What is Normal in Grief?

Here’s a test question for you:

Which of the following grief related behaviors is abnormal?

A.  A father who visits his son’s grave every morning
B. A widower who continues to wear his wedding ring 5 years after his wife’s death
C. A woman who refuses to part with her deceased mother’s belongings
D. A  woman who avoids the restaurant where she met her deceased husband
E. A man who experiences intensely emotional days two years after his daughter’s death
F.  None of the above – you have no idea what’s normal for anyone else in their grief.

If you guessed (F), congratulations you win this high five.

When faced with complex and overwhelming problems, humans are hardwired to look for ways to make them seem more solvable. Grief is obviously more than just a “problem”, but the same rules often apply.  As people who want to feel capable of surviving the hardships that befall us, and as professionals, friends, and family members who want to help people through the worst of times, it’s natural to try and problem solve grief.  

shakespeare

But in order to solve a problem, we have to understand its components first.  So we push, shove, sort, and categorize the wide and variable experience of grief into neat little boxes, and when we’re finished we step back and say “Okay! Now we can deal with this situation.”  Even better…we can write that book we’ve been dreaming ofThe Smart Grievers Guide to Grief.  I’ll share an outline with you as long as you promise not to steal my ideas.

Chapter One: Are you normal?

Chapter Two:  The right way to cope

Chapter Three: Do this, not that.

Chapter Four: Tick tock, time to move on.

Only $14.99!  Make your checks payable to ©Wishful Thinking Incorporated.

Alright, back to reality.

I think what makes the categorization of things like “good”, “bad”, “normal” and “abnormal” so impossible in grief is the fact that reactions, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors differ from person to person, situation to situation, and culture to culture.  Grief depends on the bereaved, their relationship to the deceased, secondary stressors, coping style, support system, and the list goes on. Grief reactions can feel so foreign, excruciating, and unexpected, that one may even wonder about themselves –“Uh oh, am I going crazy?”.

The thing about grief reactions, though, as crazy as they seem, they typically exist for a reason. In the beginning, one may feel intense yearning, pain, sadness, loneliness, anger, guilt, etc. As traumatic as all this may feel, these thoughts and emotions are reinforced by virtue of the fact that they (1) allow a person to stay connected to their loved one and (2) are enduring proof of the significance of the death.

As time goes on (and remember, there are no specific timelines to grief), grief related thoughts, emotions, and behaviors continue to to be useful in maintaining an ongoing bond with the person who has died, constructing a narrative around the loss, and, in some cases, as a necessary part of experiencing posttraumatic growth. Interestingly (and confusingly), the intensity of emotion and the content of thoughts may change, even though someone’s overt behavior may not. This is another reason why the delineation of ‘normal’ vs ‘abnormal’ is so impossible in grief, because your relationship with certain thoughts, objects, and emotions changes over time. So where one day (sad + crying) = intense distress, another day (sad + crying) = feelings of closeness to the deceased.

This is why I think mental health often boils down to one glib and patronizing question…

“So how’s that working out for you?”

It’s sarcastic and it’s snarky and it’s a shame I find myself using it all the ever-loving time. I’m sorry but it just seems to apply where mental health is concerned. Unlike physical health where illness and injury are often objective (an untreated broken bone will almost always get in the way of one’s daily functioning.), mental wellbeing is often determined by a person’s subjective experience.

For example, before diagnosing a client with a disorder like PTSD, depression, or anxiety, a good therapist will gauge whether or not the client’s symptoms cause “clinically significant” distress or impairment in important areas of their lives. The therapist should talk with the client about their symptoms and/or problematic behaviors and together they assess (1) whether symptoms and behaviors get in the way of his or her functioning as a family member, friend, and/or contributing member of society and (2) whether symptoms and behaviors prevent the client from living a life oriented towards their values, goals, and desires. Essentially what the conversation boils down to is the question – “How’s that working our for you?”

The, “How’s that working out for you?” question applies broadly in mental health, but I think it’s especially relevant where grief is concerned because things that look like an expression of pain, erraticism, or impulsivity to the outside observer – like minor acts of avoidance, holding onto items, sudden shifts in perspective, making major life decisions, and continuing to mourn for years into the future – may actually be positive, comforting, and adaptive to the individual.

When it comes to grief reactions, instead of asking if the behavior reflects what is “normal” or “expected” perhaps one should instead ask…

  • “What was the impetus for this feeling or reaction?”
  • “Does this feeling or reaction make sense when you consider the context?”
  • “Did the bereaved experience this feeling or reaction as distressing?”
  • Does this behavior help the bereaved cope with their grief?”
  • “Does this behavior help the bereaved maintain connection with their loved one?”
  • “Is this feeling or reaction harmful or dangerous?”
  • And finally, “Are these feelings and/or grief reactions standing in the way of the bereaved living a life that is consistent with their values as an individual, family member and friend, or as a member of society?”

So, not in so many words, “How’s that working out for you?”, and if the overall answer to this question is “not well” then it might be time to change course.

Now I realize that by insisting there are no rules to grief, I’ve made the idea of identifying “problems” and “changing course” exponentially more difficult.  Without black and white – normal vs. abnormal – rules, how are you supposed to know when you’ve subtly crossed the threshold into troubling territory?  Sorry, all I can say is this:

First and foremost, one thing that is always black and white is that if you’ve been having thoughts of harming yourself or someone else, it’s time to talk to someone right away.

Beyond that…

If you’re uncomfortable.

If you believe you need a little help or guidance.

If you feel your experiences go beyond what is typical for you.

