The Normal, Never-Normal Anguish of Grief

Trees
In grief, the seasons of life need to unfold…

She is crying. I reassure her it’s normal.

He hasn’t shed a tear. I reassure him that’s normal.

After several days of her loving adult children gathered to support her, the mother—now a widow, though she already dislikes the label whenever it appears on a form—tells me she wishes her kids would leave and give her a little private space. But she can’t muster the courage to tell them.

I tell her that’s normal.

[Disclaimer]

The nurse who visited the Hmong-American family (or substitute Russian-American or Mexican-American) after the beloved patriarch died reported that some of the family were drunk, some wailed, some argued, some crowded in the house, and some remained outside. Most told the nurse they appreciated hospice’s care while a few blamed hospice for his death. In her report for the medical chart, the nurse wrote the family’s grief was . . .

Normal.

But in hospice, and in grief, is there such a thing as normal?

When contacting family and friends after a death, I’m asked a host of questions that can be answered with: “It’s normal.” After a father’s death, a son plunges into his job, juggling long-neglected paperwork as he simultaneously handles his parents’ estate. “If I’m busy,” he informs me in a call lasting a scant two minutes, “I don’t have to think about anything.” His younger sister, raised in the same family, can’t face returning to her job. She gets her kids ready for school (likely Zoom, this fall) and also reminds her husband to take his face mask as he leaves for his commute. She tells me, in a call interrupted by sniffling and long pauses, “I can barely make it through a day. If I’m not thinking of Pops, I’m searching the house for something I misplaced or putting my son’s socks in my daughter’s dresser. I’m a mess.”

One is a son; one is a daughter. One is a man; one is a woman. Of course, they are different? And, of course, normal for one is not normal for the other. But I could flip the scenario and the answer would remain the same. If the sister were frantic, overloading her schedule with obligations, and the brother slumped in the backyard all day to study the grass growing while tears creased his cheeks, I would say . . .

This is normal.

I sometimes think that normal is the most and least reassuring word I use when trying to comfort, and be honest with, the grieving. How can I answer “normal” when someone shares,

  • I can’t sleep and don’t want to go to bed.
  • I can’t get out of bed.
  • I eat nothing but junk food.
  • I’m eating nothing.
  • I start a project and never finish it.
  • I’m trying to work all the time now.

How do you survive the normal, never-normal anguish of grief? Here are a few modest recommendations:

Being Grateful . . . I am a firm believer in writing down what I am grateful for today. I’ve been doing this on my Facebook page for several years. You don’t need to be a “writer” to do this. It can be private diary or journal, only seen by you. (Misspelled words and incomplete sentences are just fine!) You may not be able to start this for many weeks or months (or longer) after a beloved’s death, but if you begin, please try it for a while. At first you may only be grateful for surviving another crappy day . . . and that’s all you can manage to write. But a day may come when you recall the laughter of a grandchild or the smell of fresh cut grass or the friend you shared coffee with . . . and you scribble on paper or computer screen about your appreciation for a giggle or a kind word. As the daily gratitudes accumulate, maybe you’ll glance back to see you’ve done a little healing.

A Grief Group . . . Join a grief support group. Many faith communities sponsor groups for those struggling with loss. A nearby hospice will likely offer groups or will may have suggestions for other resources in your community. Okay, I would guess some who read about participating in a group might resist this option. Which is fine, because that’s . . . normal. Groups are not for everyone. But being with others also grieving the death of a loved one can be an important step in healing. Wouldn’t it be good to know someone else shares your fears, struggles with sleep, or you can learn what others do about dealing with dinner on a lonely night?

Talk and Share . . . Talk as often as you can with a trusted friend, grief counselor, or clergy. Okay, again, this won’t work for everyone. Normal for some, even with friends, is to be guarded and shy. You don’t like sharing with “strangers,” and any counselor is a stranger before meeting them. And your pastor or priest or imam is always so busy. You dread others judgment or cheerleading and will “work it out myself.” I get it. I’m an introvert and, while I enjoy people, I need my alone time. Nonetheless, I think many—even the shy, private, or do-it-yourselfers—might benefit from a counselor/clergy who understands grief. Conversations with a non-judgmental friend can be beneficial for both of you.

I will leave those seeking “normal” with one final, inadequate thought. At the hospice where I work, the grief support groups have 10-12 sessions at three different start times: fall, spring, summer. Every group covers two seasons. Autumn groups conclude in winter. The spring group’s first sessions occur in winter. Summer’s groups journey from late spring blossoms to the dog days of August.

It’s often said time will heal, but isn’t it more what time has a chance to reveal?

In grief, the seasons of life need to unfold. Grief’s seasons are never based on a timetable, but revealed and healed as we risk sharing with others who care about us.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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Comments

  1. I’ve been a hospice nurse for 30 years. We are so damn strong. We support everyone. We tell so many “this is normal”. But when we have personal grief…… what do we do with it…. well tomorrow is busy…. and we tell another family their experience is “normal”… and we go on… because that is what we are paid to do….
    but then we read something such as this…. and we weep….

    • Barbara:

      There is a LOT between the lines of your words. Pay attention to your weeping. It is essential, in hospice work, to be “so damn strong,” especially for our patients. But it’s also essential to recognize our weaknesses and wounds . . . and our own grief. I hope there is a trusted friend/family member/colleague you can talk with, be silent with, share tears with.

      Take care.

  2. Dearest Brother of mine……so true. Normal. It’s all normal. But it doesn’t feel normal. Grief seems overpowering some days. In control others. Normal. Some days – or weeks now – I don’t even think about it. Then….I turn around and there Grief is..,waiting.

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