Psychologists struggle to define the term “Normal.” Any behavior at some point, in any given culture, as bizarre as it may be, can be considered normal. For example, in some cultures, it’s normal to cover your whole body in clothes except a small portion of your face if you’re a woman. In Saudi Arabia, this is considered a normal way to dress. You go to the beach like that, you walk in town like that, and you travel in public that way. The culture in Saudi Arabia has determined this is normal behavior. In the United States, dressing this way, particularly at the beach, is not considered normal. In parts of rural China, children learn potty training in public areas. They’re permitted to relieve themselves wherever they are even if it’s in a public setting, and that’s considered culturally acceptable. Children who relieve themselves in public in the United States would be considered deviant at best. What’s acceptable as normal in some cultures isn’t normal in others. Because of this, the idea of normal behavior can sometimes be elusive. Even with our current topic, we have to ask ourselves, “What is normal grief and what does it look like?”
The area of psychology that deals with pathology is often referred to as Abnormal Psychology. In general, most abnormal psychology textbooks define a behavior or mental experience as abnormal when it meets the following three criteria. The first criteria one must meet if they’re describing a behavior as abnormal is that it deviates from the norm. Deviating from the norm is a statistical means of describing the fact a behavior, emotion, or mental experience manifests itself (Or doesn’t manifest itself) in a way that is not descriptive of the general population. When we say a behavior is abnormal we’re saying it deviates from what most people feel or do given a particular situation. If most people in a population experience a mood range between sad and happy and you seem to experience sadness in a more profound way, that emotional experience may be “abnormal” and considered clinically depressed. The second criteria necessary to categorize something as abnormal is that a behavior or psychological experience causes the individual difficulty adapting to life’s basic requirements and demands. When someone is so sad that they struggle to get out of bed, go to work, make a living for themselves, and pay the rent, the sadness is not normal. It impacts their ability to function on a day to day basis. Someone who believes exposure to the most minimal amount of sunlight causes cancer and therefore only lives in darkness has a belief that impacts their ability to function in life. People who maintain these beliefs are believed to have abnormal thoughts. The third criteria required for calling some behavior or psychological state abnormal is that the individual experiences personal distress. If what you’re doing, feeling, or believing causes you personal distress, it’s an indication it may be abnormal.
Given these three criteria, people may rightly say someone in a state of grief is experiencing something abnormal. Grief causes them distress and it might even impact their ability to function on a day to day basis. Some grieving people can’t leave their home, weep constantly, and may even believe they can still “sense” the individual who died. Doesn’t this imply grief is abnormal? The best answer one can give based on these observations is maybe. Let’s think about that first criteria, the fact a behavior or experience deviates from the norm. Is it outside the norm to demonstrate these behaviors if someone we love has died? Do most people think, behave, and act this way when someone they love is no longer a part of their lives? I believe everyone experiences grief in a very unique way, but I also think we can generalize enough behaviors to say if someone is experiencing grief these particular behaviors, actions, emotions, and thoughts are probably within the range of normal. Many psychologists have come to the same conclusion. Some of the typical human experiences associated with grief can be categorized as emotional experiences, physical experiences, behaviors, and thoughts. Let’s look at what these normal experiences are so you can understand what a normal state of grief looks like. To do that, we need to understand how grief impacts us emotionally, physically, relationally, cognitively, and also spiritually. For now, we will explore the emotions associated with grief.
Emotions are difficult things to understand. Psychology itself struggles to pin down emotional experiences, what leads us to have them and what allows us to process them. Sure, we understand neurotransmitters like dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin all have a place in creating and regulating emotions. We can discuss the role the amygdala, part of the brain’s limbic system impacts emotions and actually helps us encode emotions with our memories, but we struggle to understand the emotional experience in a very precise way. Part of the difficulty faced when trying to precisely nail down an emotion is the fact it seems to transcend merely “psychological” processes and ties into the human experience holistically. In psychology we talk about three main components that make up and emotion. There is the behavioral component which deals with the outward expression of the emotion. This might include facial expressions, movements and gestures. The second component includes the physiological component. This is the physiological arousal that emerges when the autonomic nervous system gets involved in the experience. These two components of an emotion are the reason why sadness can actually cause us physical pain. The third component of an emotion is the cognitive component. This is when we use our cognitive appraisal system to determine which emotion we are experiencing and how intense it is.
This holistic experience of emotion is important for us to remember because when an individual is suffering from being in a state of grief they are not simply dealing with a mental experience, they’re dealing with an experience that touches a number of parts of their being. Emotions are in a sense transcendent and permeate our whole existence. They’re often treated with suspicion and that’s because we have come to value pure reason over emotion. However, if we were nothing more than rational creatures we would lead a very cold and dry existence. Emotion provides color to a world where reason is nothing more than the black and white patterns in a coloring book.
Having said all this about emotions, what might be considered a normal emotional expression when in a state of grief? The first and most obvious is sadness. People who grieve are sad. In fact, we would think it very strange if someone who is grieving was elated and filled with joy. If we continue with the premise we are created for relationships when one of those relationships is severed by death we experience emotional pain. Pain is not something normal people take joy in, they’re sad. This sadness can be overwhelming at times because we’re struck with a deep understanding that the relationship we enjoyed with the individual who died will never be the same. We will not have this individual’s physical presence with us again to enjoy. Whenever we lose something we have enjoyed, drawn strength from, felt comfortable with, and found comfort in we become sad. Sadness is indeed something that comes along with grieving. We will address what this mood state and others are like a little later in these essays but for now, remember that being sad is quite acceptable and reasonable when grieving.
Another emotion someone experiences is guilt or self-reproach. Many times when someone dies we think we could have done things differently or changed the situations around their death to keep them from coming to their end. Wives may tell themselves, “If only I had cooked healthier meals my husband would not have died of a heart attack” or sometimes we tell ourselves, “If only I would have gotten her to the hospital quicker she may have lived.” Guilt finds its way into our hearts because we believe in some way we could have stopped what is sometimes the inevitable. One also can imagine when a loved one commits suicide how it impacts us. The guilt one experienced believing somehow they didn’t help the one closest to them can be overwhelming. I had a client who was a therapist himself who came to see me because he was experiencing complicated grief. He would find himself breaking into tears at some of the most inopportune times. His brother had committed suicide about four years previously and he somehow convinced himself because he was in the mental health profession he should have been able to recognize what was happening with his brother and stopped it. His guilt was overwhelming. We also have heard of something termed “Survivor Guilt.” In these scenarios we feel guilty because we have survived a tragedy when someone we love or care for didn’t. Many military men and women feel this when they survive an encounter with the enemy and their friends are killed in battle. They struggle with the fact they are able to return to their family when their friends who fell in battle cannot and are leaving a family in distress. Guilt makes its way into a multitude of scenarios.
Emotions, like all aspects of being human, are both helpful and hurtful. Sin has impacted how we express them, how we understand them, and the behaviors they elicit. Christians are not untouched by the way sin taints our experience of emotions. We must, however, come to terms with them, accept them as part of the healing process, and allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify our emotional experience. In the next few posts, we will explore how we can do that. For now, take this with you to ponder. You may be hurting and grieving the loss of someone you love. You are not alone. You have a God who entered into that suffering himself and is with you presently. He is big enough to receive whatever emotional pain you want to express to him and loving enough to not let it hurt him or cause him to walk away from you. Don’t deny your emotions or try and “sanctify” them yourself. Instead, allow Christ to be present to them with you and weep together. He wept for his friend Lazarus, he will surely understand and walk with you as you weep the loss of one you love.