If you’re experiencing elevated, ongoing, and unrelenting distress (anxiety, hyperarousal, intrusive thoughts, etc).

distress

If you’re experiencing ongoing and unrelenting depressed mood (lack of interest in activities, hopelessness, decreased energy, etc).

depression

If you feel stuck in your grief and you aren’t sure what to do next.

maze

Then it wouldn’t hurt to seek a little extra help via a therapist, support group, workshop, education, etc.

And of course, continue to visit What’s Your Grief by subscribing to receive posts straight to your email inbox.

March 28, 2017

14 responses on "What is Normal in Grief?"

  1. I’ve been reading this website for some time since my beloved one died and this is so right, so revealing to me. People use to think that pain, sadness are the worst things can happen. But when you grieve they are so natural as joy when you’re playing with kids. The point is to remember to make sense to your loss and all these negative emotions, thoughts can do that. So let them be or let them go because they are moving, aren’t static. The worst thing can happen is to forget, not to honour the past and at the same time wasn’t consumed by it! Thank you girls!

  2. My husband died 15 years ago, my older son died 3 years later
    and I can still hardly function. My daughter in law described me as broken. And I am. I went to counseling for years and it helped but after having stopped a few months later I am back to grieving.

  3. Just fyi and not to diminish the article however: You are not doing anyone a favor by exposing test materials to the public. Its likely copyrighted as well. And yes it is still administered by professionals.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Thanks for your comment. If you’re referring to the inkblot imagine (?), there are many images like this available via creative commons and different stock photo sites. In fact inkblot images are all over the Internet, so I imagine if there are psychotherapists still administering Rorschach tests they are mindful of this fact and account for it in their practice.

  4. Your an idiot…don’t tell me how to grieve and what to feel…

  5. Once again, thank you for not putting all of us ( grievers) in one box and telling us that there is one way to grieve, one way through it and that we should be over it by now. I love your website.

  6. My first big drop on grief’s rollercoaster came when my parents and I gathered the shiny white shirt, black slacks, and underwear that my sister wore to every orchestra concert to take to the funeral home, who died at the obscene age of eighteen. I saw that my mother was about to take the mary janes that went with her outfit. I had just been dazed up to then, but I suddenly visualized my baby sister buried with her feet stuffed into them, scuffing the cream silk lining in the casket we’d picked, and I just fell apart. I went on a rant about how she hated them I hated them and no one would see them anyway and can’t we please just let her go barefoot. My parents were silent before my father just said that that would be okay and we did.

    That was the first time. I’ve fallen apart with rage and sadness at the Starbucks she used to love, at seeing big groups of college students laughing and walking the way she never got to, sometimes a new product or gadget came out and I knew my sister never even got to live in the same WORLD as everyone else with their smartphones and social media. Even sometimes just breathing and feeling the sun and knowing that she is cut off from that forever can still break my heart. Although it’s been nine years, and I’ve gone through lived through so many joys since then, it’s still all there. You’ve helped me much during this recent difficult drop, Elanor.

  7. I REALLY needed to read this. Thank you.

  8. Hi Patti,I just read your post and my heart goes out to you. I haven’t been through your unique situation but I recently lost my husband,my mother a few years ago and it is a rough road. If u would like to be friends U can get ahold of me. I am 70 years old and a former nurse.

  9. This was an excellent post. I lost both my parents recently; Dad on Dec 3, 2015 and Momma Jan 17, 2016…45 days apart. After a year of pure hell leading to their deaths due to their rapid decline (but that is another long, long story). I’m an only child. I want to connect with others who have recently lost both parents at the same time. The stress of all that has happened has caused serious illness for me. I would like to communicate with anyone else who has lost both parents back-to-back but can’t find anyone by searching the web. If you’re reading this and are in the same boat, would you please be willing to respond and share your journey through this horrible nightmare with me? I find this site and these posts most helpful in validating my emotions…that I’m not losing my mind. I’m a 62 y/o very happily married female. My husband is my rock but I don’t think he understands all this completely because he’s much stronger than I can ever hope to be. God Bless you all who are suffering the pain of devasting loss.

    • Patty,
      Oh how I feel your pain. My parents died 4 1/2 months apart. Dad suddenly from a heart attack (revived with hope, then no hope and turning off the ventilator and life support). So hard! Then mom ( who suffered from Parkinson’s symptoms) did well after loosing her care giver and love of 56 years. Mini strokes started and she died after 12 days with hospice. I say she died of a broken heart. I’m not an only child like you, but feel like an orphan at times. I have 3 sisters and 2 brothers, but seem to be having the hardest time with them passing. Since dads death legal work has taken over my life as coexecutor. It doesn’t leave me time to grieve. I’ve made it through 3 holidays and dads birthday. All so hard! And with Mother’s Day approaching my heart sinks. I have a great counselor I found through the hospice we used for mom. I’m so thankful for her. My husband is also my rock and attending my next session. I also have my best friend who’s parents died 5 days apart. I often wondered how she made it through! And through all this I try to move forward and help with my daughters upcoming wedding ( her wedding is 4 days after my dads first year anniversary). These two kiddos have lost four grandparents since they got engaged… Three in the past 7 months. I would be happy to share books I’ve read from my counselor and listen. Walking with others on this journey I feel is great therapy. We all feel the same loss and have that same hole in our hearts. I’m greatful to my other friend who sent me a link to this site!
      May God bless you and strengthen you Patty and all who walk this journey.

  10. Yes, the drawings are as healing for me as your written words. Thank you.

  11. Loved the visuals! And as always, great post and thanks.

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