One of the first research papers I read after Brady died included a graph of the grief levels reported by two recently bereaved widows. It showed that, not surprisingly, these widows experienced mostly high levels of self-perceived grief early on. It also showed, less predictably, that these levels varied a lot from one day to the next.
Over time, according to these graphs, the grieving swings leveled out at a much lower level. After a year or so, the widows reported relatively modest levels of grief that didn’t change much day to day.
I found this encouraging. It gave me hope that the agonizing, disorienting feelings that seemed to flog me constantly like a flag in a hurricane might someday grow much less strong.
Last year, about two years since Brady died, I read about a grief therapist who asked clients to fill out a grief rating chart. Each day the clients put two marks on a sheet of graph paper. One mark indicated the lowest level of grief they’d felt the previous day. The other mark was for the highest level.
The purpose of this exercise, I read, was to help patients understand that they didn’t feel equally bad every minute of every day and that a spell of feeling bad was followed by a spell of feeling better.
After running across two examples of this, I decided I’d try it. During December 2018, I recorded a number in a Google Sheets spreadsheet indicating the level of grief I’d experienced the previous day. I thought putting two marks on graph paper might be too complicated. So instead of marking a high and a low I estimated my average grief level and used a single number. A graph of the spreadsheet entries gave me a visual grief track.
After doing this for a few weeks, it occurred to me that at least for a brief period every day my grief level was essentially zero. That’s because I was totally focused during that moment on something other than my son’s death. So I decided that the following month I’d use a single figure showing the maximum level of grief from the previous day.
A Moment of Clarity
I hadn’t been doing this long when I had a real epiphany. I can tell you the exact date: January 12, 2019. On that morning I put down a “2” as the highest level of grief I’d experienced the day before. This was just one mark above a “1”, which meant “no grief” according to my home-brewed rating scheme. (I’ll discuss this rating approach again shortly.)
What this rating meant to me was that I had experienced an entire day during which I never felt more than “wistfulness” about Brady’s death. I never thought, “I wish I were dead.” I never gasped, moaned or cried out from a sudden sharp pang of yearning, guilt or sadness. I didn’t weep. I certainly didn’t collapse on to the floor and lie there sobbing and screaming his name.
This was huge. To me, it meant I was there. I had arrived, at least for one day, at the place I’d been trying to get to since shortly after Brady’s death. That was a place where I recognized and accepted the reality of his loss, but wasn’t destroyed by it. Instead I was gently wistful. I wished it hadn’t happened, of course, but I didn’t expend any energy raging against the reality, blaming myself for his loss or collapsing under the weight of the unappeasable desire to make things different.
I was there. I had arrived, at least for one day, at the place I’d been trying to get to since shortly after Brady’s death.
I was, frankly, shocked in a way. I could hardly believe that I had gone through a whole day where such a low level of grief was the worst I’d experienced. But when I questioned my memory carefully, I was sure enough that this was, in fact, the truth.
I didn’t think for a second that grief was done with me and it wasn’t. Within a few days I’d experienced a “7” day with “brief tears and crying.” On the last day of the month I’d have another “7.” But in between I’d have five more “2” days, including three in a row.
This was incredibly encouraging to me. For the first time since Brady died I really felt as though I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. To mix another metaphor, it seemed as if for the first time in years the full sun had broken through the black cloud overhead.
Explaining Grief Tracking
So what was going on? All this from punching a few numbers into a spreadsheet? Why was I so surprised to record such a low-grief day? Why did I then have five more days like it in the next couple of weeks? Had this been going on for a while and I just missed it? Was there something about tracking grief that helped me to feel better?
I think there are at least two things going on.
First, I think I had been having occasional very low-grief days without realizing it. I think recording the day’s grief level brought to light the fact that I was making significant progress toward recovery without noticing it.
That seems incredible, admittedly. How could I not notice that I didn’t feel awful? But it may be that the intensity of grief pain tends to blur experience. That may cause it it to seem as though every day is just short of unbearable. In fact, however, there are some good days. It’s possible.
