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When The Tears Don't Stop: How Much Mourning Is Too Much Mourning?

By: Tzivy Ross  

The questions usually come from concerned family members or loved ones: 

"He still talks about his brother all the time, even three years after his death: is this normal?" 

"She doesn’t stop crying and it’s been six months since her husband died: shouldn’t she be better than this by now?" 

And then there are some concerns raised that seem even more alarming: 

"He’s not taking care of the children properly, he’s lost without her…." 

"She leaves her son’s room exactly the way it looked the day that he died, she hasn’t removed a thing: that can’t be healthy, what should we do?" 

Excessive Mourning? 
When do we say that these comments and questions describe a situation that falls under the parameters of "normal" or "healthy" grief, and when might they be considered excessive? Aren’t these concerns legitimate? 

Is there such a thing as too much mourning? And if so, how do we know when that is? 

The "Right" Way To Mourn 
It is important for those expressing concern about a mourner to understand the nature of grief. There is no easy or "right" way to mourn a loved one. Grief is a process, not an event with a set beginning or end, and each individual experiences it in his or her own way. The grief process takes a considerable amount of time and is revisited continuously over the course of a lifetime. 

Grief requires the mourner to manage and diminish the pain but never to totally eliminate it and to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of holding the deceased close always while at the same time letting him go. 

Too Much Grief 
The general guideline when assessing if a problematic behavior is developmentally normal or if it requires professional intervention is to consider the duration and intensity of the symptoms. How long have the symptoms been persisting? Are they disruptive enough that they interfere with the individual’s daily functioning? If so, to what extent? 

These guidelines can apply to grief as well. How long after the loss are the disruptive symptoms persisting? If they are persisting for a long time, to what extent are they affecting his or her functioning? Is the mourner getting up in the morning, feeding her children and getting them to the bus stop? Is he able to carry out his job responsibilities? The mourner may be acting withdrawn or spending a lot of time crying or talking about the deceased, but are these behaviors uncomfortable for the mourner or are they simply uncomfortable for everyone around him? 

The Mourner’s Perspective 
Allow me for a moment to digress into the mourners’ perspective and share some of the comments that we have heard in our experiences doing bereavement counseling at Project Liberty at Ohel. 

From a young woman who lost her fiancée: "They ask me how I am feeling, but they don’t really want to know the answer. They just want me to smile like a good girl and say that everything is fine. Well guess what? I’m not fine! I’m miserable and lonely and don’t even feel that anyone really wants to hear about it." 

From an orphaned adolescent: "They don’t get it, they just don’t get it. I’m tired of hearing how I "should" be doing this and I "should" be feeling like that. They have no idea how it is for me. I wish everyone would just leave me alone." 

From a young widow: "My family can’t handle my pain so they pretend it’s not there. I know they love me and it’s just too painful for them to see me like this, but this is how I need to be right now." 

Witnessing a Loved One in Pain 
There are few experiences that generate a more uncomfortable and powerless feeling than witnessing a loved one mourn. Where there is real concern that the mourner’s grief is interfering with his ability to function on a long-term basis, it is important to proceed with caution in expressing this concern to the mourner. Doing so can create distance and a feeling by the mourner that those around him just don’t understand what he is going through. Sometimes it can be less threatening and more effective to center a discussion around the needs of family members or children rather than around the mourner himself. 

Many individuals, moreover, who have experienced a loss can demonstrate great resilience even without outside intervention or professional help. In these instances it is essential that those surrounding the mourner allow him to experience the full range of emotions that accompany grief and to do so for as long as he needs to. Simply standing by the mourner’s pain whenever and however it surfaces and conveying the message that it is not too awful to bear can make an enormous difference in helping him feel understood and supported. 

Share The Mourner’s Pain 
It is true that most individuals are powerless to truly alleviate the devastating pain of the mourner. In the face of tragedy, it can seem that any word or action seems trite, ineffective and woefully inadequate. However, while one cannot solve the mourner’s problem or diminish the mourner’s pain, an enormous impact can be made simply by sharing and experiencing the mourner’s pain with him. 

This idea is best encapsulated by a story told by Rabbi Harold Kushner. He describes a little boy who told his mother that he was late returning home because he met a boy who was crying because his bicycle broke and he was helping him. "But you don’t know how to fix a bicycle," his mother protested, "how could you have helped him?" "I didn’t know how to fix his bicycle," the little boy agreed, "so I did the only thing that I could." 

"I sat down on the curb and I cried with him." 

What is Project Liberty at Ohel? 
Project Liberty at Ohel provide free and confidential outreach, education and supportive counseling to those in the Jewish community who are experiencing symptoms related to 9/11 or symptoms related to the terror in Israel which have been made worse by 9/11. Project Liberty is supported by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and CMHS (Center for Mental Health Services). For more information, please contact 718-686-3283 or log onto www.ohelprojectliberty.org. You may also contact Tzivy Ross at tzivy_ross@ohelfamily.org.

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