How To Know If You Are Pre- or Post-Griever (and why it matters)

It is not only the most difficult thing to know oneself, but the most inconvenient one, too. –H.W. Shaw

The two-sided coin for relationships when you live overseas is you get to meet a lot of wonderful people but you find they rotate in and out of your life more so than the average person living in your home country.

For the most part I have been the one staying with others going. Years ago, I was preparing to return to the States for a three year stint. Coincidentally, my dear friends were doing the exact same thing, departing for three years.  Having someone going down such a parallel path was a rarity and provided an interesting and unintended “emotional” laboratory as my friend Anne and I reacted so differently to the upcoming return to the US.

As the months went by and the move became more eminent I cried during some of our conversations while Anne never shed a tear (I’m not just being dramatic in my retelling, she literally never cried, in stark contrast to the Tissue Queen, aka me, so I noticed). Anne and her family were leaving a few days before I would and had invited a Chinese friend and me over for dinner the last night in their home. Xiao Wu, a guy in his mid-20s, and I couldn’t stop the tears. I’m sure you’re getting the picture this was a really fun meal, she commented sarcastically.

What struck me is again, Anne didn’t cry. I knew she’d miss me. Well, I thought she’d miss me. I certainly hoped she’d missed me and that our friendship had impacted her in some way that would lead her to grieve that we wouldn’t be a part of one another’s daily lives for a while. Was it too much to ask for one, small tear? Just one?

And then we parted ways. I returned to Colorado and she with her family to Connecticut. I had a fairly smooth transition and moved on “to the next thing” without too much trouble. Anne, however, had a bit of a rougher go.

This is when I first became aware there are pre-grievers and there are post-grievers. It’s not that everyone doesn’t grieve, we all do, but the timing of grief can be disarmingly different. I was a pre-griever so by the time I had left that phase of my life, I had pretty well mourned what was coming to an end and had created (unbeknownst to me) the space for the next thing. Anne is a post-griever. Her grieving process didn’t start until after she had left China and she had the challenge of mourning China in Connecticut surrounded by people who were happy to be with her and her family.

Both wirings have wonderful parts that make the other side jealous and some real downsides.

Pre-grievers are able to say good-bye to people and places in person and are able to move on to the next thing; it also makes sense to those around them why they are grieving –as the on-lookers to the process knowingly nod, hand a tissue and understanding, “you will be leaving soon and you will miss me so much. Of course you’re sad. Who wouldn’t be?”  The downside is that the last weeks and months are more of an emotional roller-coaster for those (especially post-grievers) around them.

Because post-grievers don’t start the grieving process until after a change has occurred, they get to end the phase they are in more emotionally together. One benefit of this style is that they are more able to focus and get things done. The downside is that when they enter the grieving process they are often surrounded by people who don’t fully understand what it is that is being grieved because they are surrounded by the new environment.

You can see how this can add to the messiness when a pre-griever is in relationship with a post-griever. Friends of mine were preparing to send their first child off to college and responding to the upcoming transition in their family very differently. Understanding the husband is a pre-griever and the wife a post-griever helped to make sense of their different reactions. It wasn’t that the wife wouldn’t miss Anna or that the husband was having troubles letting her go or either one of them was wrong in the way they were grieving. But it can get complicated when your grieving cycles are more than a little bit off.

As with other preferences, it will be tempting to judge the other style. You don’t care as much as I do! Can’t you show a little emotion? Why can’t you hold it together more? How can you pack up our whole life so calmly? Why can’t you do one thing without talking about how much you’ll miss this or that?

People are rarely an entirely pre-or post-griever; most of us are left with strong leanings mixed with forays into the other style. As you look back over other transitions you have gone through, what memories float to the surface that might point to one or the other?

I now understand why I was a basket case the last day of school every year. I sobbed like a fool in the girl’s bathroom with other pre-grievers. What were we going to do with those long boring summer days and who wouldn’t want to stay in fourth grade FOREVER?! Yes, part of this is pre- and adolescent girl drama; however, because I am a pre-griever the next day I was up and at ‘em filling my days with the wonders of summer vacation.