I think recording the day’s grief level brought to light the fact that I was making significant progress toward recovery without noticing it.
The second thing is that, once I started thinking about what the day’s grief level would be like in advance, I began gaming the system. I started trying to work for a low level of grief so I could put down that “3” or “2” in the box the next morning. That may sound stupid. It may be stupid. But it is a well-known fact that people can be motivated by such silly things as charts and graphs.
I know without a doubt that I began to be sensitive to the beginning urges to do things such as think to myself “I wish I were dead.” (Having that thought is the key criterion for a “4” grief level.) In an effort to avoid having to mark a “4” for the day, I’d quash that thought before it got half-formed. Perhaps reacting swiftly to avoid distressing thoughts like that helped me to feel better, not just one day but days in a row.
For this grief tracking exercise I used a Google Sheets spreadsheet like this:
(Here is a link to download a blank Excel spreadsheet you can fill out to make your own grief track: Grief Track blank. It includes instructions. Email me if you have problems with it.)
In the left column is, obviously, the date.
The next column to the right is for figures representing “Peak grief last 24 hours.” These go from “1” the least to “10” the most.
I subjectively picked the grief rating. That doesn’t mean I used the first figure that came to mind. Nor did I spend hours or even minutes thinking carefully about how I felt at the worst the previous day. I just picked one that felt right and fit the facts as I recalled them.
After a while, as I went through the day I’d consciously monitor my symptoms and flag any that indicated a certain level of grief. So if I ever cried about Brady’s death, even for a moment, I’d make a mental note that the following morning I’d put down at least a “7” for grief rating. If I didn’t have a mental note to give myself a particular rating, I’d put down the lowest level that seemed reasonable.
This may sound too subjective to be useful. However, subjectivity isn’t always bad. For instance, when you are training for an athletic event you can get all kinds of technology to objectively track things like heart rate, bicycle crank revolutions per minute, etc.
Alternatively, you can dispense with the gadgets and just assign a “rated perceived exertion” or “RPE” level, much as I’ve done here with grief. And some research studies have found that RPE ratings closely track the objectively derived data. Basically, you can get just as good a rating without using the gadgets to get objective information. So subjective can be good.
Also, subjective is what I have. Perhaps you could hook yourself up to a functional MRI machine to see if grief-related areas of your brain lit up during the course of the day. Or something like that. But you couldn’t do that 24 hours a day. Ultimately, subjective self-rating seemed like the way to go on this.
Here are the 10 grief levels, with a few words describing each:
- No grief
- Sadness, regret, yearning
- Occasional wish I were dead thoughts
- Occasional moan or groan
- Crying out in pain
- Brief tears and crying
- Crying minutes at a time
- On knees, sobbing
- On the floor, screaming
I spent maybe five minutes coming up with this list initially, and then modified one or two of them after thinking about it some more. It seems like a reasonable list for me. Other people, no doubt, will prefer other criteria. I don’t see this as a huge deal.
After setting up the two columns of data, one for the date and one for the rating, and typing the list of ratings at the bottom for reference, I created a graph using the two columns of data. This is not terribly difficult to do with Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, Libre Office Calc or any other spreadsheet. I won’t, however, try to explain it here.
If you don’t want to use a spreadsheet program or can’t figure out how to do it, I don’t see why using a piece of graph paper and a pencil wouldn’t work just as well. (If you want more organized and sophisticated and probably accurate ways to figure your level of grief symptoms, check out this post: Yes, You Can Measure Grief and Here’s How.)
Another approach that might be easiest of all is to use an iPhone’s built-in health app. The weight-tracking tool that is part of this app would work fine, I think. You could enter a number for grief instead of weight every day or whenever you thought about it. The health app automatically generates a graph as well as weekly, monthly and yearly averages. I already use this app to track my weight, so I’m going to stick with Google Sheets for grief tracking.
Yet another way to do this is with Pacifica. This is a mental and emotional health app for iPhone or Android. Among other things, it helps you track your mood. There’s also a web-based version.
