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The two big questions about grieving

Nancy (not her real name of course) came to see me at my counseling office almost a year after her father died. It was expected, as he’d had a cancer diagnosis for some time, but sudden at the same time, because he had been tolerating his chemotherapy well, but over three weeks, quickly lost ground and died. Nancy was “a Daddy’s girl” all her life, she reported, and was used to spending Saturdays with him watching baseball games and cooking ribs on the grill, his specialty. In his last two weeks, she was with him daily.

As we began to talk, Nancy shared these facts with me, but seemed distracted and dissatisfied at my attempts to find out how I could be helpful. Finally, she came out with it.

“Look,” she said. “I don’t mean to cut you short, but I have a couple of questions. That’s really why I came.”

I invited her to ask away.

“See,” she said, “I personally think I’m doing okay – I was really close to Dad, so I can’t just snap my fingers and forget about him.”

“Is someone suggesting that you do that – forget about him?” I asked.

“Not just one someone, practically everyone I talk to,” she said. They say stuff like, ‘Well dear, pretty soon it’ll be a year and won’t you be glad when this is over and you can get back to your old life?’”

I knew what was coming – the well-wishers were telling her that her time was up and they were about done listening to her grieve.

“Who put them in charge of how long I take, huh?” she asked. By now, she was up and pacing. “And don’t they get that I can’t go back to the old life – Dad isn’t there anymore; why would I?”

“So, tell me what your question is,” I said.

“Just how long does this take? I don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to being done and they sound like they’re calling time. Am I being too slow? They keep telling me to cheer up, smile more, or scold me that Dad wouldn’t want me to still be so sad, which by the way pisses me off because he would understand.”

She sat down to wait for the answer.

“Nancy,” I said, “I think the Grief Police have nabbed you.”

She looked at me funny.

“That’s what I call it,” I said, “when people take conventional wisdom about grief and think it’s their job to enforce it. It’s common for people to think that you can wrap up a grief in six months, or at the longest a year. That is completely wrong of course, as you have discovered, because we can vary widely in how long we grieve.”

We used our whole hour to explore her question, with some of the time for her to decide just what retort she’d like to deliver the next time the Grief Police moved in.

“I think I’ll just tell them, “Did you know that it’s a total myth that grief is supposed to be over in a year? It can take a few months and it can take a few years. I’ve checked it out. And mine’s not done yet.”

She looked at her watch. Our time was almost up. I asked about her other question.

She talked fast. “How do I know if I’m doing this right? Sometimes I think I’m over it, and then boom, I wake up in a puddle of tears. Sometimes I don’t even want to answer the phone, other times I feel abandoned if it doesn’t ring. I haven’t touched any of his things yet – it just seemed too soon. But the other day, I opened the picture album and couldn’t get off the couch for an hour, and then I went upstairs and tackled one of his drawers and it was okay, I guess. I’m going to do one drawer a week, unless I don’t want to. Is that all okay?”

I told her that sounded pretty usual to me – the ups and downs, the stubborn resistance to other people’s control, the reluctance to rid the house of his things. I asked her if she wanted to come back the next week.

“Nah, I think I’m good for now,” she said, “I’ll call if I need to. Thanks,” she said as she handed me her check. “That’s a load off my mind. Now I can’t wait until the next time someone does that Grief Police thing. A teachable moment, right?”

She was gone, and I didn’t hear from her again. I didn’t tell her that those two questions were the two most popular ones I hear: “How long will this take?” And “Am I doing this right?”

Good to know that we each get to walk our own path, and take the time we need. And we also get to set the Grief Police straight when we need to.

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