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When someone you care about has died it’s always normal to grieve. When you’ve suffered another big loss — like a broken relationship or a failed career — it’s always normal to grieve.
But not all grief is always normal. If months have passed and you still feel stuck in your grief, or if you’re finding ways to avoid dealing with your emotions, you may have complicated grief.
Grief is hard to understand. A licensed mental health care professional can help you learn where you are in the grieving process and whether learning new skills could help you regain a sense of balance in your life.
The information in this article can help you navigate grief, but it can’t replace a conversation with a therapist who can help you find solutions that are customized for your unique experience.
What is abnormal grieving?
Our brains love categories. Sorting our experiences into categories gives us a fast way to measure how we’re doing in any area of life, and “normal” and “abnormal” are two of our go-to labels.
Grief, however, is far too complex for these surface labels. Everybody grieves differently, so everyone’s experience with grief is unique and hard to characterize. What may seem abnormal to some grieving people is normal and healthy for others.
That said, healthy forms of grief share some recognizable traits, and these traits can help us understand when grief is abnormal or unhealthy.
What does healthy grieving look like?
Healthy, normal grief evolves slowly over time. Its initial, debilitating symptoms usually ease as the first weeks and months pass. These intense emotions tend to give way, gradually, to more subtle emotional responses. Those emotions slowly change, too, as you adjust to your new life without the person, place, or thing you’ve lost.
Avoid applying expiration dates to grief. Some people may need to grieve for years while others may need only months to process a similar loss. That’s OK. Both timeframes are normal.
We should also never compare our emotions with another person’s grief experience. For example, some people may feel angry for days while others spend those days in denial. Again, both grieving people are evolving and learning how to deal with grief. All of this is normal.
What are the stages of grief and loss?
When asked to define normal grief, a lot of people will bring up the five stages of grief, the seven stages of grief, or maybe even the 12 stages of grief. These are all popular ways to understand grief, once again, by sorting human emotions into categories.
These types of models offer more categories than just “normal” and “abnormal,” so they can be more useful — but only when they’re applied generally to someone’s grief journey. These models are not a checklist, a to-do list, or a map for any individual’s journey through grief.
Why? Because very few, if any, people will go through the stages, or phases, of grief in order. Instead, people experience the stages more sporadically. Some people experience different stages at the same time. Just about everybody will jump back and forth between stages on any given day, or within any given hour.
The five stages of grief
So what are the stages? The Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the “five stages of grief” model in 1969:
- Denial: In the earliest moments or days of grief, some people can convince themselves the terrible loss didn’t happen. Symptoms during this phase can also include numbness, shock, and nausea.
- Anger: Grieving people might feel angry because they couldn’t prevent the loss or because the loss feels so unfair.
- Bargaining: As they grapple with the loss, some people find themselves trying to make a deal with a higher power to take away the pain or the new reality of the loss.
- Depression: Turning inward, grieving people avoid interacting with others. The sadness may seem too profound to share with others.
- Acceptance: There’s no longer any doubt that the loss happened, and the grieving person is starting to learn how to cope with the grief.
Again, in a real-life experience with grief, there are a lot of gray areas between these phases. Reaching a state of acceptance isn’t the end goal of the grieving process. It’s more like a new beginning, the beginning of a new life that includes grief as well as new experiences.
How long is too long for grieving?
Since everyone grieves differently, it’s not fair to enforce a deadline on normal grief. But, once again, some general norms can help define a typical timeline for the grieving process.
This typical timeframe often ranges from six months to three years. The amount of time you’ll need to grieve will depend on the significance and circumstances of your loss along with other factors such as spiritual beliefs, age, and pre-existing mental and physical health conditions.
Let’s be clear: Any normal journey through grief can be shorter, or longer, than this typical timeframe.
If you’re worried you’ve been grieving for too long, try to determine whether your grief has changed. If your symptoms have slowly grown less intense as time has passed, you may still be experiencing healthy grief.
If time has passed and grief remains at its worst, or if you’re stuck in a cycle of grief you can’t find a way out of, you may have complicated grief.
Complicated grief: When grieving never ends
Complicated grief may feel endless and unchanging. People with complicated grief may give up and start using work, exercise, alcohol, drugs, social interactions, or some other stimulus to distract themselves from the pain of the loss.
This is not healthy.
Often, people who experience complicated grief need help finding a way out of the cycle. A conversation with a friend or family member can help. Joining a support group might help, too.
The best help usually comes from a mental health care provider, a trained professional who knows how to help you develop better skills.
For people in the High Point, Greensboro, and Winston-Salem areas, Mental Health Associates of the Triad is here to help. If you live somewhere else, ask your general practitioner about qualified mental health clinics in your area or look for a therapist online.
The pain of your loss may never fully go away, so your grief will always be with you. With the right kind of help, you can start building a new life — one that includes grief but does not include only grief.
Reviewed by Karen Rudd, LMFT, LCAS