ourselves to let the walls down and feel whatever it is we need to feel.

  • Diane Lau

    Alyssa, I have another perspective which I hope is constructive. It was painful for me to read this as my father is alive (nearly 90) but he was a cruel man to both myself and my mom and discarded me two years ago in spite of my doting on him and appeasing him my whole life. Even though you lost your wonderful dad tragically early in life, you have no idea what a difference it made that you had even 16 years with a great father. I am utterly unable to picture a father as someone kind and loving and struggle every day with the consequences of that. All the years since you lost your dad, you have suffered from grief that I do not envy. But the difference he made in your life has brought you blessings every day even after he was physically gone. Neither of our situations is enviable, but God bless your dad for being such a great one.

  • Shannon

    This is good since it acknowledges that no matter how much time has passed, we will always be triggered by new reminders of their not being physically present. However, after many years myself of research, I believe that they are with us — there is no death, only the release of a physical layer which our 5 senses do not perceive, though there are increasing numbers of people now who are branching out into 6th-sensory perception. That includes telepathic communication. My most comforting times were those when I met with a qualified, experienced grief therapist (non-traditional) who could facilitate the communication, and in that moment I knew my loved one was speaking with me, and I was reassured that they are in fact, not “gone.”

  • Stephen Fraser

    This is beautiful and filled with the wisdom that only the experience of deep loss gives. Grief has a time frame of its own and no amount of effort on our part can override or accelerate that pace. It’s over when it decides. We actually honor the loss by allowing ourselves to experience our grief. Instead of seeking to “let it go”, where grief is concerned, it’s often better to allow ourselves to “let it be”.

  • Alyssa Pierce

    Thank you, Diane. I know very well that I had a father that was one of a kind, and for that I’m immensely grateful. I realize that everyone has different experiences with grief (or lack of grief) and that no two relationships are the same. We all have different battles to face, and I wish you all the best on yours.

  • Diane Lau

    Thank you, and bless you!

  • Alyssa Pierce

    Thank you, Andrea! I agree…I think we’re afraid to let ourselves feel things sometimes. Our natural reaction is to hide them deep down where no one can see them, but we’re only cheating ourselves that way.

  • Alyssa Pierce

    That is a comforting concept for me as well. I don’t like to think that we just disappear into the ether when we die. It may not always easy, but I navigate through life feeling a little less alone because of it.

  • Alyssa Pierce

    Well said, Stephen. Thank you.

  • Lucas

    Dear Alyssa,

    Thank you for sharing your touching story. I can’t tell you how apt this article is. I just lost my dad a little over a year ago and I thought I handled it well and carried on in life, stronger. But I realized many months later that I’m not the same person anymore and I feel broken. I feel guilt. And perhaps most frighteningly, I lost my sense of empathy which I cherish so greatly in this dark world we live in. I understand now that I need to face this darkness and come to terms with it, as I feel like as you described, ‘stoic’ and thought that was how it should be. This is for you and me, for my best friend who lost his dad last year too and for everyone else who has lost a dear one.

  • Emma

    This is very true. I lost my boyfriend nearly 2 years ago to alcoholism. Despite him pushing me away prior to him dying and his illness I loved him with all my heart and always will. I was in denial until a few months ago then all of a sudden it hit me and I realised he was never going to be in my life again. I feel lost without him and talk to him still…crazy maybe, but it helps to think he is still with me if only in spirit. I wish I knew if he had loved me but he was emotionally unavailable, which is again to do with the nature of his illness and he could not show feelings. I love and miss him every day and don’t think I could ever feel the same about anybody else.

  • Alyssa Pierce

    Thank you for sharing this Lucas. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s not easy, but hang in there. I felt guilt for a very long time. I kept thinking, “If only I had forced him to go to the hospital when he started feeling sick…” But we can’t hold onto that guilt or that feeling that we could have changed the outcome.

