I started doing grief tracking about eight months ago to see if it could tell me whether I am, in fact, feeling better over time. The way I do it is to put down a number every morning representing the peak level of grief I’ve felt over the previous 24 hours.
I made up 10 graduated levels of grief experience, from 1 “No grief” to 10 “On the floor screaming.” Whatever level is closest to the most intense grief experience I have had during the previous 24 hours, I put that number down for the day. You can read more about grief tracking in the original post on it: Grief Tracking: What A Difference A Dot Makes.
The graph at the top shows my monthly average grief levels for 2019 to date. Below is a graph showing the daily grief levels for August 2019.
You’ll notice that the daily grief level changes a lot from one day to the next. Also that over time the average grief level has a definite downward trend. I think this is good news. It shows that I am getting better since my son Brady’s death from suicide at 16 in October 2016. It’s gradual and inconsistent but overall unmistakable.
Since January, the average has been 3.28. That’s a little closer to 3 “Sadness, regret, yearning” than 4 “Occasional wish I were dead thoughts.” The lowest daily peak has been 2 “Wistfulness.” I’ve had that lots of times. The highest has been 8 “Crying minutes at a time.” I have only had that once or twice this year.
I haven’t ever had a 1 “No grief” for a full day. And I haven’t experienced a 9 “On knees, sobbing” or a 10 since some time last year.
Don’t Trust the Straight Line
I’m cautious about making too much of that down-slanting line showing the average monthly level over the past eight months. It is likely misleading. If you extend that to the right it would drop below 2 “wistfulness” sometime in the next year. And in a couple of years or so it would be at 1 “no grief.”
I don’t expect to ever reach a point of consistent, every day all day no grief. That’s based on studies I’ve seen of the typical duration of grief after a loss. One study of widows and widowers found it took over 50 years for them to get to the point they didn’t at least occasionally have painful episodes of grieving. I’m 63 and it seems unlikely I’ll reach that point.
Realistically, that slanting line of average grief is not straight but curved. I expect it to settle down eventually to a little above 2. In other words, not far from where I am right now. I averaged 2.87 for August.
How Grief Tracking Has Helped
It is very encouraging to see that I’m truly making progress returning to something like the life I led before Brady died. It has been a difficult period, to say the least, and continues to be challenging.
Grief tracking has helped beyond simple encouragement too. Being mindful about my peak grief level during the day has helped me to manage it. For instance, I know if I think “I wish I were dead” during the day I’ll have to put down a 4 for grief level tomorrow. I don’t want that.
Maybe it’s stupid and childish, but I want to keep that average line pointing downward. So I stuff those thoughts when I feel them bubbling up. (The many-times-daily occurrence of the “I wish I were dead” thought has been one of the more distressing aspects of the first couple of years since Brady’s death.)
I don’t see anything at all healthy or desirable about wishing I could lie down and die.
Many people insist that it is absolutely essential to fully feel every emotion relating to grief or something terrible will happen to me. I won’t grieve healthily, or I’ll experience delayed grief or something. But after thinking about it quite a bit, I don’t see anything at all healthy or desirable about wishing I could lie down and die.
Anything that encourages and enables me to stuff those thoughts before they bubble up is a positive, if you ask me. Even if it’s vitally important that I embrace those wish-I-were-dead thoughts, I’m not going to do it willingly.
I have tried and continue to try many different evidence-based bereavement grief coping strategies. Grief tracking has been one of the more effective ones for me during this dark period. It’s helped me climb a little higher out of the hopeless pit of black endless despair.
Anybody can do grief tracking with a pencil and a piece of graph paper. I use an Excel spreadsheet. You can download a blank copy of that spreadsheet here. You can also do grief tracking with the built-in Apple iPhone Health app. Just use, say, the weight tracking tool and enter your daily grief level instead of your daily weight.
Grief Tracking Research
One article related to grief tracking I ran across is “From data fetishim to quantifying selves: Self-tracking practices and the other values of data.” This article from a 2016 issue of New Media & Society suggested that people like me who track data about themselves are doing it with three purposes in mind.
1) As a practice of mindfulness
2) As a means of resistance against social norms
3) As a communicative and narrative aid.
I relate well to all three of these. Grief tracking has helped me be mindful about my response to loss. It’s helped me to push back against the nearly overwhelming insistence that I’ll never get over my son’s death. And it’s helped me to communicate, to myself and to others, a narrative story of my grief experience.
It’s not like the daily dots of grief tracking really prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt. But in my opinion they are a much better representation of reality than the casual observations and informal recollections that may be what cause so many bereaved people to declare, for instance, that the second year after loss was harder to bear than the first.
I have never seen a study that didn’t find the symptoms of grief grew easier to bear over time. I think it is unlikely that any more than a small minority of bereaved people actually have worse symptoms in the second or subsequent years than they did in the first year after loss. The daily dots of grief tracking help me to push back against that social norm.
I feel that other bereaved people seem to want me to be sad forever, and that grief tracking is a way of showing myself (and them) that I’m not going to let that happen.
The difference between grief tracking and the way most bereaved people reporting on their experiences is a little like the difference between my offhand guess at how much money is in my checking account and what a careful, systematic balancing of my debits and credits reveals. There is a big difference between consistently collected and carefully analyzed data and casual recollections of informal observations.
A 2017 report from the scholarly journal Technology & Philosophy by Tamar Sharon, one of the authors of the 2014 New Media & Technology think piece on self-tracking, described how one bereaved woman created a custom spreadsheet to track her grief experience. The article, Self-Tracking for Health and the Quantified Self.
The grief tracking was a lot more sophisticated than my daily dot approach. According to Sharon, the bereaved woman logged “various experiences related to her grief, including sights, conversations, and events that elicited memories of her mother.”
I was interested to read that this woman didn’t want to simply track her mood because she felt that was somehow an attempt to “track away her sadness.” She described her tracking project as a way to protect her grieving from a “world that doesn’t make space for grief and loss.”
This aim of protecting an individual grief process from a culture that disapproves of it is similar to my own. But our perceptions of the general attitude toward grief are opposed. This tracker feels people won’t let her be sad. I feel that other bereaved people seem to want me to be sad forever, and that grief tracking is a way of showing myself (and them) that I’m not going to let that happen.
Grief tracking, it appears, is one of the more versatile bereavement grief coping strategies.
The Usual Caveat
None of this means grief tracking is an infallible source of unquestionable truth. Grief tracking may help you or it may not. It’s just something you could try if you are inclined to.
I’m not trying to tell anybody how to grieve or not to grieve. I’m sharing my experience. Your mileage may vary. Different strokes for different folks.
Thanks for visiting, reading, commenting, liking, sharing and following. I am sorry for the losses that brought all of us here, and hope we can each get some peace today.