“Stuck in grief”-it’s a theme of blog posts, psychology papers and magazine articles. The author usually lists either a variety of “symptoms” or relates anecdotes of people who do truly odd things after a loved one dies. “Complicated grief” is a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis.
But who gets to decide?
What objective criteria can be applied to every situation, every person, every death to determine whether someone is truly stuck in grief? How do you take into account the circumstances of a death, the relationship of the bereaved to the deceased, trauma surrounding the event or any of a dozen other things that influence how long and how deeply one grieves a loss?
Obviously there are certain signs that someone needs professional help, medication or intervention. If a person is abusing drugs or alcohol, acting out in ways that harm or threaten harm to themselves or others, or is experiencing depression or uncontrollable anxiety then please, please, PLEASE get them to a doctor who can diagnose and treat them.
But for the rest of us, “normal” grief covers a wide variety of behaviors, feelings, attitudes and timelines:
Posting photos or videos of our missing child is normal. It’s the last visual link we have to someone we can no longer see.
Mentioning my son in conversation is normal. I mention my other children and his life is still intertwined with ours.
Crying-even years or decades after the loss-is NORMAL Grief waves can hit with tsunami force from out of nowhere and slam me to the ground. The only thing I can do then is let them wash over and around me until they pass.
Keeping space for my son in my home, at my table, in my heart and on holidays is normal. Some parents do this with a special candle, photo or ritual. Some do it with a stuffed animal or other item that represents their child. Some do it with words or deeds of kindness done in honor of the missing one. No one has sat in Dominic’s space at my table in these three years. It’s my silent witness to his ongoing influence and irreplaceable presence in our family circle.
Keeping a room exactly as it was is normal. Boxing everything up is also normal. Every heart is different and every heart has to decide what helps it heal.
Sleeplessness is normal. Some parents never return to pre-loss sleep patterns. I wake every morning at about the time the deputy came to our door. Every now and then, if I am extremely tired, I may fall back asleep for an hour or two. Sleeping the day away is normal, too. Sleep may be a welcome relief to a weary heart and some parents find that when they can, they sleep a lot. (Note: if this continues for days or weeks, please check with your doctor about the possibility of depression.)
Anxiety is, sadly, VERY normal. The worst has actually happened and that makes the possibility that it could happen again oh, so real. Anxiety may well spread to things that seem to have no relationship to loss. It’s also normal to have a “devil may care” attitude. The worst has actually happened, so what could be worse? Might as well live life to the full.
Withdrawal is normal. So is over-scheduling and staying busy. Both are ways someone may try to deal with heartbreak.
You don’t have to be “stuck” in grief to still feel the pain and have it continue to affect your life.
I am and have been highly functional since the morning the deputy arrived with the news of my son’s fatal motorcycle accident.
But I am a very different “me” than I was before that doorbell rang.
Some things I can’t do anymore. Some things I do differently and some things are brand new and I have only done them since he left us.
Labels are rarely helpful when applied to people.
Every person is unique, every relationship unique and every situation unique.
And every grief journey will be unique as well.