I also recall my mom walking in on me crying one day and wondering what was wrong. I was just thinking about how sad I’d be when my cat Patches would die … many years in the future, it turned out! Clear signs of being a pre-griever long before I could even name, let alone explain, what was going on. Likewise there are probably experiences you’ve had that point to being a pre-or post- griever.

Thinking back, are you more prone to distance yourself from those close to you before a transition or after it? Do you cry, become short, or feel paralyzed before or after an event?

Photo Credit: Rowena Waack via Compfight cc

29 Comments

  1. Elizabeth May 4, 2014

    Thank you for explaining this distinction! It makes so much sense. (By the way I think I am a pre-griever but I am not entirely sure).

    1. Amy Young May 5, 2014

      Elizabeth, when I put these different pieces together … wow. They have made such a difference in the way I approach others ….as those close to me don’t respond the way I do 🙂 and it’s helped me understand myself better.

  2. morielle May 5, 2014

    I’ve been wondering about this ever since I read a post like this on your blog last year. Finally figured out I’m a post-griever. When my parents came to visit me in January my mom spent the last day together all weepy and huggy and I was like, ‘Let’s not think about the fact we’re going to say goodbye and just enjoy the time together!’ but after I saw them off I needed to spend the day alone in my hotel, and quite a lot of crying was done…

    1. Amy Young May 5, 2014

      Love that you were able to see some evidences of this and help see how they play out in real life :). This brings back to mind a visit to friends in Scotland about 20 years ago, the last night I sobbed and sobbed watching Golden Girls — with the youngest daughter :). To this day, we made such an impression, her mom, other sisters, and another friend of mine still laugh at us :)!

  3. Kate May 5, 2014

    I think I’m both.  😉  Probably lean a bit more toward pre- than post-, but I definitely feel it before *and* after!  😉  Thanks for these insights, Amy!

    1. Amy Young May 5, 2014

      I think we can definitely have bits of each in us 😉

  4. Ashley Felder May 6, 2014

    What about a non-griever? Kidding. Sorta. I’m definitely not a pre like my momma. (Gonna share this with her.) But post, maybe? If not adjusting quickly and getting angry at lots of things after the event has happened counts as grieving, then that’s me. Every time we move back to China, this happens. Things aren’t right, and it seems like they never will be. Tears of frustration abound during those first few months of adjustment.

    Also, another thought, I wonder if some of us would grieve differently if we did this overseas thing 50 or 100 years ago, knowing we’d have no contact with friends or family for months, maybe even years?

    1. Amy Young May 6, 2014

      Here, here on each generation being influenced by the historical realities, freedoms, and constraints of that time! I bet it would have!

      And, Ashley, I know you, so I’m going to make this comment 🙂 … I say that more for the benefit of others who might wonder about me :). My supervisor used to say 80/20 all the time when referring to men and women — to say “all women are like” this or that is absurd :). But we can make some generalities, knowing they don’t apply to everyone.

      So, where I’m going with this is (and my mind is a bit all over, I hope I’m clear in explaining my train of thought), is that depression is the only area of mental health that was normed on women (every other area was normed on men). Turns out men express (80/20) depression in ways that look like anger. They’re not truly “angry,” they are depressed.

      So, I’m not saying you’re a man 🙂 — but you have added food to my thoughts. I’m wondering if the way you express grief is through anger. Kind of that big brother/little sister thing we were talking about last week.

      Thanks! This has helped me “move the ball down the field” in my mind, so to speak!

      1. M'Lynn May 7, 2014

        Very, very interesting! Expressing grief through anger. I’m sure I’ve got that going on at times!  Like today, I’m grieving the fact that they’re ripping up some beautiful peach trees by the entrance to our apartment complex.  Rather than cry (because I’m seriously sad when “they” decide to de-beautify my neighborhood), I get angry. I want to throw rocks at the crane that’s ripping those beautiful roots out of the soil. “This shall not be!!!!!!!” haha. It’s out of my control, but it’s happening. So many things are that way. I need to learn to grieve better.  How does one do that? Be the crazy person crying on the street for the trees? Will that help?

