The Paradox of Grief

Loss often feels utterly isolating, but seeking out connection and support can help you find a way forward, “Dear Therapist” writes.

An illustrated person dealing with different waves of grief
Bianca Bagnarelli
Editor’s Note: With Lori Gottlieb on book leave, Rebecca J. Rosen, the editor of “Dear Therapist,” is filling in as The Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” archivist, pointing readers to some of Lori’s most beloved columns.

To grieve is to encounter a paradox. Loss is an inescapable human experience; most people—and certainly most adults—have endured the death of a loved one. And yet, loss can feel utterly isolating, a solitary cell without a window.

Lori’s columns on death are written for anyone inside that cell, or those just outside who are trying to help. People ask her, “What will make this pain go away?”

In her responses, Lori guides them away from that question. “Healing doesn’t mean that the pain goes away. It means that the pain becomes a sacred part of you that you carry inside forever. Often grieving people come to me hoping I can help them find ‘closure,’ but I’ve always felt that closure was an illusion,” she writes. “Besides, how can there be an end point to love and loss? Do we even want there to be?”

But if the hope is not to feel closure, what is it? Lori cites the work of the grief psychologist William Worden, who’s said that one of the “tasks” of grieving is “to integrate the loss into our lives and create an ongoing connection with the person who died—while also finding a way to continue living.”

For many people in the depths of grief, that advice might feel incomprehensible, like no way forward at all. But in reading through these columns, one theme emerged: The first step is leaving that isolated cell. As Lori writes, “being alone in one’s grief greatly compounds it.”

So reach out of that cell, or open the door for those reaching in. Doing so, Lori writes, was what most helped her through her own loss. Her therapist, and her memories of her father’s advice before he died, “couldn’t take away my pain,” she writes, “but they sat with me in my loss in a way that said: I see you, I hear you, I’m with you.”

illustration of hands holding a photograph of two people dancing at a party
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist Writes to Herself in Her Grief

My father died, there’s a pandemic, and I’m overcome by my feeling of loss.

man and a ghost of his wife sit at a kitchen table
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: Will I Ever Get Over My Wife’s Death?

We were married for 47 years, and I can’t picture life without her.

illustration of grief
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: I Can’t Accept My Father’s Death From COVID-19

I was not there for his last breaths. I was not there for his last words. I’m trying to combat my guilt.

Illustration of a boy sitting with a ghost of his dog on the couch. His father stands in the kitchen and looks away.
Bianca Bagnarelli

Dear Therapist: My Husband Accidentally Caused the Death of Our Family’s Dog

My son blames his father and won’t speak to him, but my husband is making matters worse by not apologizing.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.