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 get 100%.
“Am I normal?” and “Is this normal?”are questions commonly asked by grieving people.
When faced with complex and overwhelming problems, humans are hardwired to simplify by looking for patterns, rules, and categories. So we push, shove, and sort the wide and variable experience of grief into neat little boxes, and when we’re finally finished we step back and say “Okay! Now we can deal with this situation.”
Simplifying and categorizing the world may be helpful in a number of scenarios, but it can lead us woefully astray in grief. From person-to-person, situation-to-situation, and culture-to-culture there is such immense variation in grief reactions, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Grief depends on the bereaved, their relationship to the deceased, secondary stressors, coping style, support system, and the list goes on. So, it’s difficult to define “normal.”
Grief reactions 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 a more appropriate question to ask yourself, albeit one that feels a little glib, is…
“How is this working out for me?”
The “How’s that working out for you?” question is sarcastic and snarky and so it’s a shame I find myself using it all the ever-loving time. I’m sorry, but it just seems to apply in many mental health situations. 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.
I think this question is 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.
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