Updated: 6 days ago
If you have experienced a loss and are trying to grieve, you might be told what you should do or how long to grieve. You might want to tell everyone, “don’t tell me how to grieve!” Well-meaning people have their ideas about grief based on cultural and personal expectations and experiences. They want to help but sometimes make you feel frustrated or ashamed because you don’t fit the “mold” of how you’re supposed to grieve.
Not everyone grieves the same way
Each culture has its own guidelines and mandates for how to grieve a loss. The problem is, not everyone experiences grief the same way. Many people think that dealing with grief and loss is something we should be able to handle on our own. This idea gets reinforced by our society. In the USA, society is mostly focused on making money and preparing children for careers via school. It’s also focused on looking good on the outside. There is often pressure to return to work after a loss as quickly as possible. There is considerable embarrassment about exhibiting signs of grief in public, especially at work. Taking time to tend to the wounds that loss creates gets short shrift in many cases. That can lead to unresolved and prolonged grief.
Some of the factors that influence how we grieve include your mental health and loss history; other losses or traumas you’ve endured; personality factors; your cultural background; and other stressors that are going on at the same time.
Don't tell me how long grieve!
Even if we want to take the time to grieve completely, the time that “experts” like the APA in the DSM-5-TR is not that long. They give a person about a year to grieve the death of a loved one before it’s considered Prolonged Grief Disorder. The World Health Organization gives people six months! The truth is, it can take much longer to recover from loss. So much depends on the relationship you had with the deceased. The level of closeness and dependence you had on the deceased are important. How you related to your caregivers as a child is another important factor, called an attachment bond. If you have little social or financial support, that can also influence how you grieve. The nature of the loss is also a major factor.
People can grieve harder for a pet than they do for a family member. Pets can be much more part of their lives than the relative was. It can be very confusing and there are many reactions that don’t seem to make sense in the long run, but for the time when we’re adjusting to the loss, they are fairly normal.
Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of a person, thing or situation. When we go through transitions from one state of existence (e.g., married, having a job) to another, (e.g., divorced or unemployed), we can also experience grief. Grief looks like sadness, a desire to isolate, disbelief, disorientation, yearning for the lost entity, confusion, and feeling as though some part of you is missing.
It’s a terrible feeling, often, and one that people sometimes try to avoid by drinking, doing drugs, staying exceptionally busy, or denying it. However, the good news is that it doesn’t last forever. The pain can recede one day and come back not long after, and it can feel like you’re on a roller coaster. Don’t be alarmed if you experience that ebb and flow of sorrow and pain.
There comes a point when the pain gradually dies down, you are able to think and concentrate again, your memory is once again intact, and you join society again. This happens when you are able to express your feelings about the grief, release the physical attachment you had to the lost entity, and accept the loss.
This allows you to re-form your relationship to that entity (person, thing or condition) to accommodate the physical absence of it. What that means is that while you recognize and accept that your deceased loved one or ex-husband is no longer in your life, they are still in your heart. You still have an internalized representation of that lost person and you carry that with you. Hopefully, that internalized representation is a positive resource for you that helps you cope with stressors in everyday life after the loss. Sometimes, however, the grief is unresolved.
Unresolved grief often occurs when you can’t accept the change or transition in your life. It also occurs when you can’t accept life without that person. There are a number of ways to not accept it. The simplest is probably denial, acting as though the change never happened. I’m sure you know people who lost a family member and years later still have their room set up exactly as it was when the person died or left. There comes a time when you need to release the physical ties to that person and use the room (both literally and metaphorically) for something else.
How much space does the person occupy in your mental room? Do you think about the person or former state of existence all the time? Does it prevent you from forming new relationships with other people? Are you afraid of taking risks and trying to do other things with your life?
What seems true in the moment may not be true later on
I’ve known people who lost their jobs and swore that they would never work again. They believed there would never be another job like that. Some had former jobs that were so awful they could never work for another boss again. You may have had relationships and experiences that, while awful, you didn’t know how to release. You became accustomed to the room that the loss took up in your mind that you don’t know how to replace it. Don’t tell me how to grieve when the person’s still around!
