When Should Someone Be Finished Grieving?

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March 23 2012 4:45 PM

When Should Someone Be Finished Grieving?

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This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Andy Johns, Product Manager - User Growth, Quora.

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My mom died when I was 10 years old. Now I'm a 29 year old man. Having dealt with her loss for nearly 20 years I can tell you that grief does not go away. The intensity of grief may change over time and the characteristics of grief you experience change as well. Yet grief rooted in the death of a loved one never goes away and that is a good thing.

Grieving is not about making it end as quickly as possible. Grieving is an essential human process and it should be embraced, not ignored or expedited. As Steve Jobs said, "Death is very likely the single greatest invention of life." It's life's change-agent and you should think about grief as the environment in which change happens. For example, read about Dashrath Majhi in the thread What are the most gripping stories in human history? After the death of his wife this man spent 22 years single-handedly cutting a path through a nearby mountain range so that other villagers could access local medical help more easily. From the loss of his wife this man changed the lives of others. I'm sure that every time he picked up his tools he felt grief yet he was transformed through that process into a humanitarian.

My point isn't that everyone will respond in a similarly monumental fashion. But death changes us and grief is the environment in which that change happens. With that being said I would encourage you to ask the question differently. Don't ask about how quickly you can end the grief. Instead you should ask "When can I start and what might I experience along the way?"

If I were to describe the nature of grief I would describe grief with these words: seasonal, imperceptible yet influential, interminable.

Seasonal - from what I've experienced I can say that grief has a periodicity to it. The seasonality of grief during the Holidays is a common example. For many people the Holidays means spending time with the people you love and that is true even for those that aren't physically here anymore. The seasonality of grief can also set in when the date of that person's death comes up or when their birthday rolls around. The seasonality of grief also exists in larger intervals that tend to be defined by major developmental periods in your life. For example, my grief at the loss of my mom when I was 10 - 12 years old was very different than the grief I experience as a nearly 30 year old man.

As a kid my grief happened in the absence of having an adult relationship with my mom and an adult understanding of what death and dying means. All you know is the anguish of loss and the separation anxiety that comes with it. As an adult I experience grief in a different way. When I think about having a family of my own someday I think about how I wish she could have been around to meet them. I think about what she might say to me as a grown man at times when I could use motherly advice. In other words, I've come to realize that she is still parenting me, even in death. And as I reach certain pivot points in my life (changing a job, buying my first place, having serious relationships) that the grief of her loss makes a contribution to the decisions I make and that will continue to be the case as I go through each major transition in my life. 

Imperceptible yet influential - grief will be most acute early on. The pain will subside as time goes and the grief itself may momentarily pass. Yet the loss and grief you experienced will continue to influence who you are and what you do imperceptibly in the future. In my case grief influenced me in the form of achievement. The loss was too much for me to handle as a kid so at one point my mind made the decision that it was going to turn off the grief switch and turn on the achievement switch and I went on to spend the next 19 years trying to accomplish everything I could. I did not make the mind shift intentionally. It just sort of happened.

I became a competitive athlete in every sport I played. I graduated high school with a 4.32 GPA. I graduated from UCLA in just under 3.5 years while paying my way through college. I started running marathons. I got bored with that. Then I started running ultra marathons. In recent years I had a full-time job but managed to start my own company based out of New Zealand during my free time on nights and weekends. I sold that. Then I started looking for more to do.

All those things are good things. I'm proud of them! But at some point you need to be able to sit back, relax, do less, and be completely content with yourself because if you don't you'll burn out since that's too much pressure for anyone to place on themselves. It took me nearly 20 years to realize that I was doing these things because of the imperceptible influence of the ongoing grief associated with my mom's death. I was trying to live a meaningful life since my mom's life was cut short and I wasn't going to die without making mine remarkable. I've felt that way since I was 10 years old but couldn't really put it into words until now.

Interminable - pretty much everyone on this thread has said it, including myself, but I'll say it again. The grief will not go away entirely. It will become much more manageable with time and with effort. Expect that the grief will disappear and reappear throughout your life. That's the natural state of things. People are meant to form close bonds with one another and have loving relationships. We're built for it whether you want to call it a divine gift or biological evolution. So along with love you should expect grief. It's a part of the human condition. 

For me, I've gone through two distinct periods of intense grieving at the loss of my mom. The first period took place when I was 10 - 12 years old. The change it created made my life better. I grew closer with my older brothers and today they are my best friends, I succeeded in school, sports, and having a social life and that led me to loving my time in high school and college. I've been very fortunate with my career at this point having worked for a handful of great companies. I've been able to travel and do some epic things like run a marathon in Florence, Italy and a 50 mile ultra marathon most recently.

About a year ago I entered the second stage of grieving (and it wasn't easy!) but I approached it aggressively and constructively and it's already starting to produce returns. I'm now living in my own place and more comfortable being by myself than I've ever been. I'm developing a more grounded approach to life in that I don't feel as pressured to always be succeeding (it wears you down!), and I can feel that I'm emotionally maturing to a point that will set me up for meeting someone and starting a family of my own someday. I'm even evaluating what I want to do with my career and find myself fascinated with figuring out how over the next couple of years I can invest more of my work into helping others. In short, I'm thinking about what I want my life's work to be and helping others seems to be at the core of it. That is a very healthy process and the sort of change that you can expect by proactively approaching the grieving process.

Almost certainly I'll enter more phases of grieving later in life but I know that with each cycle things get better after a period of things getting worse. So I'll reiterate by saying that you should think of grieving differently than the way the question was asked. Don't think about how quickly you can get the grief over with and don't think you can avoid it either. Grief will surface one way or another. It is best that you approach grief as a healthy process and one that produces change that prepares you for the next phase in your life.

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