When Does the Hurt Go Away?

Author: Artis Henderson

On a recent morning, I was working in the front yard of my house in Florida when a neighbor walked over. Before then, we'd never said more than hello, but on that morning he wanted to talk. So we talked about my mango trees, about the drought, about the avocado he'd planted that never took hold. When we'd run through all of it and I couldn't think of where to take the conversation next, my neighbor surprised me by saying, "I heard you lost your husband."

mother and daughter at cemetery 

It's been 10 years since my husband Army Reserve Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles Henderson died in Iraq, but the simple fact of it can still take my breath away.

"I did," I said.

My neighbor nodded thoughtfully. "I lost a son."

My hand went reflexively to my chest, to the place that hurts when I meet someone else who knows grief.

"How long has it been?" I asked my neighbor.

"Three years," he said.

"Three years." I shook my head. "You're still so early."

My neighbor looked at me wild-eyed, as if I'd said exactly the last thing he wanted to hear. 

"I'm good," he assured me. "I've moved through the worst of it." 

I nodded a bit too emphatically. "Of course." 

But I remembered my own three-year mark, when my heart had hurt so much and for so long that I was sure my grief would end soon. It had to, I reasoned. I couldn't take much more. 

After Miles died, when I met people further along in their grief journey than I was, I would ask them, "When does this end? When does the hurt go away?" 

They would shake their heads in sympathy, but not one could give me an answer. 

"Time helps," they said. 

"How much time?" I wanted to know. "A year? Three? Ten?" 

No one would say. 

I've begun telling people that I'm finally coming out the other side of my grief. Part of it has to do with time -- it's been more than 10 years -- and part of it is circumstance (I love my little house; I'm following my dream of writing and I'm in a solid relationship). Yet even now, in certain moments, I'm still reminded that the journey is ongoing. 

When I moved into my home two years ago, I stored the last relics of my life with Miles at my mother's place. I was determined that my new house would be a space for the life I was building, not the life I had lost. And there wasn't much left, just the two bins they'd sent home from Iraq and the clothes we wore at our wedding. I planned to do something with them eventually, I told myself, I just wasn’t sure when. 

Three weeks ago, my mother called to tell me that she's remodeling her guest room and asked if I would mind sorting through the things I had left there. 

"What am I supposed to do with them?" I asked, panicked.  

"You'll have to decide for yourself," she said. 

I wish I could tell you that I went to her house right away, that I sorted through the bins, that I brought our wedding clothes back to my little house. But I didn’t. Even as I write this, I still haven’t found the nerve. The truth is, I'm afraid. I’m afraid of how much it still hurts, even now, even with my house and my writing and my sweet boyfriend. Even after 10 years. 

When people who have recently lost a loved one ask me how long it will be before the pain goes away, I tell them I don't know. But I think I do. I’m beginning to see that it will always be with us, in the way that our loved ones are always with us. As long as I have my memories of Miles, I will have the hurt that comes with losing him. Because I’m also discovering that it’s possible to move forward, even with that hurt, and that this new life can be filled with joy.

By Artis Henderson, Surviving spouse of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Miles Henderson