You're Not Going Crazy - You're Grieving!

Older woman reflecting on loss

Society erroneously implies that if you, as a grieving person, openly express your feelings of grief, you are immature. If your feelings are fairly intense, you may be labeled “overly emotional.”  If your feelings are extremely intense, you may even be referred to as “crazy” or a “pathological mourner.”

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, C. T.

It’s common for people in grief to feel like they’re going crazy. For example, you might not be able to keep track of what day or time it is. Your short-term memory might suffer. You might repeat yourself. Your moods may fluctuate wildly. You might start sobbing in the middle of the grocery store. You might feel the need to surround yourself with special objects that belonged to the person who died. You might have wild dreams. You may even feel the presence of the person who died or catch glimpses of him or her.

Older woman reflecting on loss

In grief, all of these experiences are normal and natural. Rest assured, you’re not crazy—you’re grieving. The two can feel remarkably similar sometimes.

In his beautiful book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis described his experience after the death of his wife. He wrote, “An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet… Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.”

As he says, society often tends to make mourners feel intense shame and embarrassment about feelings of grief. I’m not surprised that the most often-asked questions I get from grieving people is, “Am I crazy?”

Shame can be described as the feeling that something you are doing is bad. And you may feel that if you mourn, then you should be ashamed.  If, on the other hand, you are perceived as “doing well” with your grief, you are considered “strong” and “under control.”  The message is that the well-controlled person stays rational at all times.

Combined with this message is another one. Society erroneously implies that if you, as a grieving person, openly express your feelings of grief, you are immature. If your feelings are fairly intense, you may be labeled “overly emotional.”  If your feelings are extremely intense, you may even be referred to as “crazy” or a “pathological mourner.”

Feelings and experiences that often come about when you’re mourning the death of someone loved may make you feel like you’re going crazy, but you’re not. Here’s why.

Disorganization, Confusion, Searching, Yearning

Perhaps the most isolating and frightening part of your grief journey is the sense of disorganization, confusion, searching and yearning that often comes with the loss. These experiences frequently arise when you begin to be confronted with the reality of the death. As one grieving person said, “I felt as if I were a lonely traveler with no companion and worse yet, no destination. I couldn’t find myself or anybody else.”

This dimension of grief may cause the “going crazy” syndrome. In grief, thoughts and behaviors are different from what you normally experience. It’s only natural that you may not know if your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are normal or abnormal. The experiences described below are common after a death. A major goal of this article is to simply validate these experiences so you will know you are not crazy!

After the death of someone loved, you may feel a sense of restlessness, agitation, impatience and ongoing confusion. It’s like being in the middle of a wild, rushing river where you can’t get a grasp on anything. Disconnected thoughts race through your mind, and strong emotions may be overwhelming.

You may express disorganization and confusion in your inability to complete any tasks. You may start a project but be unable to finish it. You may be forgetful and ineffective at work. Early morning and late at night are times when you may feel most disoriented and confused. These feelings are often accompanied by fatigue and lack of initiative. Everyday pleasures may not seem to matter anymore.

You may also experience a restless searching for the person who has died. Yearning and preoccupation with memories can leave you feeling drained. Yes, the work of mourning is draining. It often leaves you feeling wiped out.

You might even experience a shift in perception; other people may begin to resemble the person who died. You might be at a shopping mall, look down a hallway and think you catch a glimpse of the person you loved so much. Or you might see a car go past similar to the car driven by the person who died, and you might find yourself following the car! Sometimes you might hear the garage door or front door open and the footsteps of the person who died entering the house as he or she had done so many times in the past. If these experiences are happening to you, remember—you are not crazy!

Other common experiences during this time include difficulties with eating and sleeping. You may experience a loss of appetite or find yourself overeating. Even when you do eat, you may be unable to taste the food. Difficulty in going to sleep and early morning awakening also are common experiences associated with this dimension of grief.

You might find it helpful to remember that disorganization following loss always comes before any kind of re-orientation. Some people will try to have you bypass any kind of disorganization or confusion. Remember—it simply cannot be done. While it may seem strange, keep in mind that your disorganization and confusion are actually steppingstones on your path toward healing.

Time Distortion

“I don’t know what day it is, let alone what time it is!” This kind of comment is not unusual when you are mourning. Sometimes, time moves so quickly; at other times, it merely crawls Your sense of past and future may also seem to be frozen in place. You may lose track of what day or even what month it is.

This normal experience of time distortion often plays a part in the “going crazy” syndrome. No, you are not crazy. But if don’t know that time distortion is common in grief, you may think you are.

Obsessive Review or Ruminating

Obsessive review or ruminating are the psychological terms used for describing how you may constantly think about the  circumstances of the death or stories about the person who has died. It’s “telling your story” over and over again, either in your mind or out loud.

This normal process helps bring your head and your heart together! Allow yourself to do this. Blocking it won’t help you heal. Don’t be angry with yourself if you can’t seem to stop wanting to repeat your story. Review or rumination is a powerful and necessary part of the hard work of mourning.

