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.
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 of, The 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.
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1(800)-273-TALK
- Call 911
- Go to the nearest emergency room
- If possible, speak with your therapist
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).
If you’re experiencing ongoing and unrelenting depressed mood (lack of interest in activities, hopelessness, decreased energy, etc).
If you feel stuck in your grief and you aren’t sure what to do next.
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.