Facing Complicated Grief: When Death Becomes a New Normal in Life

I recently read a quote that said, “Don’t die while you are still living.” It struck a chord with me—because I know that I might have been the poster child for that particular warning at a point in my life. After my husband died, I was lost—physically, emotionally, mentally. Suddenly finding myself a single mother of three teenaged boys, without a career, suffering quite honestly one of the biggest shocks and devastations of my life, it was easy to turn inward and retreat. This, of course, is a natural response to grief, and something that I had to conquer in my own time and in my own way.

Since that time, I have learned how to handle grief, and to help others face and manage their own pain. It’s never an easy thing, and everyone faces this situation and deals in their own way. If there is one thing that is for sure it’s that grief is not one-size-fits-all, and that the process is rife with challenges—financial, career-related, emotional, mental, physical. I truly cannot think of a condition that has the ability to impact more areas of one’s life—it is an understatement to say that it’s all encompassing. It’s more than that.

To you, the reader, I know that you may be facing your own pain, and looking for answers. I have something to say to you.

There Are Surprising Truths about the Complicated Grieving Process

  • Grief doesn’t necessarily come in stages. I prefer to believe that people oscillate. Instead of going through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance in the pattern of a large “W”, studies have shown that instead, there are vast fluctuations that occur from one day to the next. I personally have lived this. There are times, after loss, where you could honestly be a year out from the event, dealing with something as ordinary as grocery shopping, when you are hit with a wave of emotion so hard as you catch a glimpse of your loved one’s favorite cereal that it brings you to your knees. And then there is the quiet time—the time at 3am, when you feel like you are the only person awake in the whole world—alive and aware of your own thoughts and feelings. Getting through that is tough, and I have sent many late night emails to my clients with the subject line, “I know you are awake right now.” Indeed, you might feel anxious and sad one day, only to feel lighthearted and cheerful the next. Therefore, understand that grief doesn’t come in well-planned-out stages, but via oscillating swings that diminish and increase in both frequency and intensity until a person is able to reach a level of emotional adjustment.
  • Grief isn’t a permanent state. It’s a severe condition to be sure, as well as self-limiting, but the acute stage of this condition, and the core symptoms such as anxiety, depression, shock, and intrusive thoughts, tend to begin dissipating after six months for some people who have faced the death of an immediate family member. Again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Per my own studies and consultations, it is my personal belief that the majority of sufferers are able to resume normal functioning between 18 months and two years after an event. While loss may be something that you experience for the rest of your life—the acute pain of grief tends to alleviate eventually.
  • Time doesn’t necessarily make memories any easier. I often prepare my clients to think about the realities of each passing year—a birthday, Father’s day, Christmas, an anniversary. It’s easy to shut your eyes and say, “I just wish it was the day after that day!” Instead, gut wrenching sobs become the lonely connection with the one who won’t be there for this holiday, that celebration. Or, you work to try to not feel anything at all. To this I say that it is possible to celebrate a life passed while keeping on living yours. As I stated in the opening line of this article, don’t put yourself in the grave when your heart is still beating. You are worth more than that. You have a life to live, and you have to be thankful the days, occasions, holidays, and events that are going to continue to come. It is your right and privilege to still recognize them.
  • Grief is unique to each one of us. I have heard people express to me that they “weren’t sure they were handling the grieving process right.” Immediately, I have told these individuals that their grief will be as individual as they are as a person. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Everyone will be different. My advice is to do the things that will take care of you. This might be a distraction such as housework, or journaling, or anything else that offers you help and a feeling or normalcy. Don’t feel like you need to handle the loss the way that someone else did, and don’t guilt yourself into believing that you are “doing it wrong.” There’s no such thing.

In closing, realize there are few “rules” about this new normal in your life, even while grief is one of the most complicated processes any person can face. There is a light at the end of the tunnel—that I promise you. For more information about how BLT Strategies can help you manage life altering change, don't hesitate to contact our office directly.

Mary Ellen Wasielewski