Is it Normal to Grieve This Way?
©2014 Liisa Gavlick, M.A. All Rights Reserved
In January of this year I began facilitating grief groups at a local hospital. This in addition to working with clients in therapy sessions, continued research, and previous training has shown me that many are unsure what constitutes “normal grieving.” Healthy forms of grieving and mourning were often not discussed or modeled in many childhood homes. Many are unaware grieving and mourning secondary losses may also be needed.
Many wonder if they were grieving “right” and if their grief responses are considered “normal.” I realized here in the U.S. we live in a culture that is often uncomfortable around one who is grieving, may not allow one to fully grieve their loss(es), or after a significant loss expects them to “be over it” a few weeks or months later. It seems we have also lost the art of ritual which allows us to mourn and receive comfort, to remember, and to gain insight for the losses we experience.
The Encarta Dictionary defines grief as great sadness. Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. It includes the internal thoughts, feelings, and emotions you have from experiencing a loss. It is more commonly associated with physical death, the death of a loved one or someone you know. However, there are other types of loss that cause grief such as social grief which arises from the ending of a significant relationship, or occupational grief from the loss of a career or job. Losing your health, your home, a beloved pet, or experiencing loss from other significant events in your life can also elicit a grief response and the need to mourn the loss.
Mourning is defined as the expression of deep sadness following loss, whether it is social loss, occupational loss, the death of a friend, colleague, acquaintance, or loved one. If grief is the naturally occurring emotions that accompany loss, mourning is the active component of grief. It is described as the process of experiencing and expressing the feelings associated with your loss. It can also include completing what may have been left incomplete; becoming aware of emotions you may want to avoid, accepting them, moving through them, and healing.
“…your heart has grown heavy with loss; and though this loss has wounded others too, no one knows what has been taken from you, when the silence of absence deepens…” John O’Donohue.
Grief is a highly complex and individual process. The only way out of grief is to go through. Grief has its own timetable; the process, or journey of grief takes as long as it needs to take. Those who are grieving may want and need to be heard, they may not want to grieve in solitude. Supporting someone as they find their way through their grief, allowing them to “be with” their loss, sitting and listening as they share the stories of their loved one, holding the space for them as they lean into their grief and release their tears as they attempt to find their footing may be what introduces them to the type of mourning their grief needs.
There is no one “right” way to grieve and mourn. It is a personal journey that is unique just like each individual’s DNA or fingerprints. The mourning process may take active or less active forms. For those personalities who are more on the introverted side of the continuum they may require more quiet time. They may benefit from journaling, reading, and gentle walks.
For those who are closer to the extroverted side they may need a more active form of mourning. For example they may benefit more from creating a garden, making a quilt, beginning a remodeling project, working on the car, or organizing an event in honor of their loved one. Some may need both active and inactive forms of mourning as they journey through their grief. Even members within the same family may demonstrate different grief responses and require different forms of mourning for their loss.
Although the grief response and ways of mourning are highly individual, there are common responses to loss which include thoughts, physical sensations, emotions, behavior, and spiritual responses.
It is common for grief to affect your cognitive abilities, create difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, confusion, and an inability to make decisions. It can cause you to be preoccupied with thoughts of the deceased and lose your perception of time.
Grief often elicits physical sensations: a hollowness or tightness in your chest or abdomen. It causes insomnia, makes sleeping difficult, or at the other end of the spectrum creates a desire to sleep all the time. Shortness of breath, frequent sighing, muscle tension, headaches, intestinal upset, and an inability to eat are other normal responses to grief.
Grief also affects your emotions. It may cause an inability to regulate your emotions, or to feel numb. Feelings may be heightened; vivid dreams are common, so are having tears close to the surface resulting in frequent crying. Mood swings, loneliness, being fearful and anxious are also common.
Grief may also affect how you behave. It may cause you to wander aimlessly or to withdraw socially from family members and friends. It may cause you to avoid certain locations, neglect personal hygiene, or no longer filter how and what you say.
“…flickers of guilt kindle regret, for all that was left unsaid or undone…” John O’Donohue
Grief may also elicit feelings of responsibility for the loss. The three most common guilt inducing statements you may tell yourself are; “I should of_____, could of_____, and would of_____.” These three statements can delay or hinder your mourning process. Hindsight is often 20/20. In hindsight you are able to see and understand more, you uncover more information and make new deductions, it doesn’t mean you loved any less, or didn’t do your best at the time.
Grief may cause you to be angry—whether it is directed outward at other individuals, institutions, corporations, medical establishments, even the one who passed. Or it can be directed inward at yourself.