    No, we’ll never be the same people again. But, there’s nothing stopping us from growing into new and stronger people. Best of luck to you and your best friend.

  • Alyssa Pierce

    Not crazy at all! I talk out loud to my Dad every day while driving to work. It’s my way of staying connected to him, since I’ve grown and changed so much since I lost him. Best of luck to you.

  • Ashley E

    Thank you. It’s amazing we need to give ourselves and those around us permission to grieve. I’ve been feeling especially sad lately about the loss of my mom 4 years ago at the age of 22. I love the “pretending to be a stoic, emotionless, professional woman”. Ain’t that the truth. We take so much pride in our ability to stuff our feelings down, and never realize how detrimental it is. Thanks for writing this. Keep fighting the good fight 😉

  • dExtEr

    The article was really in time for me, I’m 32 and I lost my dad last Oct. 6, 2015, he was 69 years old. It’s been only 4 months now since his death but it seems so many things happened. Christmas and New Year was really different last year, but I have to go on with life, taking it one day at a time. Now everyone depends on me, my mom who is 61 and my father’s sister who is 61 also who’s now bedridden due to illness. As for grief, yes, I definitely agree that there is no expiration for me, I too get stumble down whenever something reminds me deeply about my Dad. I even see him in my dreams whenever there are things I try to settle – like properties, things, papers etc. that needs to be taken cared of. I really feel like a ship now without a captain, just getting along with the waves, I sometimes don’t know what to do with my life. I have to take baby steps now in trying to live without him as full responsibility with everything now rest upon me. I hope I can make it through.

  • Ally

    This article struck a chord with me. I agree that no time limit should be placed on grief; we should all be able to grieve in whatever way is best for us, at whatever pace we choose, and should never be made to feel we should be ‘over it by now’, however long it’s been. I lost an 11-year-old friend when I was 12 years old in a tragic car accident. I cried heaps at the funeral, an event which led to several years of depression, panic attacks, and a phobia-like avoidance of churches at all costs. A year and a half after my friend’s death, a family member, frustrated that I still cried about it and refused to go into a church, began to make me feel guilty about my grief, saying: “Come on, it’s been eighteen months. You should be getting over it by now.” So I tried to bury the grief for years. It was only a couple of years ago when I was 20 that, after seeking psychological help for depression, my psychologist helped me to realise that that grief from so many years ago, having been suppressed for so long, still hadn’t been processed properly by my brain. I underwent a course of EMDR (a very interesting therapy designed to help process traumatic memories, sometimes used for soldiers with shell-shock), which, whilst difficult, proved very effective. I feel much stronger now, but the psychologist helped me to realise that grief does not simply vanish after a certain period of time, and should not be expected to.

  • Dawn

    My oldest son just passed away at the age of 26 in australia. ..I live in canada..he has been living in australia for the past 3 years ..it was 14 hours from the time I received the phone call that he had been admitted to the hospital to the time of his passing ..I went to australia by myself ..a 30 hour plane ride ..to a country where I had no family .. ..my son’s friends were amazing and supported me ..without them I would not have been able to have made desicions that I didn’t want to ..4 weeks later when I came home to Canada I finally got to see my younger son and family …but I had to go through another ceremony for my son ..I am still dealing with the grief and have my good days ..but I am starting to have more bad days ..with the help if my friends and family I know I will “get through it” ..but my heart hurts so much

  • It’s my mum’s birthday today. She would have been 60 years old – a milestone. She died when I was 19 years old… I’m now 36… She was only 42. The older I get, the more I miss her and the more I realise how much there is I don’t know about her. What were her dreams? what were her fears? What would have she thought about marriage equality (I’d like to think she’s agree that love is love is love!)? Having to undertake IVF nearly 5 years ago and subsequently had two girls of my own, triggered all these thoughts for me and now, I grieve more for her than I did the day she died… Time never heals things in my opinion. It makes things bearable, but it never heals.

