February 7, 2018 Brigitte Ganger

What Does "Healthy" Grief Look Like?

Though there's no normal, there are signs of healthy grief

What Does
Healthy grief feels almost as bad as unhealthy grief. Learn what is typical when someone has passed away. (Shutterstock)

We often discuss "complicated grief" and the negative effects of ignoring loss. There is a morbid fascination with the pain of loss, and death itself—and there is also a more urgent need to assist those going through atypical grief reactions. All grief is challenging, uncomfortable and overwhelming. Some expressions of grief signal that counseling or intervention is needed. 


But what does healthy grief look like? 


Even though no grief feels healthy, there are many emotions folks in mourning will experience that are indicative of healing. Feelings that are painful—even nearly unbearable—don't necessarily mean anything is amiss, other than a regular expression of trauma. 


When it comes to grief, there is no normal. But there is not abnormal. 


Common grief reactions


Numbness


When it feels like your emotions have shifted into low gear during a time of crisis, you might be experiencing numbness. Numbness can be alarming because it doesn't feel like an appropriate reaction to a death. Although you shouldn't try to suppress emotions, this numbness is a natural reaction to grief. It provides some space to just cope with the here and now without crumbling. 


Listlessness


Lack of interest in anything, disengagement from activities that formerly brought you joy, or feeling too exhausted to do basic daily tasks are signs that you are listless. 


Profound sadness


This is depression. There is a difference between depression as a mood, and depression as a condition—just know that one can lead to the other. The more you experience a depressed mood, the higher the chance of experiencing clinical depression. Incomprehensible sorrow is a normal, but unpleasant, part of grief. Keep an eye out if this escalates into suicidal thoughts.


Rage


Though you may yearn for the deceased person to be alive once more, rage is also a common grief reaction. You might resent them for not fighting off an illness hard enough, or for leaving your family with debt or unanswered questions. Although the person is dead, it's healthy to express anger and move on from it as you normally would. Just because a person no longer exists on earth does not mean your relationship with them is over. 


Guilt


Many people experience survivor's guilt when someone close to them passes away. You could be fixated on ways the death could have been prevented, things you should have said, or other regrets surrounding the death. Remember that nothing can reverse the death. Forgive yourself, and move on. 


Assigning blame


Blame is just as much a part of grief as guilt. Unfortunately, it's common for family members to fall out because of a shared loss. People assign blame in response to feelings of pain, powerlessness and denial. Although it's a typical grief reaction, beware of burning bridges during times of grief. Remember that nothing will bring back your loved one.


Pining for the deceased person


Yearning for someone who passed away goes beyond simply missing the person. When you pine for someone who will never return, it can feel like obsession. This is an important part of processing the finality of death. As tormenting as it is, remembering the special qualities of the person brings necessary catharsis in grief.


Hysteria


Hysteria is the sudden onset of excitement or emotion. This can include panic, and even bouts of uncontrollable laughter. The laughter is possibly the most unexpected symptom of grief on this list. There is a darkness about death that can inspire irreverent humor. Erupting into wild, emotional laughter is bizarre, but harmless. Highs and lows are likely to be more intense during the first year of grief, but they will eventually level out. 


Uncontrollable sobbing


Crying is a natural expression of emotion. But when you are still reeling from a death, you might notice that tears come out of thin air, hitting you hard. You might be at work, grocery shopping or driving when something as simple as a song or a thought triggers a meltdown. 


Disbelief


Especially in the first weeks, it's normal to waver between the crushing finality of death, and at times not believing the death has even happened. Also known as denial, the inability to accept that a loved one is gone forever is part of grief that takes time to sort out. 


Crisis of faith


Whatever your system of belief was before the loss, it's likely to take a beating during a time of extreme grief. This is totally normal. Most people find themselves challenging their core values when they suffer an impossibly difficult loss. Although you will never be the same as you move forward with grief, most people find their way back to their former values stronger than before.  


Desire to make big life changes


A crisis of faith can in turn inspire folks to make huge changes. For example, you might be suddenly making lifestyle changes out of fear of dying prematurely. Others could be tempted to travel, sell assets or otherwise change everything about your life in defiance of death. 


Desperation to maintain sameness


Sometimes death brings too much change to handle. People who cannot grasp the death, and have also experienced changes financially or in their living situation, might be adverse to change. Unwillingness to throw out the deceased person's belongings or make new plans that would have included them are signs that you are avoiding change. Life will move on, and you will too when you're ready. 


Sudden uncharacteristic actions


You might find yourself going down paths that are totally out of character. This can mean following thoughts and ideas that conflict with your usual creed, or in sudden uncharacteristic actions. Dramatic changes in your regular habits are no cause for alarm unless they are dangerous. Otherwise, let yourself explore the world with a different perspective.


Replaying the last 24 hours of their life


Becoming obsessed with exactly what the deceased person did in their last day or week of life is part of processing the death. Grieving people usually ruminate about the events that led up to the death. If your loved one died suddenly or in an accident, this could be even more relevant to your understanding of the death. However, even in cases of long terminal illness, survivors will replay the last words that were spoken, meals eaten and visitors met. 


Powerlessness


Death is one thing no one can control. Humans are controlled by their own mortality, and sometimes death seems to come way too soon. It can be near impossible to comprehend the death of someone who exemplified vitality in life. Thinking about the slow march of time and the inevitability of death is a recipe for feeling powerless. You may have to grapple with these concepts for some time before you truly grasp that there are some things in your control, and others that are out of your control. Once this sinks in, grievers typically feel empowered again.


Reliving past losses 


If you suffered the loss of family members or friends in the past, a new grief can trigger recollections of those old griefs. In fact, the death of someone close to you can even trigger mourning of past relationships—even if death didn't cause those relationships to end. A divorce, the end of a friendship, or any other loss can become relevant again. One of the most complex aspects of grief is how cumulative it is. Everything you've suffered in life is on the table during a grief reaction, which is partly why it is so overwhelming and difficult to pin down. 


Progress and setbacks


Possibly the only universal truth in grief is the fact that you will take two steps only to take one step back. As soon as you feel like you've conquered one difficult emotional chore, it will resurface or bring up some new complication. The five stages of grief were never meant to be linear or ordered. Don't be concerned by what you think is a lack of progress. If you are confronting emotions and actively working through grief as it arises, you are on the path to healing.   


Feelings of insanity


After reading through this list, it should be easy to see why grieving folks might start to suspect they are losing their grip with reality. If sudden mood swings, brief departures from reality and deep depression are normal—what does crazy look like? The loss of someone close to you (especially someone who was a part of your daily life) will provoke reactions that make you question your sanity. Get help if you need it, but in general these lapses of confidence in your own judgment are typical. They will pass once the reality of the death has had some more time to sink in. 


Complicated grief


Almost all of these "normal" grief reactions can escalate into complicated grief, given the right circumstances. Even healthy grief can hang around forever, but complicated grief is that which prevents you from ever moving on. While there is no universal timeline for grief, if intense emotions do not gradually start to subside after a year, you might be experiencing complicated grief. Check in with your grief regularly and evaluate your mindset. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or suspect your grief has expanded beyond the realm of these common signs, seek out a qualified grief counselor


Though many people experience these reactions to grief, each one carries enormous emotional pain. To say they are common, or "regular," is not to suggest that they are easy to overcome. Remember that, and cut yourself some slack in grief.   

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