  5. Brittany May 6, 2014

    I’m not sure where I lie…I think maybe I tend to be more of a post-griever.  I’ll have to do some observing.  Even as I think about when we left the States to come to this very different life, I’m not sure how I grieved.  I think there was some pre-grief, but not a lot.  And then some post-grief, too.  It’s hard to pinpoint (though it was only 7 months ago).  Is it possible that I’m still grieving??  I think that the last few months as the excitement and everything has worn away and I miss my family like crazy that maybe this is the grieving.  Is there an expiration date on the appropriate time to feel grief?  Haha.  I think I’m putting grief in a box, like it can only look like “this”.

    My MIL is a pre-griever which is why she cried and cried and cried the weeks leading up to my wedding day.  I was a little concerned!  But then, when we got married, she immediately moved on from “I’m losing my son” to “I have a new daughter!”  =)

    1. Amy Young May 6, 2014

      Oh my word, you MIL and I are cut from the same cloth!! I’ll be a HOT mess up until and event, but then when it’s over, I’m like “hey, pass the guacamole? OK?”

      And I think grief can look like a whole lot of things — so, don’t worry about getting hung up on does it look like this or that. And sometimes there’s not a lot of grief. When I first moved overseas it was all JOY! After a study leave — I was shocked how hard it was to return to the field since it hadn’t been hard the first time. So, even our own personal journeys can look quite different at various stages 🙂

      How about your kids? Do you see pre- or post- grieving tendencies?

      1. Brittany May 7, 2014

        Hm, good thoughts, I definitely see myself getting hung up on what grief is “supposed to” look like (wow, that infiltrates every area, it seems!).

        My kiddos are rock stars.  Born to be MKs.  They are the most flexible, roll with the punches, kids I know!  Granted, they are only 3 and 18 months, but I’ve been grateful to God every day for their ability to just be happy anywhere they are.  I want to be like them!

  6. Lori McCary May 6, 2014

    Thanks for this thought provoking blog…  We have adopted 4 girls from China- now heading back for #5.  One of those daughters is critically ill and has been waiting for a heart transplant for over two years.  If that heart doesn’t come soon, we will lose her.  I have made a concious choice to wait to grieve.  Why?  Because I have learned from experience that God’s grace is not available for my imagination.  It will be available, however, the very moment I need it!  I am content to soak up every precious moment He gives me with my daughter and let His grace walk me through the grief when my imaginations have become a reality.  I don’t want pre-grief to steal a single moment of joy from the present!    Many of my friends have begun to process and grieve Rachel’s loss, and as they blubber through our conversations about her, they must look at me (the mother!) and wonder what in the world is wrong with me that I am not “going there” too!  Maybe those same friends will be the ones to hold me up during my post-grief days and will be a part of God’s grace for that hour!  Either way… we do not grieve as those without hope!  Whether pre or post… my prayer is that we will grieve with great HOPE for all that is to come!

    1. Amy Young May 6, 2014

      Lori, I am deeply grateful for your comment. A chronic illness and death of a child — is such a unique and awful path — I don’t want to over-presume. I will share that twice last year I was approached by personnel working in hospice centers sharing they had noticed similar tendencies among family members (pre and post) and there is often a lot of hurt when people grieve differently — assuming one style cares more than the other. They both asked if these concepts could be included in their training (and I said, gladly yes!).

      I think you raise an excellent point — if someone isn’t showing outward signs of grieving it’s tempting to wonder if they are cold-hearted or unaffected by what is going on. They are not!  Good for us all to remember this.

      Again, thank you so much for taking time to share.