Yes, it hurts to constantly think and talk about the person you loved so much. But remember—all grief wounds get worse before they get better. Be compassionate with yourself. Try to surround yourself with people who allow and encourage you to repeat whatever you need to tell again.

Search for Meaning

Naturally, you try to make sense of why someone you love has died. You may find yourself asking questions like, “Why him or her?” “Why now?” “Why this way?”  Of course, you have questions. You are human and are simply trying to understand your experience. No, answers won’t always be, and often aren’t, specific to your questions. Yet, you still need to give yourself permission to ask them.

As you wrestle with “Why?”, you may be outraged at your God or Higher Power. You may feel a stagnation or disillusionment with your spiritual life as you embrace your pain. On the other hand, you may feel more in touch than ever before with your spirituality. Either way, you can only be where you are.

You may be able to come up with dozens of reasons why this person should not have died under these circumstances at this time. Whatever the nature of number of your questions, asking them is a normal part of your grief journey.

As you explore the meaning of this experience through your questions, be certain not commit “spiritual suicide.” Do not prohibit yourself from asking questions you know are within you, even if the questions seem irreverent or doubting in your faith system. If you do suppress your normal and natural questions, you may shut down your capacity to give and receive love during this vulnerable period in your life.

Be aware that people may try to tell you not to ask questions about your personal search for meaning. Or worse yet, watch out for people who try to provide easy answers to your difficult questions. Most grieving people do not find comfort in pat responses; neither will you. The healing occurs in posing the questions in the first place, not just in finding answers.

Find a friend, group or counselor who will understand your need to search for meaning and be supportive without attempting to offer answers. Companionship and responsive listening can help you explore your religious and spiritual values, question your philosophy of life, and renew your resources for living!

Is This Death God’s Will?

Closely related to the search for meaning is the commonly asked question, “Is this death God’s will?”  If you have a perception of an all-powerful God or Higher Power, you probably find this question particularly difficult.

Sometimes you may reason: “God loves me, so why take this most precious person from me?” Or you may have been told:  “It’s God’s will and you should just accept it and go on.” If you internalize this message, however, you may repress your grief and ignore your human need to mourn.

Repressing your grief because you need to “just accept it and go on” can be self-destructive. If you don’t ask questions and if you don’t express feelings, you may ultimately drown in despair. If your soul does not ask, your body will probably protest. Repressing and denying heartfelt questions can, and often does, keep your wounds from healing. Listen to your questions!

Transitional Objects

Transitional objects are belongings of the person who died. They often can give you comfort. Objects such as clothing, books or prized possessions can help you feel close to someone you miss so much.

For example, when I was counseling a grieving woman, she shared with me that she found it comforting to take one of her husband’s favorite shirts to bed with her. She said, “As I clutched his shirt close to me, I didn’t feel so alone. But as I worked with my grief, my need for the shirt dwindled over time.”

Some people may try to distance you from belongings such as the shirt described above. This behavior fits with the tendency of our culture to move away from grief instead of toward it.

Remember—embrace the comfort provided by familiar objects. To do away with them too soon takes away a sense of security these belongings provide. Once you have moved toward reconciliation, you will probably be better able to decide what to do with them. Some things, however, you may want to keep forever. That’s all right, too. Simply giving away the belongings of the person who died does not equate with healing in your grief.

Nor does keeping some belongings mean that you have “created a shrine.” This phrase is used when someone keeps everything just as it was after the death. Creating a shrine, however, only prevents acknowledging the painful new reality that someone you love has died. Understanding the difference between transitional objects and creating a shrine is important.  The former helps you heal; the latter does not.

Anniversary and Holiday Grief Occasions

Naturally, anniversary and holiday occasions can bring about “pangs” of grief. Birthdays, wedding dates, holidays and other special occasions create a heightened sense of loss. At these times, you may likely experience a grief attack or memory embrace.

Your “pangs” of grief may also occur in response to circumstances that remind you of the painful absence of someone in your life. For many families, certain times have special meaning—such as the beginning of spring, the first snowfall, an annual 4th of July party, and the person who died is more deeply missed at those times.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that these reactions are natural. Sometimes the anticipation of an anniversary or holiday actually turns out to be worse than the day itself.

Interestingly enough, sometimes your internal clock will alert you to an anniversary date you may have forgotten. If you notice you are feeling down or experiencing “pangs” of grief, you may be having an anniversary response. Keep in mind that this is normal.

The aspects of grief explored in this article are in no way an all-inclusive list of experiences that might constitute the “going crazy” syndrome. However, my hope is that this information helps you better understand the normalcy of your unique journey into grief.

This article is a contribution of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who has been recognized as one of North America’s leading death educators and grief counselors. His books have sold more than a million copies worldwide and have been translated into many languages. Well respected for his inspiring teaching ability, Dr. Wolfelt is a past recipient of the Association for Death Education Death Educator Award. He is known around the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing as well as his companioning philosophy of grief care.