When grief lasts too long
Finding a new normal after the loss of a loved one, a home, a community, a job, or a pet takes a lot longer than you'd expect, especially if you're neurodivergent.
Wait... what? Do neurodivergent people experience grief differently?
When I was a child I cried a lot. In fact, I used to take pride in my comfort with crying in public. It seemed to be something others were not capable of doing, so I decided it was a skill that I could call up sorrow on demand.
I did not know how or why I could feel so much so quickly, but I got a lot of messages from others about it.
"You're okay. It's not that big of a deal."
"You don't need to cry about it."
"You can come back when you're done crying."
"Oh, come on, you're fine."
I internalized these messages to mean that I had control over my reaction to hard things and that my instincts and feelings were untrustworthy. I slowly distanced myself from my intuition and body to protect me from making others uncomfortable.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties I was a master of curated vulnerability. I told my rehearsed stories of my parents' divorce and my mother's cancer battle with just a tear or two at the right moments so nobody thought I was a sociopath. I had no idea how to grieve and manage other people's perceptions of me at the same time.
When my mother died it all collapsed.
I could not control my emotions, so I called in sick and didn't come out of my bedroom. I cried and slept the days away while calculating how often I shared openly about my pain.
Years later I would experience more loss and again would hide away for fear of being told I "just needed to have hope" or "it will get better soon."
How do you hope when you feel overcome by anguish? If you are gripped by the fear of the future, how do you put one foot in front of the other?
Have you heard the saying, "just take it one day at a time"? During periods of intense grief I encourage people to just take it one hour at a time, or even one fifteen minute interval at a time. Eventually you'll be able to handle a day sometimes.
Don't rush me
I remember feeling afraid that I was wearing out my welcome in grieving openly. Friends would reassure me they would never tire of holding space for my pain, but I could not really believe them.
The little kid inside me insisted people were growing impatient with my long-suffering and just being polite when they denied it.
Grief is not a linear process, so you'd think neurodivergent folks would be right at home in it. Unfortunately, the world we live in expect a 'return to normal' when the wound is only a few days old. Most people get no bereavement leave, those who do can expect only a few days.
If you spent a lot of your life feeling unseen and unheard, then your response to grief may be more intense. You may be struggling with panic and fear of abandonment on top of the sorrow from the loss itself.
Layering these hard emotions creates enormous mental load on the bereaved. We are not born knowing how to integrate painful experiences into our lives, so if you never learned how to you could find the loss of a loved one traumatizing on multiple fronts.
When people ask me if grief is more complicated for neurodivergent (ADHD, ASD, OCD, etc) brains, my answer is yes. However, part of why it's harder is because we are already suffering from being treated differently, often unfairly. Many of us are spending a lot of energy managing ourselves in ways that will not put a target on our backs.
Experiencing an intensely painful loss is not something we can control, which can be especially scary for anyone who is without a safe place in which to be fully themselves. Feeling the feelings - yes, every one of them, intensity and all - is the way to process and integrate pain.
A trusted guide, like a therapist or wise friend, can help the hurting person feel tethered in a season of overwhelming uncertainty.
You are allowed to be sad, mad, confused, envious as much as you need to be. There is no 'best by' date on suffering. It lasts as long as it lasts.