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Living With Grief: What’s The DIF?

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Evelyn Pechter is a HOPE therapist and Licensed Psychologist. Dr. Pechter has private practice offices in West Los Angeles and Woodland Hills, where she specializes in adult life changes including grief/loss.

“Wherever you are right now on your journey — whether your loved one died two weeks ago, two years ago, or even 20 years ago, it helps to understand the process from beginning to the not-so-clear end. As Glenda the Good Witch of the North told Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz before she set out for Emerald City, “It’s always best to start at the beginning.” So it is with most things; so it is with grief.”

— Ashley Davis Bush: Transcending Loss

It is best to start at the beginning, but what often happens is that people want to avoid the painful aspects of grief; it’s too terrifying. So, they rush right ahead, telling others — and themselves — that “Everything’s just fine. I’m okay. I’m adjusting just fine.” They attempt to skip to the end before they’ve gone through the process.

grief as a butterfly
“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly. But rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” – Maya Angelou

Grief is an evolving process. In the beginning, there is:

  • Continued disbelief in the death of the loved one, or emotional numbness over the loss.
  • Inability to accept the death.
  • Preoccupation with the loved one or how they died.
  • Intense sorrow and emotional pain, sometimes including bitterness or anger.
  • Inability to enjoy good memories about the loved one.

Which brings us to “What’s the DIF?” — Duration, Intensity and Frequency.

For example, your tears may not last as long — duration.

The pain, sadness and tears may not be as intense.

The tears may not come as frequently.

To be clear, there is no timetable on grief… and change happens.

When the struggle to fight the grief lessens, healing happens.

Especially in the early stages of grieving it may be helpful to actually track the duration, intensity and frequency of your periods of sorrow. In the days and weeks following the death of a loved one the sorrow may simply be constant. And intense. Which may make you wonder if this will ever change. Then, you may have a good day — or a day that is at least not unbearable. But, almost shockingly, you may slip back into the pain, leading you to ask, “I thought I was getting better — what happened?”

At this point some people create a DIF journal. On a calendar they might note the days when the sorrow is unrelenting, and jot a number down indicating the intensity of the emotion — 7 on a scale of 10, or whatever seems right for them. Eventually, one day the intensity will be 5, and that will last for days, or maybe even be a 4. How you grade the scale is entirely personal — a “4” may be the same as a “5” except that for a few seconds you were struck by the beauty of a sunset. That is progress. Cherish the little signs of progress.

By being aware of DIF you may find very encouraging things beginning to happen. You see that the number of days in a row in this period of sorrow — the duration — is shorter than last time. Progress. And perhaps the period was punctuated by a few more “4s.” Intensity reduced — again, progress. And now you see an even more wonderful thing. There were 20 days, for example, between periods of sorrow instead of 10. Frequency is diminishing. Healing is occurring.

Note, though, that improvement in DIF is not a straight-line process. Setbacks — recurrences of greater intensity, or an increase in frequency or duration — occur. Especially when you’re confronted by trigger events — anniversaries, holidays and the like. But be heartened when you see that the general trend line is upward. You are healing.

Through the grief process there is a rebuilding and evolving that occurs. Throughout your life, you have evolved. You are not the same person you were in high school, in college, before you married, during your marriage, and you are not the same person you were when your spouse died.

As time passes, the despair may no longer be as unbearable, the sorrow no longer as persistent.

There are moments of missing, of course, yet they are moments, and they come, not like the early waves came, now in softer moments, kind memories, compassionate self-care. With each passing year, the balance tips a little more toward an appreciation of what there once was, and away from the horror of what was lost.

It’s important to check-in from time to time with your evolving self and acknowledge the DIF.

By Evelyn Pechter, Psy.D.