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Understanding Mourning

Is there a proper way to mourn?

The impact of bereavement and grief over the loss of a loved one causes most people to grieve and mourn. It is a mistake to set a time limit for so-called “normal” bereavement. “Come on, it’s over six months since Henry died. It’s time for you to accept it and move on.” While some might think the foregoing statement is fair, in fact there are wide individual differences among peoples’ reactions, emotions, personalities, beliefs, and cultural values. Anyone who has experienced a profound loss should be allowed to express his or her grief, and in some cases, this could take years to diminish because the emotional upheavals feel like a roller-coaster with ups and downs. Also, question the accuracy of those theorists who maintain that there are a series of stages and phases which most people experience. Their studies suggest that there is a recognized pattern of reactions starting with a feeling of numbness and disbelief, which progresses through other stages such as denial, deep sadness, and anger before a final acceptance and resolution is achieved.

Nevertheless, it is most important to underscore that the nuances and painful feelings that accompany grief are experienced in a unique matter. This is because mourning is often the result of a severe, emotional injury or trauma that, like all deep wounds, will be felt, reacted to, and, one hopes, heal in an individualistic way.

In many instances, intense grief is accompanied by widespread emotional distress wherein a mourner may have memory problems, find it difficult to think, become disorganized, and struggle to perform day-to-day activities. He or she may not feel like eating, have problems sleeping, and experience needless guilt and self-blame. Indeed, statistical research indicates that 10 to 15 percent of grievers become severely distressed to the extent where professional treatment may be needed.

Even so, it is usually inadvisable to rush in with psychotropic drugs. While they may be appropriate for some, for most people deep, emotional processing of the psychic pain should be experienced. Hence, mourners need time and emotional support which can come from family members, close friends, sessions with an understanding mental health professional (preferably a well-trained grief counselor), or community support groups. It is not easy to resolve the intense emotions and the profound life changes that are associated with the demise of a loved one, or a very important person in our lives. After a sense of acceptance develops, the pain of grief usually diminishes, but the emotional involvement with memories of the deceased may persist indefinitely. Thus, many people never simply “get over it” but rather come to terms and make peace with their lives despite the permanent void of the loved one.

What's more, grief reactions are extremely complex. They are not confined to human loss. People whose beloved pet dies often react as strongly (maybe stronger) than they would about a human being. To say to a mourner, “It’s only a dog!” is apt to give rise to a lifelong resentment and/or alienation.

Moreover, ambivalent feelings complicate the picture, too. I have seen some couples in a dysfunctional marriage replete with physical and emotional abuse in which the abusive spouse died and the widows or widowers felt nothing but relief. Yet in other cases of abuse, the survivor expressed regret, sadness, guilt, and misery.

While it is true that the passage of time helps to heal the emotional wound of mourning, it is important to be active as soon and as much as possible instead of just passively waiting for time to pass. If one did little more for five years than sit and mope, 1,826 days would elapse but it is unlikely that it would help the situation. Thus, It is not the mere passage of time that helps, but how the time is spent, what actions are taken, that is equally important. This is because, as I like to say, “The head and the heart will follow the feet,” meaning that our action (feet) strongly influences our feelings (heart) and thinking (head). That’s why, as soon as one feels even a little bit up to it, it is wise to engage and participate in activities and involvements that can facilitate the healing instead of withdrawing, socially disconnecting, and isolating. Of course, this, too, needs to be individually calibrated. Some people might feel ready to quickly jump back into the regular routines of life while others might need much more time to feel, reflect, process, and more gradually recuperate.

In essence, the best, basic advice to those in mourning is do not rush, take your time to work through the pain and the void, seek assistance from understanding and sagacious people, consider grief counseling as an option, and try to keep active.

To reiterate: Despite being a near-universal experience, most people experience mourning in a unique way.

There are no specific stages of grief. Different people experience the process in different ways and there is no set timeframe during which mourning is supposed to happen.

While the passage of time usually helps, how time is spent while mourning and recuperating is very important, too.

If a mourner is severely affected to the extent that he or she simply cannot function in daily activities, after a few weeks, professional assistance could be indicated.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well.

Copyright by Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D.

In loving memory of Professor Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D., ABPP (January 27, 1932 to October 1, 2013).

The man who ushered in the era of effective psychotherapy, was most responsible for the development of CBT, and who was my Dad.