If the thing or person we lost is still in existence, it can complicate your grief. Grief can become complicated if you had a conflictual, complex relationship with the deceased. For example, you might feel grief when your job lays you off, but you still her about work from former coworkers. If you hear about how the company is doing, it’s hard to put closure on that job loss. This can also happen with relationship breakups, if your ex-lover or ex-friend is still living in the same community with you.
Longing for an ex-lover or something else you lost can complicate grief.
You might have moved away just to get away from things that reminded you of a lost relationship or loved one. However, unless you work through the feelings that accompany that loss, you’ll still carry that experience in a negative way. That can prevent you from moving on. Also, many people who lose parents who abused them as children or spouses who were abusive or inconsiderate have difficulty resolving their grief because they not only grieve the actual person but also the relationship they wish they’d had with the deceased.
Luckily, whether your grief feels like it’s resolved or not, you can get support for it. I believe it’s an occasion to allow people to help you and that the resolution of grief can be a community effort, especially in the case of crises like mass shootings or terrorism. But even small-scale, individual tragedies deserve recognition, compassion and support. There is no weakness in allowing yourself to feel deeply, to acknowledge sadly, and to allow yourself to heal.
What Happens When you Mourn?
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – we have heard of these in popular culture so much we think this is what everyone experiences when they lose someone or something important to them. However, Kübler-Ross’ developed these stages of grief were actually based on her research about people going though long-term terminal illness. People like to apply the stages to what other mourners experience, but we have come to accept it as a blanket response that everyone goes through, which is not entirely accurate or supported by research.
You might be concerned that you’re not having the “right” reactions to loss. Thus, you might feel guilty for not having enough of certain emotions or having too much of other emotions. However, you can have a range of reactions to grief. You might even show resiliency in the face of loss. That’s not necessarily a sign that you didn’t care enough about the loss or that you’re “shallow” or “not doing it right.” Again, you might say aloud or to others, “don’t tell me how to grieve!”
Physical and mental responses to grief
When you lose someone or something that was significant to you, you might feel disoriented. You can have a variety of responses to it. Physically, you might have headaches or other somatic complaints, a lot of crying, poor appetite, aches and pains, difficulty sleeping, and feel weak or easily fatigued. Emotionally, you can feel sad, angry, confused, worried, anxious, frustration and guilt. Grief might impair your sense of identity as well. Sometimes people have emotional numbing and some even laugh, over which they might feel quite guilty.
I mentioned detachment or wanting to be alone earlier. However, you can also fear being alone and become preoccupied with your own death or the death of loved ones too. You can use religious or spiritual beliefs to comfort yourself over the loss. At the same time, you might also question your faith and search for meaning for the loss and existence itself. All these responses are understandable and normal while you are grieving.
The duration of grief is something that I think is somewhat controversial. Some psychiatrists believe that if after six months, you’re still sad and crying, they meet criteria for depression. Other experts say that six months to a year is a normal time for grieving; after that they consider it prolonged. Again, it really depends on a lot of factors. You may feel rushed by people who think you should be “over it” by now, which might make you want to tell them, “don’t tell me how long to grieve!”
When I see people two years and more still feeling unmotivated, sad, scared, and unable to accept the death, I define that as complicated grief or Prolonged Grief Disorder. Sometimes people feel stuck and need help moving through grief. That is what I can provide for you if you’re in that position. If you’re struggling with prolonged grief, please call me at 661-233-6771.
Resources for further exploration of grief: “Grief Walker” (a movie, available on Netflix) Transforming Traumatic Grief, by Courtney Armstrong, LPC The Grief Recovery Handbook, 20th Anniversary Edition, by John James and Russell Friedman It's OK that you're not OK by Megan Devine.
I hope this gives you some food for thought and comfort.