More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
There's no 'right' or 'wrong' way to mourn after a death
January 13, 2006
by Judy Foreman, Baltimore Sun

Grieving used to be seen as a very straightforward process: You cried at the funeral. You were sad for a few months. Then you had some "closure" and got on with your life.

Psychologists - both pop and professional - thought that anyone who didn't cry at the funeral or was still crying a year later was either heartless or overly emotional.

But, mercifully, the emerging view among mental health experts is that grieving for a lost loved one is really a disorderly, highly idiosyncratic process - that there are no set stages to go through and no "normal" or "right" way to do it.

For Lynn Osborn, 48, who lost her husband to Lou Gehrig's disease four years ago after a slow, awful decline, the grieving process "has been very personal, and it's still not over yet," she said. "Fortunately, it never occurred to me that there was a 'right' way to grieve."

Osborn, a vivacious woman with a passion for rowing and ballet who is the mother of two sets of twins, now aged 8 and 11, has become something of an expert on grief. She lost her father suddenly to a car crash 16 years ago ("I had had breakfast with him that morning. I came home to a phone call saying he had been killed.").

Though she had much more time to prepare for her husband's death, it was no less terrible when it actually came than her father's had been, she said.

As the disease slowly robbed her husband Charley (also a rower) of his ability to pick up his children, feed himself, talk and, toward the end, even blink and smile, Lynn spoke with a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. "I told him I felt there was a freight train coming. He said, 'There is a freight train coming. And there is nothing you can do to prepare for it.'"

Osborn said that insight proved liberating - and very different from the kind of counseling someone in her position might have received in the past.

In the old days, following (or perhaps twisting) the advice of Dr. Sigmund Freud, there was a virtual commandment for people to "process" their grief intensely, then "let go" and, as soon as possible, "move on," experts said.

But newer research has shown that there is no right way to grieve.

Some people get depressed when a loved one dies. Some don't. Some move on reasonably quickly. Others maintain a relationship with the deceased, which new research indicates is healthy, not depressing.

"The idea that grief is necessarily a debilitating experience is not true. We cope much better than our social expectations say we will," said psychologist George Bonanno of Columbia University Teachers College in New York, who has shown that among a group of "normal, everyday people," only about half will become depressed at any point during their grieving process.

Maintaining a "continuing bond" with the person who has died is also normal. That doesn't mean living in the past, but honoring the ways in which the relationship, in a sense, still goes on, said Phyllis R. Silverman, an associate in the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of the 2004 book Widow to Widow. The relationship with the dead person "is a part of who we are. So much of our life is still connected to that person."

It's also very common - and not crazy - for bereaved people to talk to the person they have lost, according to Roxane Cohen Silver of the University of California, Irvine. "There is no sign that is unhealthy," she said.

It is also normal to feel distressed when you realize you are moving on, said Silver, noting the case of a patient who had lost a child: "One of the worst days of her life was when she realized she had gone 15 minutes without thinking about her baby. She realized she was feeling better, but that also got her upset."

Although there's no way to fully prepare emotionally for the expected death of a loved one and no "right" way to grieve afterward, there are a few things that can help, said Dr. John Rolland, a psychiatrist and co-director of the Center for Family Health, an affiliate of the University of Chicago.

In a couple, if the husband has a potentially fatal disease and the couple has had traditional gender roles, it may help to begin to "reorganize" these roles while the husband is relatively healthy. The wife may want to look for a job, said Rolland. If she doesn't know how to balance the checkbook, he could teach her.

It also helps, he said, to do some "re-prioritizing so that life goals are focused on the here and now, rather than 30 years later."

Researchers used to think that grieving before a loved one's death made things easier later. But many people are still "shocked by how intense the grief is, because they figured they had already done this," said behavioral scientist Kathleen R. Gilbert of Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.

Lynn Osborn has some suggestions, too.

One is to "record your loved one's voice. I didn't figure that out with Charley. But I will do that for my children."

The other is to treasure the time you do have - and did - with the person you love.

"I don't mean to be a Pollyanna, but I had 20 wonderful years with that man," she said. "There are people who don't have one day as happy as I had. It took me six months after Charley died to realize that that feeling will never go away. It's like the Grand Canyon. There's this big hole, and it hurts like hell, but it's beautiful."


great article and very much true. I went out for dinner w/ friends and kept on starring at the candle on our table, b/c four years ago someone I knew comitted suicide and his family asked for one thing: to light a candle for him. It's been four years and it feels like yesterday, same w/ all the other people... I don't know how anyone could ever put a time limit on grief or one 'right' way of grieving, it just doesn't happen the same way for all of us or even for every time.

just mary

Really good article and I have to agree with the following statement,

But many people are still "shocked by how intense the grief is, because they figured they had already done this," said behavioral scientist Kathleen R. Gilbert of Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.

The intensity of grief is crippling. It's funny but I think I've forgotten just how strong it was but I do remember never wanting to experience it again. However, I know it's part of life and that I'll have to go through it again. Thanks again for the article.
I was 9 when my dad died...that was about 9 years ago...i was allowed to cry at the funeral but after that I never cried again and it wouldn't have been looked at as a good thing to cry in my mom and sister and I never talked about my dad again...sometimes i wish I would have cried more at now I am so conditioned not to cry that I haven't cried for emotional reasons in mom always told me that to succeed in life I had to be stronger than anyone else b/c if you show emotion (which to her and I means weakness) you will be taken advantage of...the thing is now I know I need to cry but it's just been to long and now when I feel myself getting emotional I always have some joke to crack b/c it hurts to much to cry
I think it's really sad when someone won't allow someone else to cry and grieve. Maybe you could write down some of your feelings and memories about your dad if it's too painful to cry.
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