  7. Beth May 7, 2014

    I feel like this post was made just for me! My family and I–and many others who are dear to us–are in the midst of a sudden, unplanned, upheaval. We are headed back to the States and find ourselves smack-dab in the middle of trying to say good-bye, not knowing if we will be able to return to our current home. I e-mailed this post to several of my other friends going through this because for me, trying to figure out why my reaction looked like X while others might have a reaction that looked like Y, was only adding to the stress of this already stressful situation. I think I’m a mix of both, but for now am more focused on what needs to get done next and expect to find myself truly grieving once I’m back in the US.

    Also–your comment about depression being sometimes expressed as anger is also so enlightening. I think my husband and I are so different in this area but it is so helpful to realize that sometimes his sadness might be expressed as anger. Really turning on lightbulbs in my head here.

    Thanks for this!

  8. Patty Stallings May 7, 2014

    Amy, you do know this insightful information has saved many teams and families from huge misunderstandings, right?!  I’m so grateful for you sharing this concept with our family six years ago!

  9. Whitney @ Journey Mercies May 10, 2014

    Love this – my husband and I are getting ready to move back to the States after 3 years in Cambodia. And I’m also in a support group with other expat women who are going back to the States soon. From my past experience, I think I’m a post griever – I just don’t let my emotions really get to me til the change is over. I just focus on what needs to be done (maybe part of my pediatric nursing background, where I don’t cry over the sad stuff til I’m home!). I also learned though, that giving myself space really helps with the transition. When I was 20, I worked in North Africa for 9 months. And when I moved home, I went straight into a new job, new city, new everything – and I was a MESS. I didn’t allow myself that space to grieve my transition. So with this upcoming move, my husband and I have already talked about giving ourselves 1-2 months before starting new jobs.

  10. Annie Olsen May 20, 2014

    Sometimes I think I am permanently numb from so many departures. It’s as if I’ve lost the ability to actually express any sadness for the losses. I know that’s a dangerous place to be, because that means the grief is still locked away. Is it waiting to escape? In what part of my life will the fissure(s) begin, and when? Thanks for the tip, Whitney, about taking time on the back side of the relocation change. I hereby give myself permission to do that when it happens next month!

    I also appreciate Lori’s comment: “I don’t want pre-grief to steal a single moment of joy from the present!” I could easily spend the remaining days just reading stories to our 3-year-old granddaughter, who has no grasp on the fact that soon we’ll be separated by thousands of miles. Sigh. For all its frequency, leaving never seems to become any less painful.

    1. Amy Young May 20, 2014

      Annie, I think (more often than not), the goodbyes get harder and the grief more cutting. If for no other reason, I now know what I’m giving up in ways I couldn’t be before I had done this once (or multiple times). Will be thinking of you and the journey before you!

  11. Holly May 30, 2014

    I don’t know if I am always a post griever, but when we moved back from TZ to the US I was for sure. I had my hands full with the moving with two children under 3 and pregnant. I don’t think everything would have gotten done if I had been grieving! But now, even a year later the grieving continues. I’m not sure that it will ever be fully done.

  12. Dana @ Cooking at Cafe D June 1, 2014

    Wow.  That was interesting.  I’m a pre-griever.  Your description really highlighted a few different events for me and I can now see how some people surrounding me were post-grivers.  I now understand how weeks and months later they were still processing some changes when I had already finished with most of the moving on.  Thank you.

    1. Amy Young June 6, 2014

      Dana, isn’t it great when we have a-ha moments and understand ourselves and others better :). I love that feeling.

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  16. Annalisa August 22, 2015

    So, I’m a pre-pre-griever.  I consider and cry about things LOOOOOOOONG before they ever happen.  Then, by the time they are about to happen, I’m completely calm…and then I remain calm because I’ve already imagined the worst case scenario and cried over it.

    Patches?  I understand that one completely.  Excuse me. I’m going to go cry about my kitties Mia and Bella dying someday now.  (They’ll be 5 next month.)

    1. Amy Young August 22, 2015

      I SO GET THIS! 🙂 …. let me think what I can anticipate and start grieving 🙂

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