Sarah sat in my office crying her eyes out. She had lost her husband 18 months ago and still missed him every day. She wrote in her journal and had attended two rounds of a support group. Still, she frequently felt overwhelmed by the intensity of her pain, and she often felt exhausted. She wondered aloud if she was going crazy.
Much of what I do as a grief counselor is simply to help normalize my client's experience. There is a wide range of what might be considered "healthy grief." Often, just understanding what is 'normal' provides significant relief.
The following experiences are all part of a healthy grief response.
Time doesn't seem to heal:
We like to believe that time heals all wounds, but guess what? It doesn't. To begin with, it takes time plus "grief work" to stimulate healing. Second, the wound created by loss will never completely heal, not really. I explained to Sarah that grief is more like ocean waves -- with big waves that knock you down as well as gentle lapping waves that ebb and flow. Even over time, the waves of sadness will occasionally lap on your shore.
Grief feels intense:
Feeling the intense emotions of grief is extremely painful. In general, we prefer to avoid these feelings. We might numb ourselves with alcohol and drugs, overly busy schedules, or television. However, the only way through these emotions is to allow yourself to feel them in their full force. One way to tolerate the intensity is to express the feelings -- express them in words, in poetry, in artwork, in quilts, in ceremonies, in rituals, in music, etc. Healthy grieving finds a variety of modes of expression.
The second year feels harder than the first:
Sarah believed that since she had rounded the one-year anniversary that life without her husband would be easier. Instead, she discovered an intensification of her sadness and sorrow. Is something wrong with me? she wondered. I explained that it's not uncommon for the second year of grief to be even more painful than the first. Why? Because the first year is often a blur -- a fog of shock, disbelief and even denial. By the second year, the loss is truly beginning to sink in and that is painful.
I feel like a different person:
When someone you love leaves the planet, you are no longer quite the same person. Wishing to return to your old self is an exercise in defeat. Instead, recognize that you are growing into a new self. This new self will integrate love, loss and change. But I also remind grievers to remember that they became different people for having loved their dear one in the first place. Life is always about change and integration.
I still talk to my loved one:
Sarah was concerned because she talked to Jim every day, out loud, which often made her cry. I assured her that this was not only natural but healthy as well. It's important to keep the connection alive. Just because the person's form has left this planet doesn't mean that the relationship is over. It's healthy to stay connected to your loved one.
Good things have come out of my grief:
As I listened to Sarah, I assessed that she hadn't simply shut herself off from life. She was still working in her chosen career and actively engaged with friendships and her children. In fact, she had begun a community project -- an annual golf drive -- to create a scholarship in her husband's name. As I wrote in my book, Transcending Loss, creating new projects inspired by the loss of a loved one is one avenue for meaning making.
Sarah came to see that her grief was a normal reaction to the body-blow experience of losing her beloved husband. She was registering it physically, psychologically and spiritually. She was also feeling it, expressing it and reaching out to others because of it.
Because loss is a natural part of living, so too is grief a natural process that we need to understand. Most of us will be on that path sooner or later. Knowing some of the elements of healthy grieving sheds light on the process, illuminating the human journey.