  • Excellent and moving article, one that I agree with 100%. Grief is a process of incorporating loss into your life rather than waiting for the pain to end. I still miss my Dad, even though he’s been gone for over 20 years. The only difference is I have to really concentrate on the memories and the loss before I’m moved to tears, even though both have become integral parts of who I am today.

  • Dawn, no words of mine can comfort you. The only thing I can say is that sharing your pain is an act of generosity, as well as bravery.

    When I lost my sister in 2008, my grief paled before that of my mother. Witnessing the loss of a child in so intimate a fashion taught me many valuable life lessons, but it’s so easy to forget those lessons as time goes by. By sharing your experience, you have reopened my eyes to how valuable our relationships are, not just to us, but to those who love us.

    Thank you.

  • rt

    Beautiful story Alyssa. I lost my mum many years ago and remember six months after her death my body just broke down. I lost all my muscle tone in my body because of the worry during her illness and could not accept that this was happening. It took me years to move with the loss and today 15 years later when I think of her I still feel it. I keep a picture of her beautiful face where I can see it everyday to feel her heart and the love I will always have for her. I don’t believe things become easier with loss. I think life keeps us moving and we continue to hold this special place in our heart of the love we feel for this person. Thank you for sharing.

  • Shari

    Thank you for this. We lost my father when I was 9 years old. I’m going to be 40 this year and not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. Not a week goes by that I don’t cry about him. Not a month goes by that I don’t sob in my car about him. I miss him with my every being. It’s so much deeper than grieving a loss…you are grieving every day that they are not in your life. Everything they missed being a part of in your life. Everything you missed being a part of in their life. I know my mom and my brothers feel the same. It’s not the kind of grief that goes away. You just deal with it so much better on certain days than others. Here’s to living a full life and hopefully being reunited with our loved ones somewhere in the great beyond….wherever that may be.

  • Alyssa Pierce

    Holidays are always rough. Believe it or not, even Valentine’s Day was rough for awhile…my father always had a box of candy waiting for me when he came home from school. It’s admirable that you’re helping your family, but please remember to take time for yourself as well. All the best to you.

  • Alyssa Pierce

    I feel for you, Ally. I too needed therapy for the same reason, and I too couldn’t step foot in a church (still can’t). So glad you’re feeling stronger!

  • Alyssa Pierce

    I often wonder things like that too. I sometimes think all it would take would be to hear him say, “Hey, I’m proud of you.” I still look to him for direction.

  • Alyssa Pierce

    Thank you!

  • Alyssa Pierce

    I’m so sorry, Dawn. I agree with E.J…there’s not much I can really say that could take away the pain. I wish you all the best.

  • Mickey

    35 years ago I “lost” my soul mate, my husband, to a head injury, he lived, but became a different person, volatile and angry. After a couple years it became evident that I lacked the ability to handle the situation, I took my daughter and left, created a new life. He passed away in September…I relived those 2 years the same as when they happened. It was only last week that it became clear to me that in the midst of dealing with the devastation of having my sweet man replaced by someone who looked the same, but was not the same, and holding together our lives the best I could, that the grieving of 35 years ago was not complete. I am working through the process, albeit 35 years later. Your article hit squarely at home for me. I thank you.

  • Maddaline

    Hi Nardia I lost my mum when I was 6 she was in hospital my dad took me and my 2older brothers it was her 34 birthday we were told she would be home in a few days I never saw her again…I also wonder about her and her life.. I had my 1st child at 37 I felt such sadness I love my daughter all I wanted was kids then my son came along 14 months later and until she was 5 after years of counciling I was told to read a book called Motherless Daughters its about women that have there kids after our mothers have passed on and how it affects us it helped me so such I thought it might explain some of your feeling. Maybe there is family or close friends u could talk to about your mum its hard I know… Just remember u have 2 beautiful girls and I’m sure u will say or do something that will remind u of her I believe there r never to far away…..