You’re Not Crazy — You’re Grieving — Part Three

Author: Alan Wolfelt

Editor's Note

This is part three of a six-part series adapted from Dr. Alan Wolfelt's book, You're Not Crazy — You're Grieving.

Part one and part two appeared in the summer and fall issues of TAPS Magazine.

You're Not Crazy - You're Grieving Book Cover

Acknowledging the Illusion of Control

Death naturally throws thoughts, feelings, and behaviors into disarray. Nothing may feel “normal” right now. Your routines and schedules might be chaotic. You may often find yourself surprised at things you think, say, or do. Small things that you used to take in stride might now throw you off track. Everything may feel strange and off-kilter.  

You’re not crazy, though — you’re grieving. Remember, early grief is a naturally out-of-control time. And it is this loss of control that often makes people feel like they’re going crazy. 

I know it doesn’t feel good to be out of control, though. Change and unpredictability stress our minds, bodies, and emotions. Any time we encounter something substantially different, we have to assess potential new dangers and figure out new responses. It is difficult being in new situations — especially those we don’t want to be in. But the more we acknowledge that control is an illusion, the more comfortable we can become with the constant change and unpredictability of life. 

Be compassionate with yourself as you go through this naturally out-of-control time, and acknowledge that we, as human beings, are not really in control of many essential aspects of our lives. When we work to cultivate more awareness that control is an illusion, we can start living with more ease and joy.


Saying Hello to the Crazy

People typically wish they could take shortcuts around grief. Almost immediately after a death, there’s talk of “saying goodbye,” “closure,” and “moving on.” 

The trouble is, that’s not at all how it works. We actually have to say hello to all the new experiences of grief before we can even begin to think about saying goodbye. If you’re in early grief, you’re still in this hello phase. 

One of the big things we have to say hello to is feeling out of control. Because, in early grief, being out of control is normal and necessary. Recognizing and acknowledging this is key. 

If you’ve been feeling the craziness of being out of control or not yourself, you’re actually doing what you need to be doing. “This is crazy,” you might think on any given day. Or, “I feel like I’m going crazy.” But now you know to counter with, “Oh, I see. The crazy is normal. Hello, crazy.” 


Survivors Embrace


Acknowledging Helplessness

Individual human beings are largely helpless when it comes to matters of life and death. This is perhaps the most devastating reality of being human. 

We like to pretend otherwise. Many people have been taught the concept of “rugged individualism.” It goes something like this: I control my own destiny. I can be and do whatever I want. When things don’t go my way, it’s my fault because I didn’t try hard enough. I can fix everything through effort and will. 

Yes, of course, individual effort in life does make a difference, but circumstances beyond our control are always an influence. For the most part, we can’t control who gets sick. We can’t control accidents. We can’t control natural disasters. We can’t control many financial upheavals. And we can’t control what other people do. 

You were powerless to prevent the death of the person you love, and now you are helpless in the midst of your early grief. Your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors may seem wildly different from what they normally are, and you are helpless to control them. That’s OK. Trust that your grief is doing what it needs to do.


The Experience of Denial

In early grief, denial can follow shock and numbness. It takes a while for the mind to understand and process the reality of what has happened. In the meantime, you are living in that bubble of shock and numbness. This is normal.

As the weeks pass, though, you might find yourself moving out of shock and into denial. Denial is a more conscious, active blocking of reality compared to shock and numbness.

Denial is a form of attempted control. If you can deny that something has happened, you’re controlling your perceived reality. You’re not actually changing the reality, however. So while intermittent denial in the first weeks and months can be normal, long-term denial will inhibit your healing and ongoing life.

As you move through your early grief, taking baby steps out of any denial you may be experiencing and into reality is an essential part of the process. When you talk openly about the death, share stories of your loss and relationship with the person who died, and participate in a meaningful ceremony, you are helping to soften denial.




The Out-of-Control Experiences of Early Grief

People in early grief often feel themselves behaving in what can feel like out-of-control ways. Here are several of the most common. 

  • Crying/Sobbing/Screaming

    Tears in grief are normal, of course, and gentle tears are considered socially acceptable. We expect grieving people to cry, and in return, we offer condolences and comfort — up to a point. But when crying seems out of control, we frequently don’t know what to do. We often judge loud, messy crying as hysterical behavior. 

