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Prolonged Grief or Normal Grieving? 

Is all long grieving prolonged grief? When is therapeutic help needed and what do grieving parents need to know to support each other best in their recovery from grief?

Speed- Grief and Grieving?
When is long grief prolonged grief?

crying girlHow long are we "allowed" to grieve?

The changes in society over the last cerntury have a strong impact on the perception and handling grief and the process of dying as well.

Not so long ago the close by living extended family was the strongest support system for most people. It wasn't only normal to rely on each other much more, old people used to live and die with the family as well. Living and dying belonged together and grieving was seen as a normal part of life.

In recent years more and more people are forced to move frequently. Families usually live further apart. Friends and other groups become the support system wich usually isn't as strong though. People are trying more not to burden anyone.

Apart from that the process of dying has been pushed out of our lives with old people mostly living and dying in aged care or hospital. Living (and grieving) tends to be more isolated. The chance to learn from the experience of others has shrunk as well. Many people don't know or can even imagine what happens to people who lost a tiny baby - let alone had "only" a miscarriage. 

With that also the time "allowed" for grieving has shrunk in the past years.

In my own research, I have found that even physicians and nurses who work with mourners on a regular basis assume that mourning ought to be short. They become very concerned if the mourner exhibits characteristics of grief much beyond the first month.
What's even worse is that comments that scold for "not getting on with it already" or the like, are not only very hurtful but can also hinder people to go through the phases of grief and solve the five related tasks in their time. If that happens, if people get stuck in their grief, then we'd really speak of prolonged grief.  


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Time Really Needed For Grief And Grieving

So, how long does recovery from grief really take? That again depends. Even people that grieve the same loss don't usually grieve the same time.

According to Buz Overbecks "she cries, he sighs"
most mothers need 9 - 24 months (or more) to resolve their grief.
Most fathers make peace with their grief in 3-6 months. With many men feeling that their spouse needs professional help after this time.


Why Are There Different Time Frames 
For Recovery From Grief?

That's a question many grieving parents ask themselves or each other in some way. Why don't you grieve the way I do?

And it's good to ask that question as compared to just expect that the partner should grieve the same way - and if they don't, think that he doesn't care or she's lost the plot.

In fact to have an identical grieving experience even for the same loss is unlikely if not impossible ("we've had the same loss - why don't we have the same grief?" by Prof. Kathleen Gilbert)

The differences are due to:
  • different relationships to lost one
  • different possibility to anticipate and prepare for the loss
  • different meaning given to the loss
  • different coping strategies
  • different expectations of appropriate behaviour
    (the expectation to grieve the same way adds to stress)

And of course especially for miscarried or stillborn babies there are naturally differences in the intensity of the relationship between the baby and each parent.

While most dads can only start to get a feeling for this child as a reality when they see it on ultrasounds or feel it kicking (if they happen to be there then), mothers can't help but think about their child much more often much earlier on. They feel sick in the morning (or are concerned if they don't), avoid alcohol or anything that could be connected to Listeria, get concerned when they don't feel well themselves...

It's also usually mothers who plan to take a break from work which will also change their lives profoundly. And later with every little kick they feel they are reminded of this little human being inside them.

After such a sad loss many dads feel upset that they didn't have a chance to get to know their baby that closely.

On the other hand in loosing their baby many moms not only lose a loved one. In the beginning for many it may feel as if they loose - to say it bluntly - their reason to live for the next ... months. They had started to arrange everything to care for that little being full time for a certain time. Being left by him or her might feel like being rejected or fired from a much wanted job. It feels like having flopped as a mother in pregnancy already, destroying hopes and dreams for the future, tearing on self esteem and self worth.

It takes a while to sort through that rubble and see through the haze of grief. What's needed is gentle patience and a couple of strong shoulders to lean on and gently get back in touch with the world around.

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Moving Beyond Grief And Loss - Together
Tips for Grieving Parents

Don't expect to grieve the same way or any certain behaviour of your partner for that matter. Rather talk about it. Ask questions, explain what you feel and think.

Remember, men and women usually have very different ways of coping with such a loss. Acknowledging them and working around them is the best you can do.

That means, try to make your grief a collective experience as far as possible by:

  • making room to discuss thoughts and emotions. But for the repeated storytelling many woman need to do, try to find a listener who isn't stressed by his own grief and the confrontation with unfamiliar strong emotions as much as your partner is.
  • sharing your beliefs about the loss and it's meaning for you with each other
  • allowing and accepting differences in grieving among the family members (If your partner seems to not understand your problems, that might be because all you need is understanding and warmth whereas he looks for ways to fix things because he doesn't want you to suffer anymore.)
  • refraiming those differences as strengths (By not grieving with the same strength at the same times you can support each other much better, or as one dad put it: "Where would we end if we both broke down at the same time.")

When Is Therapeutic Help Needed?

Of course there are cases of real prolonged grief. Therapeutic help is necessary (according to Lothrop) when:

    "Help, Comfort and Hope" by Hannah Lothrop

  • the 5 tasks of the grieving process haven't been solved
  • the grief is very intense even years after the loss
  • there are excessive grief reactions following minor incidents
  • in the case of self destructive impulses
  • there are long-lasting fears connected to sickness and death
  • there is long-lasting hostility, anger or suppressed anger
  • there are symptoms of depression after 18 to 24 months
  • inability to handle everyday life after 18 to 24 months
  • long-lasting neglect of social relationships
  • no adaptation to situation is noticeable 
  • long-lasting feelings of low self worth
  • long-lasting relationship problems (accusations, anger)

in children:
  • long-lasting low performance in school,
  • long-lasting aggressive behaviour,
  • stuttering and
  • other regressive behaviour like baby-behaviour or bed wetting

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Return from Phases Of Grief to overview of Parental Grief

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