Dear Alice,

I'm sorta new at this, but I'll give it a shot anyway. My dad died of a massive heart attack just over a year ago. I went through a pretty rough mourning period, but it didn't seem to last very long. My mom is still very much in mourning to this day. I guess my question is: How can you tell if you've mourned enough? And how can you tell if you're avoiding it?

They say the worst is over when the pain stops and the good memories start. But how do I know I didn't just skip to the good memories?

— Distressed Lion

Dear Distressed Lion,

Condolences to you and your mom. There’s no formula for mourning, and you’re likely dealing with the loss of your dad somewhat differently than your mom — grieving is a very individualized process, so each person mourns at their own pace and in their own way. Moreover, there also isn’t really a designated 'healthy' period of mourning that has a clear start or end or a certain set of symptoms that everyone experiences. Each person that works through the mourning process can follow a very different path. With that in mind, there may be some factors at play that contribute to the reasons why your experience of grieving for your dad is different from your mom’s. Learning more about them and her own unique process may help you understand where she’s at right now and offer support as she continues to heal from this loss.

As far as your process is concerned, Distressed Lion, keep in mind that good memories and sad moments will be with you throughout your life as you think of your dad, but not necessarily in a linear progression. In other words, all memories don’t have to feel painful at the beginning of your mourning experience — just as years later, some memories of your dad may still be difficult. Sometimes, the anniversary of your dad's death, birthdays, holidays, a favorite song or food, or the way someone smells will be reminders of your loss. At other times, these experiences will evoke warm, loving, tender, and even joyous feelings.

What’s more, mourning isn’t about checking off boxes on a list, either. It’s more about learning to cope with loss in a way that allows you to feel acceptance and generate new meaningful experiences as you move forward. Generally, the grieving process ends once an individual is able to go about their days with increased acceptance of their loss and an ability to experience positive emotions. This can take anywhere from two to four years, but can certainly be longer or shorter. Not only does the length of the grieving period vary from person to person, but so do the symptoms: some individuals may show very few outward symptoms of grief (such as yearning, despair, anxiety, shock, intrusive thoughts, emotional numbness, anger, and acceptance) and may or may not occasionally feel intense distress related to the loss of their loved one. Any variation between these extremes is still a normal and authentic grieving process.

Your mourning might be different from your mom’s for many of the same reasons that made your relationship with your dad unique from her relationship with him. You might think of it this way: while you lost a parent, your mom lost her partner, and her entire daily life may have changed because of it. Spouses who were very dependent on their partner are much more likely to have a protracted (longer) grieving period. As a result, it may take your mom more time to adjust to and make sense of a life without her partner. Her symptoms of grief may also be intensified by any pre-existing conditions such as depression or anxiety. In addition, how you or your mom grieve might be dependent on variables outside of your individual response, such as cultural or religious factors or different family dynamics.

Have you considered talking about your concerns with your mom? Perhaps knowing more about how she’s feeling and what she’s struggling with can better inform the type of help she may need. It may be that she needs help making sense of this loss and finding meaning in it or that she just needs to go through the process at her own pace. You may encourage her to talk to a close friend or clergy person to help assess where she is emotionally so she can get any additional support. If you think your mom doesn’t seem to be grieving in a healthy manner, you may also recommend that she talk with a mental health provider or join a support group. In any case, it’s good to let your mom guide her own healing process and offer her the support you can.

Alice!

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