What is "normal" grief?
Am I going crazy or is this normal?
Good grief vs. bad grief?
The most common question I receive in my work as a grief counselor: “is my grief normal?” As if there is a “right” and “wrong” way to grieve! Grieving the death of a loved one is a painful and confusing time. When a concerned friend asks you how you are doing, your answer might sound something like: “I have good days and bad days.” Everyone knows what this means: some days feel ”bad”: you tear up without warning, maybe even cry for hours, and the pain seems so excruciating, you are not sure you’ll survive the crushing weight of grief. The “good” days might include making it through the day without melting into tears or becoming distracted by the metaphorical stabbing pain in your heart. Even in the midst of intense pain, I think we can approach grief from a more neutral standpoint, without all that “good and bad” judgment that tends to make us feel worse.
The truth is that both of those types of days, and the wide range of days in between, are part of the normal grief process. Both offer us information to help process the grief and remember our loved one as part of our daily routine. Pain is merely information that is meant to get the attention of your nervous system: a warning signal that you need comfort, and focused attention. Part of the grief process is experiencing the messages that your body is sending you, not repressing them, only to deal with later on.
How about we try to focus on nonjudgmental words instead? This does not mean that you should pretend to be happy all the time to show you are “strong.” I suggest you think about grief as represented by the volume control on your car radio. Loud music isn’t necessarily bad, right? Some days you just need to blast the Def Leppard music to decompress from the workday. Likewise, some days your grief is “louder”: you can’t help but hear its messages, the sorrow and the sweet memories. And some days it is gentle background noise; you are aware of it playing softly, reminding you it’s still there. Whether your grief is ear-splitting or a mere whisper, grief just IS. Grief is neither good nor bad, just present.
Next I offer you five ways to know your grief is “normal,” along with practical exercises for each life aspect: body, spirit, emotions, and mind. There are times to be concerned about your grief symptoms, when it is recommended that you seek professional grief support, and I will address that later too.
5 Signs Your Grief is Normal*
*Just a note about what I mean by” normal”: I don’t like to use this word, because of course there are so many variations of what symptoms can be expected during grief. But I use it here because everyone can relate to it! You just want to know that your experience is typical, so you can stop worrying, right?
1. Most important question: Are you able to carry out the basic tasks of adult functioning? Are you able to complete your daily habits to meet your basic needs? Example: Do you get at least a few hours of (restless) sleep every day, bathe and change your clothes (before you start to smell), and eat at least one full meal per day?
Practice: Think carefully about your experiences over the past week. Can you truthfully answer the question above? On a scale of 0 to 5, where would you rate yourself over the past week?
0=spending 23 hours per day in bed or on the sofa and 5=back to your regular pre-grief schedule.
2. Body: Normal grief causes changes in your body such as digestive issues, body aches, headaches, muscle tension, and fatigue. Some folks will say they feel exhausted all the time or “achy all over,” similar to having the flu. Often, these symptoms are worsened due to lack of rest. In the early days after your loved one’s death, you might be getting less sleep because you are busy settling their estate or going through their belongings. Perhaps every time you lie down to sleep, your brain switches into overdrive and thoughts of your loved one keep you awake.
Practice: Use good sleep hygiene habits, such as creating a relaxing routine to signal to your body that it’s time to sleep, shutting down screens at least one hour before bedtime, and avoid late night snacking. Also consider reducing your caffeine intake, especially after lunchtime.
3. Emotions: Some days you might have an urge to stay in bed and cry all day long. Normal grief is often mistaken for symptoms of major depression. Grief and major depression typically include deep sadness, lots of crying, and feelings of guilt. Depression can also include feeling worthless, hopeless, and suicidal. The most important difference between grief and depression is in the area of functioning: when symptoms are so severe, lasting longer than a few weeks, that you cannot accomplish daily tasks. See the last section for advice on seeking professional help to help you rule out depression, if you are unsure.
Practice: Telling your story, along with details and special memories of your loved one, is a very important way to manage your emotions during grief. Who is someone you can trust to talk to about what you are feeling? The right person will listen without judgment, will offer support for your unpredictable feelings, and will be interested in honoring your loved one’s memory. This thoughtful support person will not push well-meaning advice on you, and will instead respect your grief process as your own journey. If you can’t think of the right person, that’s okay! Pull out a notebook and start writing down your favorite, and not-so-favorite, memories of your loved one. Or post your memories on an online “memorial wall” website.
