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Why You May Never Heal

In Kubler-Ross' model of grief process, she listed five stages of grief:





and acceptance.

In this process of grief, Kubler-Ross assumed that throughout the whole grief process, the bereaved should be experiencing what Freud called "decathexis", which is a removal of emotional energy from the deceased; a detachment. Freud then suggested that during and after "decathexis" we will take those emotional energies and reinvest them into another object or person in a process called "recathexis." Essentially, we find other people to love ... and use them to fill the "love hole" left by the deceased.

The assumption to both Freud and Kubler-Ross' model is that the end of the grief process (healing, acceptance) is a form of detachment from the deceased.

But, I think they're wrong.

Anna Lamott writes,

"You will lose someone you can't live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn't seal back up. And you come through. It's like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly--that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp."

Instead of saying that the end of the grief process is detachment and healing, I think we should say that the healthy end of the grief process is adjustment. It's adjusting to the fact that your loved one is no longer here to share life experiences with you. It's adjusting to the loss of the future, but there's never a detachment from the past.

We simply have on-going bonds with the deceased. They will forever be apart of us and instead of trying to "heal" and find "decathexis" (although I don't think Freud's idea is categorically wrong), we must learn to adjust and dance with our limp.

Over time, you will learn to adjust to the death of a loved one. A part of you has been lost and you will never find it again, so you must learn to live without it. But, don't confuse your adjustment for healing. You may never heal.

This from Jandy Nelson over the loss of her sister, Bailey:

"My sister will die over and over again for the rest of my life. Grief is forever. It doesn't go away; it becomes a part of you, step for step, breath for breath. I will never stop grieving Bailey because I will never stop loving her. That's just how it is. Grief and love are conjoined, you don't get one without the other. All I can do is love her, and love the world, emulate her by living with daring and spirit and joy."

Maybe the reason we never heal is because our love never dies.

Caleb Wilde

I'm a sixth generation funeral director. I have a grad degree in Missional Theology. And I like to read and write. Connect with my writing and book plans by "liking" me on facebook. And keep tabs with my blog via subscription or twitter.

  • MIchele


  • Great insights, Caleb.

  • BT Hathaway

    An important reminder Caleb that our training in the psychology of grief is woefully out of date. Kubler-Ross never studied the grief that follows a death, and her “stages” approach has been debunked in the professional literature many times over. And of course Freud’s theories have been displaced over the years by more carefully researched alternatives.

    Grief is complex and unfolds in many ways. And hopefully our training will one day catch up with the modern era.

  • JackM

    The research and published conclusions of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross still remain a basis for many in the caring professions and does not deserve any amount of disregard when it remains a useful and applicable tool for understanding the grieving process whether anticipatory or subsequent. Grieving is a necessary component of losing objects, homes, loved ones, and other items for which one has emotional attachment. Working through the periods of adjustment to some sort of acceptance, detachment or whatever word one chooses is an extremely complex process and normally does not reach any single-termed descriptive conclusion, but as time goes on contains a decreasing number of multiple and conflicting feelings dependent on surrounding variables and other points of reference.

    Many thanks to Caleb for presenting this subject. I’ve often realized how inadequate every mortuary-school graduate, including myself, was or still is during their first years at dealing with a grieving family, especially those surviving the death of a young child. Maybe the best preparation is not in the classroom, but in the field alongside of a seasoned funeral professional, however, in today’s work environment many licensees are thrown into delicate situations without opportunities for adequate preparation.

  • Kathy W

    Caleb, Perfect timing – I just sent a friend who I am afraid will never heal from the loss of her husband 4 years ago. Today is his birthday and he died 4 years ago yesterday the day before his 58 birthday. I took the time today to send her this article letting her know she may never heal and asked her to come to our daughter’s wedding next month and consider dancing ‘with a limp’. She has not attended any friend functions since he’s been gone. Thanks for what I consider one of the best articles on CD ever – or at the least – the best non-coincidence ever.

  • Don

    If you think you will never heal you won’t.
    The antidote to never ending grief is never ending compassion.
    Try it it’s beautiful “medicine” for the soul!