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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    My doctor recently diagnosed me with abberant grief - what is this?

    My mother died last year and I had a bad year generally, with different types of losses.
    The grief seemed to catch up with me around Christmas and I can't seem to move on from it now.
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  • 2

    Thanks

    Dr Andrew McNess

    Social Worker

    Andrew McNess works as volunteer coordinator for The Compassionate Friends Victoria, a peer support organisation providing services to bereaved parents, siblings, and grandparents. He has … View Profile

    What a tough year 2011 was for you – and the grief you are experiencing sounds a completely normal (and to be expected) response to such a tough year.

    ‘Aberrant grief’ is somewhat of an all-encompassing term in psychotherapeutic culture; it can refer to grieving too much (chronic grief), grieving at the “wrong time” (delayed or “postponed” grief), or not appearing to grieving at all (absent grief). From what you have said – “The grief seemed to catch up with me around Christmas and I can't seem to move on from it now” – sounds like a mixture of what could be described as delayed grief, followed by chronic grief. However, it also seems a very normal response to the death of your mother, and the accompanying stresses/losses in your life.

    Of course what is considered “aberrant” or “pathological” grief varies from culture to culture. What is often difficult for bereaved individuals in Western cultures is that they find their ongoing experiences of grief fall outside cultural beliefs and standards of how long it should take a person to “get over” grief. Their friends, work colleagues, even practitioners, may view any grief that extends over a period of months (since the loved one’s death) as “aberrant”. The issue here is that feelings of grief become combined with a more general social anxiety (e.g. “Why can I not get over this?” “I don’t feel comfortable with people now.”) and increased feelings of social isolation (e.g. “Who could ever understand my experiences?”).

    This is partly why bereaved individuals often feel the need to seek out grief support groups or telephone support lines; they increasingly feel that there are few people “out there” who can understand their experiences, except those people who have been through a very similar situation. Once they have forged some strong social ties with other bereaved individuals, they often feel better able to re-engage with the wider community. Bereaved individuals can often seek out the support of a counsellor as well.

    From the feedback I have heard in grief support groups, the search for a counsellor who is “just right” (e.g. is clearly empathetic and understanding towards your grief journey) can sometimes take time, but finding the right person can be very rewarding in helping temper experiences of grief and providing support in difficult times.
    My best wishes to you.

  • 2

    Thanks

    Ramona Singh

    Counsellor, Psychotherapist

    Life often presents us with challenging situations.Despite our best efforts, we don’t always find ways of resolving them.We might ask family or friends for advice. … View Profile

    I am sorry to hear that you have suffered so much loss.  It' is only to be expected that you would feel the weight of this during Christmas, a time which represents family and togetherness for so many people. 

    Some dictionary definitions of the word ‘aberrant’ include "departing from the right, normal, or usual course“ and ”exceptional or abnormal“.  So your doctor's diagnosis reflects the prevalent belief in cultures such as ours, that the grieving process should be completed well within a year of the loss of the person we have loved.  In my own counselling practice, and my personal experience of grief, I find this an unhelpful approach which places people under a lot of pressure to ”get over it“ within an unrealistic timeframe.  

    Often when we are busy coping with the immediate tasks to be completed after someone dies, and then dealing with the other challenges that life can throw in our direction, as it seems you have had to do this past year, we don't allow ourselves to feel our sadness and loss fully.  This can be our way of protecting ourselves until we feel emotionally ready to deal with the pain.  Then when the pace of life slows down, or an important date comes around such as Christmas or Mother's Day, or the birthday of the person we have lost, our defence mechanism can fall away, and we start to experience the feelings we have been avoiding, and it can be overwhelming.

    I believe that grief takes as long as it takes, and the only way to ”get over it" is to go through it and experience all the pain that comes with it, and allow yourself the time and space to do that.  This journey can be easier to make with the support of someone who understands and empathises with what you are going through.  Perhaps there is someone in your family who is suffering also from the loss of your mother, with whom you can share your feelings and your loving memories of your mother.  An experienced and empathic grief counsellor can also work through the grieving process with you, helping you to get unstuck and to manage feelings that can sometimes seem overwhelming.

    I wish you well during this difficult time, and hope that you can find some comfort soon.

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