You can set Pacifica up to message you once a day at random intervals asking “How are you?” You answer by picking one of seven moods ranging from “Great” to “Awful.” You can base your answer on your overall mood or your grief level.
The app tracks the history of your moods with a graph like the grief tracking one. You can get it to email you the results or print them out. The free version of the app includes this tracking tool. It also has mood-management features to encourage you to meditate, get exercise and get enough sleep.
No matter how you do it, grief tracking is not hard. It takes literally 60 seconds or so each day to think about and jot down the number or make the dot.
The paid version of Pacifica adds more stuff, including at least one tool specifically for coping with grief. I haven’t checked that out although I did pay for a one-month membership. If you want the paid stuff, you might consider waiting for one of their periodic discount sales.
No matter how you do it, grief tracking is not hard. It takes literally 60 seconds or so each day to think about and jot down the number or make the dot. It doesn’t cost any money or require you to go anywhere, obtain expert assistance, reveal your innermost feelings to somebody else or much of anything.
You estimate what was the worst you felt the previous day and enter a dot or a number. That’s it.
Evaluating Grief Tracking
It seems to me that grief tracking is a coping strategy worth trying. It seems like it could help a grieving person to realize that they are getting more relief than they might have suspected, that they’re making progress toward recovery, and perhaps that they can help themselves feel better by monitoring and, to the extent possible, managing their grief feelings to aim toward that desired minimal level.
One of the more significant things I learned was that the average peak level of grief I’d felt the previous month was 3.61. Why is that significant? It meant that for an entire month, on an average day I had not once thought to myself, “I wish I were dead,” which is the criterion for a “4.” I have been feeling and saying for months that I really hated this recurring thought, could not seem to get rid of it and would be thrilled when and if it ever went away. And here was evidence that it was fading. Hallelujah. Seriously.
For an entire month, on an average day I had not once thought to myself, “I wish I were dead.”
Of course, it could be that I am all wrong and something else is going on. It could be that two years and three months after my son’s death, I had just recovered to the point I could experience low grief levels. I might have noticed this without the grief track. It may have had nothing to do with my almost-subconscious effort to game the results so I could get a low rating. It may not work if you’re not as many months into grief recovery as I was.
It could be coincidence. It could be caused by sunspots or El Nino or extraterrestrials or the Trilateral Commission. Correlation is not causation.
Whether you track your grief or not, I am sorry for the losses that brought you here. I much appreciate you liking, commenting, sharing and subscribing to Grieve Well. If you do try grief tracking, please share what you learned and how much it helped, even if that’s nothing on either score.
I hope you’ll feel free to ignore anything you read here that you find disagreeable. I’m not trying to tell anybody how to grieve. I want to supply some ideas about how people might grieve that they might not have thought of otherwise. I hope you get some peace today.
Super interesting . Thank you for sharing this.
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Thanks for sharing this, I’ve just started my own graph to track how I’m doing. This and piece you wrote about grief peaking at 5 – 6 months has given me additional hope. My father passed suddenly of a heart attack 5 months ago and I’ve been on a roller coaster ever since, I have had some days recently where I felt amazing.
I’m sorry for your loss, GS. I think it’s really helpful to realize, as you said, that every now and then you have some good days. Then if you actually count them and see them becoming more frequent, it can be enormously encouraging. I hope you have a good one today.
Thanks Mark, I’ve managed to string 3 days of 3’s in a row which is great, but one must keep one’s feet firmly on the ground as I know there’s still tough one’s ahead. Certainly feel this week that I might have just started to turn the corner as I have more energy and my brains starting to work again.. Hopefully you’re doing alright as well?
I’m really glad to hear that, GS. It is surprising how encouraged I felt when I realized I was having some more or less extended periods of not feeling quite so blasted. Seeing evidence of a tiny bit of progress can feel huge when it seems like you’re completely stuck, I guess. I’m feeling fairly well. I’ve had kind of a rough month but things are evening out lately. Thanks for the note and I hope you get some peace today.