What does it mean when I say I hope to get over my son Brady’s death? Does it mean I plan to forget about him entirely? To not care that he died?
Of course not.
When I say I hope to get over Brady’s death I mean that I hope to be happy again someday. It’s not that I hope to never think about him again. It’s that I hope to be able to think about something else.
It’s not that I expect to someday not care about his death. It’s that I hope to care about my life and to want to go on living.
To me, this seems obvious. To many other grieving people, it’s not. Not a few become irate when I propose that it’s likely most bereaved people will eventually get over losing a loved one. One outraged commenter asked, “Are you saying that we don’t love them enough?”
I’m saying nothing of the sort, of course. What kind of idiot would?
However, I keep getting booted from online grief survivor groups, or being hounded into leaving by almost unbelievably hostile reactions from other grievers. And it seems to happen when I state that I intend to get over my son’s death or when I suggest that others can also hope to get over their losses.
That’s the point of this blog post: To take an objective look at what it means to say you plan to get over a loss. I’ve done this not by looking at scientific research but by examining the different meanings attached to this phrase.
The Expert Viewpoint
Some experts seem to regard getting over loss with as much skepticism as lay folks. A 2011 article from Psychology Today by a Ph.D. psychologist is titled, “Grief Isn’t Something to Get Over.” The subtitle is, “The notion that one gets over it is a myth.”
Geez. Sounds like I could be wrong on this.
A 2018 Psychology Today piece by another Ph.D. asks, “Should You Try To ‘Get Over’ Grief?” The subtitle answers, “Trying to ‘get over’ grief can have dangerous long term consequences.”
Sounds like it’s worse than I thought. Apparently I am a real cretin.
Pop culture also lines up against me. Songwriting legend Willie Nelson included on his 2018 “Last Man Standing” album a song called “Something You Get Through.” The chorus states, “It’s not something you get over. But it’s something you get through.”
Willie’s lyrics don’t explain whether the song is about a death or a romantic breakup. However, in addition to both being songwriters, Willie and I share the experience of losing sons to suicide. His son Billy died in 1991 at age 33. One published report quotes a colleague saying Willie used the phrase when consoling a friend who had recently lost someone. So maybe he is talking about his boy’s death and, if so, he clearly would not agree with me.
Willie puts into song a feeling common to many people. I’ve heard from numerous grievers who deny that you get over loss but can hope to get through it. I’ve also heard that loss is something you “move through.” Also “move with.” And “go through” and similar phrases.
I’ve heard from numerous grievers who deny that you get over loss but can hope to get through it. I’m not clear on the difference, however.
I’m not clear on the difference here, however. If anything, it sounds like getting through something means merely surviving it, without it ever getting any easier or more bearable.
I do not expect that to happen with me. In fact, I am already much better and Brady’s death is far more bearable than in the beginning. I still feel bad a lot of the time. But nothing like before. I may go weeks without crying now. Even the previously daily if not hourly thought that “I wish I were dead,” which I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever escape, has popped up a lot less frequently the last few weeks.
With all due respect to Willie and others who see things differently, I plan to get over my son’s death. So what does that mean, exactly? What is getting over the death of a loved one?
Getting Over The Dictionary
I generally avoid using a dictionary definition to illustrate or make a point. However, in this case the definition is the point. So here goes.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of “get over” looks like this:
1 a :overcome, surmount
b : to recover from
c : to reconcile oneself to : become accustomed to
2 : to move or travel across
I don’t see anything there about forgetting or not caring. Merriam-Webster’s understanding of getting over something is a lot like mine — recovering and overcoming, not just surviving.
The MacMillan dictionary defines the phrase as:
1 a : to start to feel happy or well again after something bad has happened to you
b : to start to forget someone and feel happy again and feel happy again after a relationship has ended.
2 to find a way to solve or deal with a difficult problem
I looked in several more online dictionaries. A few, like MacMillan, list forgetting as one of several possible meanings. But none has forgetting or not caring as the primary meaning.
Merriam-Webster’s understanding of getting over something is a lot like mine — recovering and overcoming, not just surviving.
The Urban Dictionary is the exception. It said, “Most people think the phrase “get over it’ means to ‘forget about it.’”
It is hard to take seriously a dictionary entry that confuses “wild” with “wide,” as this one did later on. However, it may still be true that most people who aren’t lexicographers these days think “get over it” means “forget about it.” Definitions take time to make it into conventional dictionaries. It’s possible I’m simply behind the times.
I get the feeling that today getting over is connected strictly to romance. It may appear that I’m equating how I expect to feel about my dead son with the way I feel about some girl who blew me off in eighth grade. If so, I can understand why people disagree. But that’s not what I mean.
What May Be Going On
There is some evidence that this is all a misunderstanding that could be readily turned into agreement. For instance, the writer of the 2011 Psychology Today piece said, “The notion that one mourns a loss and then gets over it, to the extent that emotions about the loss are not triggered in the future, is a myth.”
I agree. I do not expect that at any point in my life, if I live to be 100, I will not feel sad about what happened to Brady. (Surely this is obvious?) That’s not at all what I mean when I say I plan to get over it. Like Merriam-Webster, I mean that I expect to overcome, surmount, recover from, reconcile myself to and become accustomed to the loss, not to be happy or even neutral about it.
Who really thinks I plan to forget my only son? Who thinks they will ever forget their lost loved one?
The writer of the 2011 Psychology Today piece is also concerned with disputing the notion that we’ll ever completely forget our lost loved ones. This, again, seems strange to me.
Who really thinks I plan to forget my only son? Who thinks they will ever forget their lost loved one? This article, like many of the people who become upset by my proposal to get over Brady’s death, seems a little like exerting yourself to convince people that the earth is not flat. Nobody believes it’s flat, so why argue against it?
In any event, I plan to get over Brady’s death as I’ve described. Other people may believe otherwise. But I think I can realistically expect this, and so can most other bereaved people.
Summing Up Getting Over
My purpose in writing this is to examine meanings of “get over” and explain what I mean when I say I intend and expect to get over my son’s death. It’s also to explain what I mean when I describe what others can likely expect. This is not a meaning I’ve dreamed up on my own. It is, in fact, the top dictionary definition for the phrase, whatever that may be worth.
I’ve read many articles in research journals describing scientific studies of the grieving experience. All of them found that for most people grief generally diminishes significantly with time. And they have usually found that the average bereaved person eventually got back to something like their former level of happiness.
I’ve read many articles describing scientific studies of the grieving experience. Without exception, all found that for most people grief generally diminishes significantly with time.
For most, this occurred after a year or two. With some groups, such as bereaved parents, it might take longer, up to several years. But only around 10 percent of people experience prolonged or complicated grief with little or no improvement over many years. This is a consistent finding.
I find this encouraging. I hope others in my position will as well. If you want to look at the evidence for it, you could check out this post on grief’s duration.
As always, I’m not trying to tell anyone how to grieve. I’m not trying to tell anyone what their experience is certain to be like. Scientific findings usually present only approximations and that’s the case with grief research. There’s not much certainty. I feel confident saying most people can expect to get over their loss as described. But your individual mileage may vary.
If you want to believe you’ll never get over your loss, you have every right to. I’m not going to do that, however. For one thing, I don’t think that viewpoint is helpful. And I don’t think, based on the best available evidence, that it is accurate. My personal approach is to replace ideas and attitudes that aren’t helpful or accurate with ideas and attidudes that, if possible, are both helpful and accurate.
Thanks for reading Grieve Well and for liking, commenting, sharing, re-posting and subscribing. I’m sorry for the losses that brought you here. And I hope you get some peace today.