What Is This Thing Called Grief?

At some point, grief and mourning will be a part of most of our lives. But what is grief? What is mourning?

The dictionary says grief is deep mental suffering or distress brought about by a significant loss. Most often, we think of this in relation to the death of a loved one. However, you will see similar reactions to other closely held losses: divorce, loss of a job, breakup of a long-term relationship, a child leaving home, or the death of a beloved pet.

Grief and mourning are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Grief is something that happens internally. Mourning is the outward, visible display of our grief. In our society, grief is okay. Do as much of it as you want. Just don’t let others know it’s going on. Mourning, the outward display of our grief, is frowned upon, if not forbidden. You can cry at the funeral, but two weeks later, when your compassionate leave is up, keep it hidden.

Things were different in the past when the widow wore black for one year. In some traditions, to this day, men wear a black armband for a year.

Why one year? Why not six months? Or two years? The idea was that with the passage of one year, the griever would pass through all the painful reminder days: the birthdays, the anniversaries, the family days of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukkah, and the special, little remembrance days we all have. Many are shocked when they wake up on the 366th day and find they are no different than they were on the 365th.

If not one year, how long does it take to get over it? You never get completely over it. I like the term adapt. You adapt to your life without your loved one. Most people adapt and live productive, meaningful lives. How long does it take to adapt? That varies from individual to individual. It takes as long as it takes, and that is a lot longer than most people think. Good research, however, has found some reliable approximations of adaptation times.

In general, it takes twelve to eighteen months to adapt to the death of an older parent, two to three years in the case of a spouse, and three to six years in the case of a child. These times are often prolonged if the death was unexpected, violent, or a death stigmatized by society, such as suicide, drug overdose, and substance abuse.

There are many losses that may accompany grief.

It’s been said that when you lose a parent, you lose a large piece of your past. When you lose a child, you lose much of your future. When you lose a brother or sister, you lose a good bit of both.

When you lose a spouse, you lose a significant place in society. You are no longer a part of a couple, and many social events are geared for pairs, not singles. If you are older, you may face a future alone. If you are younger, you must contend with rearing children alone and finances, especially if the primary earner died. Added to these is the question of dating or remarriage.

However we may state it, grief cannot be avoided. The only way out is through. What can you expect as you plow forward through your grief? We will begin that discussion next Thursday.