Grief can’t be scheduled.
When it comes to timetables for how long a person will grieve in a particular way, there’s one rule that applies to everyone: there is no timetable.
Processing grief takes as long as it takes and can’t be rushed — so don’t try to speed it along.
When you want to comfort or support someone whose loved one has died, avoid making comments like:
“Are you feeling better yet?”
“I thought you’d be more like yourself by now.”
“When are you going to get over it?”
“Why haven’t you already … [anything!]?”
“Are you still sad?”
“But you were doing better, so why are you having a hard time again?”
These and other “time trigger” words indicate disapproval to the bereaved. Hearing your expectations of what you think they “should” feel or accomplish does not motivate or inspire grieving survivors toward healing. Rather, it reinforces the enormity of change wrought in their lives. Consider, for a moment, what the bereaved have been doing with their time and energy.
Working through the emotional pain of grief is exhausting. In the earliest weeks and months after my husband’s death, getting out of bed in the morning or, more often, rolling off the couch (as most nights I couldn’t face our empty bed) took as much physical strength and concentration as I could muster. Not that I’d slept much or well in either place. Showering and putting on clean clothes was daunting. Remembering to fill my lungs and to empty my water glass on a regular basis required excruciating effort. On top of that, I took on the legal and financial tasks of closing his accounts and tending to all the “costs of death.” (If you haven’t done this, I’m glad for you. If you have, you’re wincing now, aren’t you?) Most importantly, I was a widowed parent — all the responsibilities of parenting were mine alone.
In summary, I didn’t sleep, seldom remembered to eat or drink, and shouldered sole responsibility for upkeep of finances, house, yard, and car — as well as my far more important daughter (and the dog). I was mourning the loss of my husband and all our future plans. I was mourning the loss of my children’s father and all that they were mourning, too.
So on days when I managed to arise from a soft surface, wash my face and brush my hair, slip into appropriate attire, and venture into public, I felt pretty good about my accomplishments! Until I met someone who greeted me with their expectation of my “recovery” timetable.
Then I just wanted to crawl back to bed.
When you talk with your grieving friends, tell them you’re proud of them for whatever they have achieved — no matter how small it may seem to you. Let them know it’s okay they’re feeling whatever emotions are roiling at the moment. Reassure them they’ll get wherever they wish to go whenever the time is right for them.
You might just leave them with a smile that keeps them out of bed for the day.
(And if your distraught friend needs a day to climb back into pajamas, hand over your teddy bear.)
Thank you for sharing your insight. It’s true that there is no set time frame for grief, since each person grieves differently. And even long after the intense period of grief is over, it is never really “over.” It hits you at the most unexpected moment.
“And even long after the intense period of grief is over, it is never really “over.” It hits you at the most unexpected moment.”
Yes, it does! It took me a while to accept that for myself with my own grief, so I understand how those not experiencing it may find it strange. Thank you, Yumi.