Am I Going Crazy?—An all-too frequent question from grievers.
by Russell Friedman & John W. James of The Grief Recovery Institute
"I’ve had the experience of being in one room, deciding to go to another room to do something, and when I get there, I don’t have a clue what I’m there for. Am I going crazy?”
No, you’re not crazy. For most people, the immediate response to the awareness of the death of someone important to them is a sense of numbness. After that initial numbness wears off, the most common physiological reaction is a reduced ability to concentrate. The rest of the world goes out of focus. Nothing else is important. It is normal and natural that your entire being is centered on what happened and your relationship with the person who died.
The length of time that the reduced ability to concentrate lasts is individual and can vary from a few days to several months, and even longer. It is not a sign that there’s something wrong with you. Realistically, the fact that the emotional impact of the death of that person has altered your day-to-day routines indicates something very healthy. It would make no sense for you not to be affected by the death.
It is normal to drift out of focus in response to conscious or unconscious memories of the person who died. Please be gentle with yourself in allowing that your focus is not on the actions of life, but on your reactions to a death. If you’re at work, you can take little “grief breaks” as needed. It’s a good idea to establish a safe person at work whom you can talk to when and if you get overwhelmed. It’s also smart to have a phone pal you can call when the emotions keep you from concentrating. The breaks and chats will make you able to do the work you need to do.
Please keep in mind that it’s important to focus while driving a car. It’s not safe to drive with tears in your eyes. If need be, pull over. Allow yourself to have whatever emotions come up, and maybe call someone and talk for a while before you get back on the road.
When Your Heart Is Broken, Your Head Doesn’t Work Right
Along with not being able to concentrate, your thinking ability and judgment may be limited. That’s why grieving people are advised to be careful about making major life decisions in the aftermath of the death of someone important to them. To put it in simple terms, when your heart is broken, your head doesn’t work right. You must take care either not to make big decisions until you regain your ability to focus, or make sure you have people you trust to help you understand your choices and the consequences of what you decide.
There are other common physiological reactions to grief. Sleeping habits are often disrupted for an extended period of time. You may find yourself unable to sleep, or you may not be able to get out of bed. You can even go back and forth between those extremes. Eating patterns are also subject to confusion. You may not be able to eat at all, or you may not be able to stop. You can also ping-pong between those extremes. Sleeping and eating disruptions aren’t as common as the reduced ability to concentrate, but they can be really uncomfortable. If they happen, it also doesn’t mean you’re going crazy. It just means that your routines and habits are out of sync.
Another common grief reaction is best described as a roller coaster of emotions. It can be a wild ride, with tremendous emotional shifts. But, like concentration and the eating and sleeping issues, that roller coaster is one of the typical responses to the death of someone important to you. Don’t fight it, just go along for the ride, no matter how bumpy it might be. When it happens, it’s a good idea to call a friend, and talk about what you’re feeling. Talking about what you’re experiencing helps make sure you don’t trap your feelings inside.
Normal and Natural—Not Crazy
One of the most important things we can tell you is that the reduced ability to concentrate, the disruption of sleeping and eating patterns’ and the roller coaster of emotions are all normal and natural reactions to death. There is nothing crazy about them or you.
Those reactions usually diminish within time as you adapt to life without the person who died. But time doesn’t heal emotional wounds, nor does it complete anything that may have been left emotionally unfinished when the person died. Sometimes it’s just the feeling of wanting to have said one more “I love you and goodbye.” Sometimes it is a more complex set of communications that would include apologies, forgiveness, and significant emotional statements.
It is always helpful to take action to help you discover and complete anything that was left unfinished. Doing so will allow you to have fond memories not turn painful. It will also help you remember your person the way you knew them in life. And it will help you continue a life of meaning and value, even though it is altered by the absence of the person who died.
Above all, allow yourself to be out of rhythm. As we said, be careful when you’re driving and be cautious when making major decisions. Be gentle with yourself as you make your re-entry back into the flow of your life. But don’t judge yourself harshly because you are having any or all of the reactions we mentioned.