Anger at God—(or the name your faith uses) is also common.
Grief may also affect your spiritual view of the world. It may cause you to question your faith, question your belief in a just or loving God (or the name your faith uses,) it may introduce you to the concept of adopting a faith, cause you to change your faith, or draw you closer to your current faith.
These are all common and normal responses to grief.
Reverend Richard B. Gilbert says, “Healthy grieving is selfish grieving.” Because of the negative connotations with the word selfish, I prefer to reframe it and say it is a time to “center-on-self.” Balanced, healthy grieving places the focus on your journey through your grief process. In essence you give yourself permission to center on your grief, or another way of saying it is to put yourself at the top of your list of priorities.
Stephen Levine reminds us that healing becomes not the absence of pain but the increased ability to meet it with mercy. Do not abandon yourself; offer yourself compassion as you learn to navigate your way through grief and mourn your loss. Offer yourself the same compassion, kindness, and attention you would give to others who have been affected by a loss.
It is important to take extra care of yourself as you meet and learn how to lean into your grief. It is your loss, your relationship that was affected, and your feelings that need to be mourned. It is important to make yourself and your needs a priority.
If you have children you need to care for, it is okay to lower your expectations of what you are capable of doing. It is okay to ask for help caring for them. It is okay to reduce your commitments at their school, to reduce volunteer hours, forgo committee contributions etc. It is okay to scale back social responsibilities, to offer yourself, your children, your spouse, or partner time and space to mourn.
Remember, “No, thank you” is a complete sentence.
It is okay to allow other family members, friends, and the community to support you as you grieve. You don’t have to be strong, or pull yourself up by your bootstraps! It does not mean you are neglecting or abdicating your responsibilities. You are allowing others to help; to lighten your daily tasks which may also alleviate stress offering you an additional gift of time and space to mourn.
“…All you can depend on now is that Sorrow will remain faithful to itself. More than you, it knows its way, and will find the right time, to pull and pull the rope of grief, until that coiled hill of tears, has reduced to its last drop…” John O’Donohue.
Immediately after the loss, whether it was expected or unexpected, it can be difficult to make decisions; your cognitive abilities may be affected. This is a time when support for funeral arrangements and/or a memorial service can be very helpful. Also, support with the basics of daily living such as meals, grocery shopping, laundry, driving to appointments, mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, washing the car, walking the dog, etc can be especially helpful.
The process and journey of grief has its own timetable. Although the texture of your grief may shift over time, many have said they may never “get over” their loss. The active component of mourning allows you to learn how to manage your life around your loss.
The texture of the pain may alter and soften as you continue to meet it with compassion and acceptance.
It is normal for grief to resemble ocean waves. You may have good days where the waves are small and manageable or days when you are engulfed in a tsunami of emotion.
These are the days when it might be best to hit the pause button and put the world on hold, to draw on your support systems, and offer yourself comfort and kindness. These are the days where it may help to write your feelings in a journal, or go to the beach and write in the sand, color them with ink, pen, or paints, or if you are a verbal processor—talk to a trusted friend, family member, clergy, or therapist. If you need something more active—go for a walk, garden, exercise, head to a lake, river or stream and skip rocks verbally imprinted with specific feelings or thoughts, or do some other physical activity.
“…There are days when you wake up happy; again inside the fullness of life, until the moment breaks, and you are thrown back onto the black tide of loss…” John O’Donohue
It is also normal to go periods of time without experiencing a wave of emotion. Months, even years can go by, and then suddenly you find yourself engulfed in a wave treading the waters of grief once again.
This too is common.
Masha Kaleko has said that, “When the waves close over me, I dive down to fish for pearls.”
Normal grief encompasses many physical, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual components. However if 12 months later you continue to experience insomnia, anxiety, debilitating grief; if you continue to ruminate over the circumstances of their death, if you continue to feel bitterness or anger, detached from others, if have a diminished sense of your identity and role in life, or if you are experiencing significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, and other important areas of functioning, it is advised you seek help from a licensed therapist.
May your journey of grief and mourning reveal any pearls that may be hidden in plain sight, may you know how much you meant to your loved one, may you know the support and love you offered your loved one was enough, and may the love you shared offer comfort and solace when you remember they are gone and the ache and pain of the loss engulf you.
James, John.W., Friedman, Russell. (2009). The Grief Recovery Handbook. HarperCollins: New York.
Levine, Stephen. (2005). Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart. Holtzbrinck Publishers.
O’Donohue, John. (2008). To Bless the Space Between Us. Doubleday: New York