Ask A Therapist: What to Do With Prolonged Grief, and Is It OK to Use the Word ‘Crazy’?

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer two questions each month for South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask A Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

This month, readers asked the Emerald what to do with prolonged grief and whether it’s harmful to use the word “crazy.”

If you have a question, please click here and let us know.* We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

My wife died three years ago and nobody talks about her anymore, and I can’t seem to “move on.” No one wants to hear about my heartbreak, and they tell me it’s time to feel better. Is this normal? I’m worried maybe I’ve just become depressed or that I’ll never be OK again.

Dear Reader,

I am so very sorry that you have lost your beloved. Losing a loved one or a family member is intricately full of meaning and has manifold aspects of heartache and pain associated with it. Sometimes this is due to the loss of something precious, other times it is the finality of something that was complicated but never healed.

Years ago, while visiting Oaxaca, Mexico, I witnessed a group of local indigenous craftswomen enter a church on a break from their zocolo market duties where they sold their wares. They were there only a handful minutes, just long enough to kneel, wail, and sob their many laments to whatever saint or figure they were directing their pleas. The other local worshippers didn’t respond at all to their moans of grief, as if it was not only a familiar sight, but also clearly understood to be one of the church’s many functions. When finished, the women stood up, became instantly straight-faced, though seemingly lighter in demeanor, and returned to their market stands.

The rites of mourning and the remembrance of the dead are the stuff of life, from the Jewish people honoring their lost ancestors each year during Yom Kippur, to the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, to the Chinese practice of the “death wail” ceremony. Making sense of our losses is a defining feature of the human experience.

However, any therapist working today can tell you how private the business of grief has become. We carry the weight of the stories of heartbroken loss in a culture that seems to have no ability to share the load, despite the fact that we are all nearly guaranteed to have this weight on our backs at some time, and likely, many times, over the course of a life.

Humans are psychologically wired to attach, and so rites of mourning exist not chiefly to honor lost loved ones, but to ease survivors into the reality of being without them physically, albeit forever bound to them in a different and more complex, interior way. This takes not a little patience and empathy to achieve.

Grief is the other side of the coin of attachment, the prickly underbelly of love itself. Your grieving process is personal and powerful, Reader, and it isn’t reliant on the approval of the less-equipped people in your life who cannot meet you in your hours (and months and years) of need. This transitional process needs compassionate witness as well as ritual to move through. In other words, it needs some structure. I will aver a guess that in your case, you might not feel like you are on the right track until you have that.

What might that look like? If you are numb, or cannot express yourself, you may find professional help to regain access to feeling. If you can feel pain or other hard things that make you feel like you “can’t move on” as you say, then find a reliable person or group to hold you and see you through it. This holding should not attempt to fix it, only to empathize, listen and be there. If this is not available to you in person, as it isn’t for many people, find an online forum or group.

Then proceed to kneel. To feel it. To wail to your saints. To accept help. Then rinse and repeat, for as long as it takes. In time, you will be able to get up, straight-faced, and return to your respective market stand, where life can resume, one step at a time, to a new kind of normal.

Megan Devine, the author of the book It’s Ok that You are Not Ok (2018) is one voice out there attempting to “chang[e] how we understand the work of grief. It’s not a problem to be solved, it’s an experience to be supported. There’s a huge difference between the two”. I highly recommend her book, and the accompanying website http://www.refugeingrief.com

— Liz Covey

Is it offensive to refer to someone as “crazy”?

Dear Reader,

I grew up hearing “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” to acknowledge that words cannot cause any physical pain. But sometimes words do leave lasting wounds.

As a clinician, I live in words. The questions I ask, or don’t ask, are deliberate — as are the words I choose to use or choose not to use.

Words carry weight.

Therapists understand the impact of words on health and wellness. Clients often come to us because they have been negatively impacted by what people have said to them. They have narratives that run in their heads that they are not good enough, pretty enough, smart enough — or that they are just “crazy.”

It would be easy for me to get on a soapbox and say that when we casually call someone “crazy” we are insulting people with mental illness. Beyond potentially stigmatizing folks with mental illness, the use of crazy also has been used to silence women.

Words carry weight.

We’ve been calling women crazy for a long time. Unfortunately one of the consequences of this is that many people start to believe that it’s true. Women can start doubting themselves and some men believe that “all women are crazy.” One of our responsibility as human beings interacting with each other is to limit the chances that our words cause harm to others. I understand communication is complicated and I don’t advocate policing every word that we speak, but there needs to be an awareness that we have choice over the words we use and that context matters. There are many words in our language that have been used to delegitimize the experiences of others and “crazy” happens to be one of those words.

Words carry weight.

How are you using “crazy”? What are you not saying by choosing “crazy” instead? Were you surprised by the other persons response or behavior? I suppose the answer as to whether “crazy” is offensive is determined by an agreement that both parties enter as to how it is used. We can use “crazy” in a fun way — “ah man, that was crazy” or “you so crazy” — without issue. But if the word is used during an argument or to diminish the experiences of the other, then it carries a different weight and is most likely offensive.

A fundamental question then becomes…Who do you want to be in relationships? Do you want to be someone who’s words are uplifting? Or do you want to be someone who’s words are painful? The answers to these questions will probably let you know whether “crazy” or any other word you choose is offensive.

I hope you found this helpful.

— Roy Fisher

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Liz Covey

Liz Covey, LMHC, LMT, is a counselor and parent coach with a private practice in South Seattle working in the specialty area of attachment, adoption, and trauma, with children, families and individual adults. She is also a trainer, presenter, and writer on topics related to the changing face of mental healthcare, disseminating ideas and practices aimed at improving mainline therapeutics so that they are more inclusive, holistic, and effective. Liz is a Rainier Beach resident, and the extremely proud parent of two incredible school-aged kids.

Roy FisherRoy Fisher has a BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and a MA from Pacific Lutheran in Marriage and Family Therapy. With over 10 years of experience in various roles as a clinician, consultant, supervisor, and teacher, Roy has seen the positive impact of engaging others in thoughtful dialogue.

*South Seattle Emerald’s Ask A Therapist advice comes from professionals and are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice and are not a substitute for professional mental health care. By submitting your question, you are agreeing to let South Seattle Emerald use it, in part or in full, and it may be edited for length and/or clarity.

Featured Image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0.

 

 

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