You’re Not Crazy — You’re Grieving — Part One
Author: Alan Wolfelt
Author's Note: I have been a grief counselor and educator for more than 40 years, and “crazy” is the most common way in which people describe their early grief to me. Let me assure you straight off: It is normal to feel crazy after a significant loss. But you’re actually not going crazy in the way you may think. What you’re doing is grieving.
This six-part article series is a reminder that crazy is normal and is adapted from my new book You’re Not Crazy — You’re Grieving. These articles will, I hope, help you understand your grief experience and encourage you to seek and accept the support you need and deserve.
Intense Grief is Normal and Often Necessary
Yes, it is normal to feel crazy after a shattering loss.
What I invite you to consider is that it is actually the loss that’s not normal. This loss came along uninvited and turned your life upside-down. Human beings are born to live and love. That’s why we are here. When a life ends, we’re simply not prepared. We can’t be fully prepared, even when a death is anticipated. It’s human nature to want and expect life and love to continue. We’re just not made to easily welcome death into our daily lives.
True, death is also normal and natural. But still, love is the foundational experience of our lives. And when we experience the death of a loving relationship, we often feel like we are going crazy. Of course we do.
What I Mean by Crazy
Let’s talk about the word crazy. It’s no longer considered acceptable in mental health circles — rightfully so. It stigmatizes mental health issues and places blame and shame on those who suffer from mental health challenges.
Yet, crazy is in fact the term I’ve heard grieving people use most often to describe their own early grief experiences of shock, disorientation, protest emotions, and more. Actually, I’ve found they almost always use the word crazy to collectively label all their early grief symptoms. Have you described your own grief responses as crazy?
The word crazy comes to us from the 14th-century Germanic word crasen, which meant “to shatter, crush, break into pieces.” Before that existed, there was the Old Norse krasa, which also meant “to shatter.”
If you pick up an old piece of fine china, you might see a web of fine lines on its surface. This is called “crazing.” The glaze, normally transparent and invisible, has shattered into tiny sections. Early grief is equally shattering. It crushes us and breaks us into a million pieces. This experience tends to make us feel — well — crazed for weeks, months, and sometimes even years.
So, despite the admonitions, I decided to feature the term crazy. I agree it’s not an appropriate term for mental illness because it carries too much baggage and stigma. But grief, which is not an illness, often feels crazy in the truest sense of the word because it can shatter people, crush them, and make them feel like they’re broken into pieces.
Intense Early Thoughts
The intensity and strangeness of early grief tend to make people feel crazy. Let’s review some of the most powerful symptoms and affirm that they are common and normal.
Shock and Numbness
Shock is a universal, automatic human reaction to traumatic experiences. It is how our bodies instinctively respond in an effort to protect our minds and hearts from shattering new realities.
Shock is an anesthetic. It partially numbs us to the crushing pain. Without the initial protection of shock and numbness, we couldn’t survive a major loss. Thank goodness for shock!
In the early days after the loss, you may have experienced physical shock symptoms, such as lightheadedness, nausea, heart palpitations, and difficulty functioning. Emotional shock symptoms include numbness, confusion, and dissociation.
During your period of shock, you may find yourself intensely crying, having angry outbursts, shaking uncontrollably, or even laughing or fainting. You might experience manic behaviors, such as cleaning out closets or pacing and talking nonstop. Rest assured that these are all normal shock responses.
Unfortunately, some people may try to discourage or judge your “shocky” behaviors, believing them to be hysterical or out of control. They may try to inappropriately quiet and placate you because they would feel more comfortable if grievers appeared composed.
The reality is that the early days and weeks after a major loss are often an uncontrollable, crazy time. Trying to control yourself could mean suppressing your instinctive responses to the loss. As long as you’re not hurting yourself or someone else or destroying property, it is OK to feel and act out of control in early grief.
Dissociation and Surrealness
Dissociation is a feeling of separation or distance from what is happening around you. This is when you feel like you are there, but not there, or that you are somehow disconnected from experiences you’re right in the middle of.
Dissociation can be an aspect of shock.
It may feel strange and even scary sometimes, but it’s common and normal. In early grief, you may also feel a sense of surrealness. Surreal means bizarre, irrational, even make-believe. Your mind can interpret that what is happening can’t actually be happening because it is not possible for it to be real.
“It feels like a dream,” grievers often say. “I feel like I might wake up and none of this will have happened.” That dreamlike aspect of early grief is surrealness. It often feels overwhelming and can be naturally disconcerting, but it happens to almost everyone right after a major loss.
It is almost impossible to think clearly in early grief. Brain fog is common, and so are problems with short-term memory. You might have conversations with others, but not remember what they said to you. You are hearing, but can’t listen well.
