Normal Mourning and "Complicated Grief"

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D.

The objective of a normal mourning is to bring about the end of the mourning so the survivors can get on with their lives.
It is expected that after a period of sorrow and actively missing the deceased, survivors would start attending to the "here and now," and take care of the tasks that lie ahead.  We can't go on enhancing our attachment an dinterest in the person who is gone.
Survivors, at a certain point, harsh and disloyal though it may sound in the beginning, have to detach themselves from the deceased and reattach themselves to the other survivors.  Forming new social relationships and reviving old ones do help us.

The time frame for grieving provided by professionals can be used as a rough guideline to determine if the grief recovery is proceeding normally or if it is taking an unduly long time.

The intense grieving phase is supposed to last about two months and the active grieving phase for about fifteen to eighteen months.  However, you do not have to rigidly adhere to this time frame and suffer extraordinary pain in the hope that it will all disappear as you reach the end of the specified period.

This is what I tell survivors,  "You don't have to wait for two months or eighteen months if you feel that the grief is too intense to bear or, if you are experiencing suicidal thoughts.  If you have severe disruption or if you are unable to sleep, eat or rest, and find that you are reaching the end of your tolerance, the time to take help is now." 

Everyone does not take the same length of time for grieving. Some take less time and that does not mean they love the lost person any less.  Some take longer time in active grieving and that does not mean that they are weaker than others or that they are never going to get over their grief.  It really depends on how intense your pain is and how you function in your daily life at home, work and in relationships.

If you are not suicidal, and the problem of sleeping, eating or resting is not out of control, a longer period than eighteen months does not necessarily mean that your grieving has become abnormal.  However, it will still be wise to consult a grief counselor to "process" your grief.

Understand, that on birthdays, anniversaries, Mother's Day, Father's Day, major holidays, at times of significant personal events, unusual circumstances and hardships, intense grief reaction may occur even after several years of losing your loved one.  

However, if these reactions start to disrupt your day-to-day functioning, seek help. Many churches, funeral homes and professional groups and also work on one-to-one basis.  

After the active grieving period is completed, in normal circumstances, a survivor should be able to remember the lost person without the emotional upheaval and excessive distress.

Some survivors are apprehensive of well-wishes and helpers, lest they should ask them to "forget" their loved one.  Some worry that they can never get over their pain because they will never be able to forget their loved one. I assure them, "You don't have to try to forget your loved one.  To forget is not a solution.  However, you sure can get to a point when you can remember your loved one without the intense pain you are experiencing now." 

Intense grieving may look like a severe depression or, what is referred to as "major depression" by mental health professionals.  Intense grieving may include "constantly" (most of the day nearly every day for perhaps two weeks)) depressed mood and absence of all interest and pleasure; disturbance of sleep, appetite and energy level; diminished speed and ability for doing any physical and mental work.

If these problems go on beyond two months with-out relief, they have gone beyond the duration of normal "mourning."  It is a "major depressive episode with complicated grief."  Professional intervention is needed at this point.

An occasional death wish and fleeing suicidal ideas are normal in the first two months, but if suicidal ideas are more than occasional, or if a survivor starts contemplating the ways and means for committing suicide, or fears that he or she may act on these ideas, help must be sought immediately.

After the first couple months of the loss, a survivor is often sad, weepy, broody over the lost relationship, withdrawn from others, lost into oneself, reminiscing, often angry, upset and feeling helpless.  This is the phase of activating grieving.  In about fifteen to eighteen months, active grieving tapers off, a survivor resumes all responsibilities, forms new bonds and reorients to the existing relationships.  

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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