Inside my office during a routine grief counseling session
“So, what you do think, Larry?” said James. “Am I crazy or what?”
James was a 44 year old widower who was concerned that his actions after the death of his wife were a little on the bizarre side. In typical counselor style I answered James’ question with another question. “Well, James, how do you feel about what you’re doing?”
“Now, Larry, I asked you a question and I expect you to give me an answer,” said James with a bit of consternation in his voice. “Now what is it? Is what I’m doing crazy or not?”
“James, I am asking you how you feel about what you’re doing. How the action feels to you is important to get the answer to your question,” I said holding my ground. “Does what you’re doing feel crazy to you?”
“Well,” said James with a sigh. “I always feel better after visiting the gravesite. But my family is telling me that going every day to the cemetery is morbid and obsessive. They think that there is something wrong with me. I guess…that I feel that I need to go often for my own needs, and what my family is saying about me just upsets me. I wish they would leave me alone. I need to visit the gravesite in order to feel… better and closer to my wife.”
James was like so many other mourners. The loss they have experienced is the worst loss experience they have ever had. Therefore, James and other mourners like him are in new emotional territory. Nothing in their life feels normal or the same anymore, and they are doing things that seem abnormal or even crazy for them. The fact that James’ family thought that his actions were abnormal or bizarre only made matters worse for him.
I told James and I tell other mourners who have asked me similar questions about whether they are acting crazy or not “Just keep talking. I’ll tell you when it gets crazy.”
The truth about behavior after loss and its benefit for the mourner is that each individual mourner has to do what is best for him or her. Sometimes being healthy means going to the gravesite every day; sometimes being healthy means never going back to the gravesite at all. Sometimes doing what’s natural for you in grief means packing up all the pictures of your loved one and putting them out of sight because it is too painful to see them. Sometimes doing what’s natural for you in grief means placing more pictures of your loved one in every available spot around the home because those pictures give you comfort.
No two mourners grieve exactly alike, and no two mourners have exactly the same grief needs. First, every grief is going to be shaped by the factors involved in the unique, one-of-a-kind in all the universe relationship that they had with the person who died. Second, every mourner has a different personality type, coping skills, perspective on life, and belief system that all shape the way the person in grief mourns. Third, each mourner will make their own unique choices in how they wish to grieve the loss, honor the memory of the loved one, and decide what is best for their own physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
There is no one correct way to go through grief, and there are no set rules for how to mourn after the death of a loved one or close friend. There are even different styles of mourning. The two major types of mourning are the emotive and the stoic. The emotive mourner is openly expressive of his or her grief emotions, and the stoic mourner is not. The stoic mourner releases his or her inner tension caused by grief emotions by thinking through the grief process or by becoming involved in activity that facilitates the release of emotional tension and the processing of grief. Both emotive and stoic style mourning can be healthy as long as the mourner or no one else is getting hurt.
The key to whether grief is healthy or unhealthy depends upon two important factors:
- If the mourner is using a style or behavior that is not hurting him or her or anyone else, and they are making progress in grief, the mourning style is healthy and natural for him or her.
- If the behavior or choices of the mourner help facilitate the processing of grief or give the mourner comfort and support, the mourning behavior is healthy and natural for that mourner.
Two pieces of advice for the mourner:
- Do what is best for you and take the advice and statements of a friend or family members who label the mourning activity or decisions as anything but healthy with a huge grain of salt. Whether you feel like it or not, you are the expert on your own personal grief. No one knows your grief better than you do.
- Do what makes you feel comfortable, supported, and progressing in your grief in a healthy way.
At the same time remember two other important factors for healthy grief and for healing from your emotional wounds. First, you will need other people around you as you make your choices during your grief. No one should try to go through grief alone or on their own. Second, it is the sign of a healthy mourner when the person in grief realizes they do need to reach out to others for advice, support, and encouragement.
Posted by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT, author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” Available on http://grief-works.org/book.php.
Larry is host of the call-in Christian radio show CounselingWorks Now heard Saturdays Noon-1 pm CDT on The WORD 100.7 FM or http://thewordfm.com. Listen every Saturday as Larry and a panel of experts discuss the mental, emotional and spiritual struggles of everyday life.
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