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When Will I Be Okay?: Getting Grief Wrong

Updated on July 9, 2014

I worked as a grief counselor for hospice for three years, during which I completed the requirements to become a certified Thanatologist, or death education and counseling provider. I learned many things through my work with hospice patients and their families, but the thing that has stuck with me the most had to do not with the "hows" or "whys" of grief, but with the "whens." My job was to have some kind of contact with every family we had served following the death of their loved one. I always made an initial phone call, then mailings were sent at defined times during the first year describing what could be expected in the experience of grief. These mailings provided a sort of schedule for grief even as they stated that grief was different for every person who went through it. The sheer number of families I served made it impossible for me to stay in contact with them all. I had a procedure for assessing the risk for grief complications and typically followed up more closely on those cases. I relied on others to let me know if they needed my services.

On Grief's Schedule

What I discovered from the low risk people who called me, was the disconnect between what our society expects and what really occurs in the "schedule" of grief. While it is true that grief is different for everyone, I found, almost to a person, that there was one thing that was usually a surprise. The truth was that no one expected to fall apart later, after the initial shock and reality of the death wore off. Most people believed that grief was a linear process, that it would begin very painfully and then would diminish slowly over time. The way that we tend to offer solace to those who are grieving shows this societal belief as well. People flock to the funeral services, and to the family, bearing food, flowers, and sympathy. This is usually within the first week after the loved one's death. The next time that some of us are likely to pay attention again is at a year, the anniversary of the death, or at the holidays. The disconnect is also heard whenever we are surprised at how "well" someone seems to be doing when we see them at the funeral.

"I measure every grief I meet with narrow, probing eyes - I wonder if it weighs like mine - or has an easier size.” ~ Emily Dickinson

Grieving Alone Together

At the heart of our experience of grief is our constant checking to find out if what we're feeling is normal. This makes it all the stranger that we have continued to have a sort of cognitive dissonance as a culture when it comes to the reality of grief's trajectory. The people who called me did so because they thought there was something terribly wrong with them. It was typically three to six months after the death. Many thought they were going crazy because all of a sudden they felt worse and they didn't expect it. If they told anyone, they were usually met with concern that "things should be better by now." Many didn't tell anyone else before calling me. How relieved they were when I told them that they were perfectly normal! That they weren't alone. And how surprised they were.

The Truth About Grief

As this pattern became obvious to me in my practice, I sought to get the word out more clearly, more widely. Every time I taught a seminar or class on grief, it was a major theme. I told anyone that would listen. When I trained grief volunteers for hospice, I told them, showed them, and told them again. I felt that getting the truth out there would make grieving a little bit easier. Help people not feel so isolated by their rollercoaster experience. I think it helped in our little corner of the world, for a bit. But if we don't share this experience with other people, it will not become accepted as the norm. The truth is that very often we are numbed after the first shock of a loved one's death. There are things to do and plan, and there is no space for us to fall apart. We walk through the first days like zombies and often don't remember much of it later. Then, three to six months down the road, the full reality hits us and we do feel like we're falling apart. It happens to almost every person who grieves. We should be prepared for it, in ourselves and others, so we don't have to grieve alone.

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    • annebcampbell profile image

      Rev Anne Bailey Campbell 5 years ago from Upstate, New York

      You are so right. People tend to distance themselves from what makes them uncomfortable. Their own mortality, of course, but also the possibility of "catching" tragedy from someone else. We all tend to go along on our merry way thinking that bad things don't happen to people like us, until they do. Then, we are left alone by all of those people who still think they are immune from it.

    • Jean Bakula profile image

      Jean Bakula 5 years ago from New Jersey

      Death and grief are hard subjects to handle, and I agree with all you said. The first thing you are told by your boss or coworkers is, "Take all the time you need." But they apparently mean 3 days. If your family is scattered, you can't even get them together that fast. Then there's the shock if the person was not sick, or there was an accident. Everyone crowds you while you are numb, and ignores you until the year. It's in the weeks and months after the loss you need people. I suppose many don't want to face either their own mortality, or the fact that they will lost those they love too.