    In Eastern cultures, sobbing and wailing (sometimes called “keening”) are encouraged and understood as a normal part of grief and mourning. In our culture more broadly, however, sobbing and wailing are often seen as evidence of mental instability (i.e., craziness). 

    But, when you are in early grief, of course you’re appropriately unstable! That’s the entire point! You are naturally shattered and thus out of control. And it is this very loss of control that allows you to authentically express your strong, primal feelings.  

    And what if you’re not crying? This is also common. Sometimes people ask me, “Why am I not crying? What is wrong with me?” The lack of tears often makes these people think they’re crazy — but of course, they’re not. 

    If you’re not crying, you might still be experiencing shock and numbness. Or you might not be crying because you are avoiding things that remind you of the significance of your loss. Some people have also taught me they fear if they start crying they may never stop. All these responses are normal in early grief. 

    Finally, you might not be a crier. It is possible to hurt deeply without crying. If this is the case for you, I encourage you to explore whether you’re truly not a crier or you’ve been socially conditioned not to express emotion because tears are seen as vulnerability and weakness. If it’s the latter, this is something you can work on.

  • Moodiness

    When someone you love dies, you may feel like you are surviving fairly well one minute and crazy with emotion the next. Sudden mood changes can be a difficult, yet normal part of your grief journey. These shifts might be small or dramatic. They can be caused by anything — a familiar place, a song, an insensitive comment, a change in the weather, or nothing at all. 

    Mood changes can make you feel like you’re going crazy because your inappropriate self-expectation may be that you should be constantly progressing from chaos to stability. You might think that you should follow a pattern of continuous “improvement” in grief. In other words, you may expect yourself to keep feeling better and better as time passes. Or, for one predominant feeling to be “over” when you move on to the next feeling. 

    The reality is, though, that grief twists and turns like a mountainous trail with a million loops and switchbacks. One minute you might be feeling great and the next horrible. One day you might be feeling sad and the next wildly angry — only to feel deeply sad again the next day. 

    And in general, grief usually gets worse before it gets better. As the Novocain of shock and numbness wears off and heart understanding grows, the pain often intensifies for a time. 

    So, if you are having normal ups and downs and wild swings, don’t be hard on yourself. Instead, practice patience and self-compassion. Allow your moods to come and go without self-judgment. It can be hard to think rationally when your emotions are volatile, but try to remind yourself that your moodiness is normal. All your emotions belong.


    Survivor looking at Hero Wall at Survivor Seminar

  • Pain

    Early grief hurts so much, especially when the shock and numbness start to wear off. The hurt is usually in proportion to the level of attachment you had to the person who died, though many other factors also come into play. In general, the stronger the love and the closer the day-to-day relationship, the more painful the grief. 

    For many people in early grief, the pain feels out of control. It is more powerful than they are. It is like an earthquake, tornado, or tsunami — gigantic, terrible, and crushing. 

    Pain in grief has a purpose, just like bodily pain. Pain in your body signals that something is wrong and that care and rest are needed. If your inflamed appendix didn’t use pain to alert you to the problem, your appendix would burst, and you might well die. 

    Similarly, the pain of your grief signals that something is wrong, and you need care and rest. Loss is a wound, and wounds hurt. Your pain announces your loss. It says, “Acknowledge me! Pay attention to me! Care for me!” 

    Since the death, your pain has probably forced you to slow down. It’s caused you to turn inward and ponder your love for and relationship with the person who died. It’s made you think about the meaning of life and death, who you are, what and who you care about, and what you want to do with the remainder of your days. Your pain is also directing you to take good care of yourself and accept the care of others. 

    While we’re at it, let’s look at the alternative. What if loss didn’t hurt? Imagine if we could fiercely love someone who was living, yet when they died, we experienced no pain. Instead, we just shrugged and moved on. Could that really be love?  I don’t think so. 

    The capacity to give and receive love — our greatest gift — is here and now. When the object of our love is gone, there is an after. In the after, our love continues, but it needs to find new ways of being. And adjusting to the after is what hurts. 

    Grief pain is an alarm bell signaling that there is work to be done. It’s grief work. It’s mourning. The adjusting and healing in the after don’t just happen. They take attention, time, effort, and devotion. Just like the love did. 

    The pain of your early grief may feel crazy, but actually, it is good and true. The more you learn to befriend it, the more you will see that it is there to help you adapt to the new reality and find ways to continue to live and love well in the future.

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

Photos: TAPS Archives