4. Spirit: No matter your faith tradition, or none at all, death causes us to question the meaning of life. Part of the normal grief process is a search for answers to those big questions about why we are here on this planet and what is our purpose. You might experience a crisis of faith or even feel angry with God for taking your loved one. Many times we search for meaning in a loved one's death, certain that we can make sense of what happened if only we had a way to find a concrete “reason.” Great philosophers ponder these issues, but there are no sufficient answers to ease our grief. Can you think of at least one reason for hope for the future? What does the future hold for you, your family, or humanity?
Practice: Take out a piece of paper and a pen. Complete this sentence: Even though I am sad that my loved one won’t be here to share this experience, one thing that I am looking forward to is___________. Next finish this sentence: Even though I am deeply grieving, I am so thankful for___________.
5. Mind: Normal grief affects our brain’s activity in surprising ways. Have you noticed difficulty concentrating, increased forgetfulness, or feeling scatterbrained with “fuzzy thinking”? Does your mind swirl with an endless stream of memories about your loved one, especially during their final days? Do you feel distracted when you are trying to complete tasks?
Practice: Try this technique (based on the well-known Pomodoro Technique) to trick your brain to focus on a day when you must accomplish important tasks. Write down no more than 3 not-so-fun tasks or chores you need to complete today. Set your cell phone timer for 25 minutes.
Take a deep breath and look at your list, quickly choose one task to work on first. I recommend starting with the one that you expect to take the least amount of time. Challenge yourself to get started on this task, but only until the timer chimes! No matter where you are in the task, when the timer sounds, you must stop working for 5 full minutes. No cheating! Reset your timer for five minutes. During this brief break, move your body: stand up and stretch, grab a beverage refill, or march in place.
At the end of five minutes, reset the timer for 25 minutes and keep working. After the second round, take a longer break, at least 15 minutes. During this longer break, find something fun and relaxing to do: fix a snack, skim social media, text a friend, find a Netflix show you will use to reward yourself later, when you finish your tasks.
Repeat this technique as time allows, being sure to take a longer break every hour. This technique allows your brain to think and focus in manageable chunks. There is freedom is the awareness that only a brief working window is necessary, versus facing an endlessly tedious task.
For 5 easy tips to feel better now, click here to receive my free Grief Guide.
5 Signs You Need to Seek Grief Support
Getting professional help does not mean you are weak or crazy. A grief professional can help you adjust to your new life without your loved one and teach you skills for coping with uncomfortable grief symptoms, your new identity and life changes, while also helping you maintain a healthy, ongoing bond with your loved one. This list is just a sampling of situations that require professional intervention. Please err on the side of caution and seek professional assessment if you are at all uncertain about your risk.
Signs you might be experiencing depression or complicated grief and should seek immediate professional support:
1. Most Important: Suicidal thoughts: You have recurring thoughts about suicide, feel like there is no point to living any longer, or desire to die in order to join your loved one.
2. Spirit: Pervasive hopelessness: You feel hopeless about the future and can’t think of any positive options as you move forward.
3. Emotions: Isolation, loneliness, loss of interest in formerly pleasurable activities for extended time frame. Prior to your loved one’s death, you enjoyed activities and social interaction, such as golf, bingo, quilting, going to church, or painting, but now you prefer to stay home and be alone, even after many months.
4. Body: Relying on substance use for coping or numbing. You are consuming more than 2 or 3 servings of alcohol everyday, or using higher doses of prescription painkillers or other drugs.
5. Mind: Fixation on your loved one and cause of death to the exclusion or other important matters. Your thoughts are consumed 24/7 with your loved one and the circumstances of their death. You are neglecting other important people in your life and important tasks such as paying the bills and seeking regular medical attention.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, please call or text: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
In Johnston and surrounding counties, please call 911 or Therapeutic Alternatives Mobile Crisis Response Team: 877-626-1772
For ongoing grief support, contact your local grief counselor:
Johnston Integrative Counseling: 919-912-5736