In addition, you may feel like you can’t get anything done. It is difficult to concentrate long enough to complete tasks. You may struggle with basic daily activities.
Be patient and kind with yourself if your brain doesn’t seem to be working well. It is completely normal. Avoid taking on any cognitively challenging tasks right now if possible. And ask for help when you need it.
We are creatures of habit. We move through our days and lives with the comforting, predictable structure of routines. So when our routines are thrown into disarray by a death, we tend to get disoriented to the passage of time.
In early grief, time often seems to race by. On other days, it crawls. You may not be able to keep track of what day it is. You may find yourself uncertain of the month or season.
Calculating how much time has elapsed since the death or funeral may feel impossible. Special days, such as birthdays or holidays, might escape your notice or pass by in a blur.
Searching and Yearning
After someone you love dies, it is normal to look for them or expect them to reappear. Every time you hear your front door or garage door open, your breath might catch, and you might think, “There they are!” This searching behavior is a sign that your mind is trying to process the reality of the death. It can also make you feel crazy because, while you know that they have died, you don’t yet fully know.
The intense yearning of early grief is similar. You want the person who died back. You miss them intensely. You yearn for them to be present again. The yearning can make you feel crazy because once again, you know it’s impossible for them to return, but you desperately want it anyway. Yearning is painful and normal.
In general, you might find yourself tiring more quickly — sometimes even at the start of the day. You might wake up feeling fatigued. This is called the lethargy of grief. It might seem crazy to feel so tired, especially when you’re not doing anything strenuous. However, it’s a natural mechanism intended to slow you down and encourage you to get extra rest and care for your body, mind, and soul.
Whenever possible, lay your body down for 20 minutes a few times a day. Sleep if you can sleep, but simply rest if you can’t. Put on some soothing music or watch a lighthearted TV show — anything that helps you relax.
Don’t expect too much of yourself. If you are not getting anything done because you’re too tired, it’s OK. If you need help getting essential tasks taken care of, ask for it.
Acknowledging the Reality of What Happened
The crazily intense and surreal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the very early days after a major loss mostly have to do with one super-challenging need of mourning: acknowledging the reality of the death.
When you are confronted with thoughts and reminders of the death, your mind likely says, “What? This can’t be!” And that’s often when the crazy-intense grief symptoms come up. You experience shock, dissociation, and time distortion. You may feel like you’re being hysterical. You might not be able to think or sleep. You may experience a level of fatigue beyond anything you’ve ever felt before.
You might think of these symptoms like aches and pains caused by the cognitive grief work your mind is doing. Yes, work. Acknowledging the death of someone close to you is difficult work for your brain.
I don’t think we’re born being able to easily grasp death. It is instinctive to love, and it is instinctive to grieve when we’re separated from the people we love. But it is not instinctive or innate to think, “Oh, it’s just death. One minute alive, the next dead. It’s just forever. It’s natural. It’s fine.”
If you were able to see and spend time with the body after the death, acknowledging the reality often happens a little more readily. It’s still hard work — don’t get me wrong. But seeing and touching the body that gave form to the precious person who died can help your mind understand the fact of the death. I know that this isn’t always possible or appropriate. So if you didn’t see or spend time with the body, don’t shame yourself. Talking openly about the death and seeking answers to any lingering questions you might have can also help satisfy your mind.
Acknowledging the Pain
In the early days, shock protects you from some of the pain. For your mind and body, numbness and dissociation are forms of pain management. Thank goodness for these natural anesthetics.
But still, some of the pain naturally hit you right away. And the pain keeps seeping in every time you think about the death. Even with the protection of shock, you may have experienced moments in the very early days when the pain took your breath away and dropped you to your knees.
The pain of new grief can feel unbearable. How on earth are you supposed to live and function while this pain is going on? After all, when we experience physical pain, we are used to going to the doctor or pharmacy to get pain relief. There are entire industries and professions devoted to relieving bodily pain. We’re not expected to suffer. Yet grief comes along, and we are supposed to just take the pain day after day?
First, I want to affirm that you are right — the pain seems unbearable. It is, I believe, among the worst experiences of our lives here on earth. Second, I want to assure you that your pain will ease over time.
Befriending one’s pain can seem like a challenging — even antagonistic — notion in early grief. But it is a truth. Your pain is there for a reason. So, for now, I hope you will simply acknowledge that the pain is normal and find ways to soothe it as best you can.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is recognized as one of North America's leading death educators and grief counselors. His books on grief for both caregivers and grieving people — including You're Not Crazy — You're Grieving, from which this article series is adapted — have sold more than a million copies worldwide and are translated into many languages. He is the founder and director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and a TAPS Advisory Board Member. To learn more, visit centerforloss.com.