What to Expect From Grief

Experiences of the bereaved.

Posted Aug 03, 2016

Abigail Keenan/Unsplash
Source: Abigail Keenan/Unsplash

Have I lost my mind? Am I going crazy?

While these are frequent comments made by the bereaved, the answer is no. Just because you feel you are losing your mind does not mean you are. You are grieving.

Grief is an entirely natural process. It is not a mental disorder. It is enough to have to cope with the loss of a loved one without thinking that you are having a mental breakdown. This can only add to the stress already being experienced.

One of the initial goals in grief therapy is to correct misinformation. Providing facts about grief can help to ease some of the pain and provide comfort. There are two important facts to keep in mind.

First, there is no set way to grieve. People grieve differently. A husband and wife who have lost a child will often not grieve alike. Some people are very expressive with their thoughts and feelings, while some are more quiet and withdrawn. Neither way is a measure of the love or grief of the mourner.

Second, grief lasts as long as it lasts. There is no set time for it to end.

When we think of grief, we generally think about its emotional toll. However, grief affects us on multiple levels. It impacts our emotions and thoughts, our thoughts and behavior, physical well-being, social interactions, and spiritual beliefs. There are some common grief experiences for each of these areas.

In grief, it may feel as though our emotions have run amok. It sometimes seems as though we can experience the entire range of feelings within the span of a few minutes.

Indeed, it often feels as though we have been hijacked by our emotions. We don’t know what or when to expect the next feeling. Sadness, anger, panic, regret, resentfulness, and jealousy are our frequent companions. You may feel numbness and disbelief.

Regardless of the circumstances of the death, guilt is part of the emotional array. Even if you have done everything possible, guilt is there. Although hard to admit, many feel relief after a loved one dies, especially if there was a protracted period of suffering.

Then, there are the “grief bombs.” These are unexpected, sudden, intense feelings of grief. Grief bombs are usually accompanied by uncontrollable tears.

Thoughts may feel jumbled and confused as we try to adapt to a new reality. We may have trouble focusing and are easily distracted. Memory and concentration are poor. Cognitive distortions and irrational beliefs are common during this time. We may tell ourselves that if we smile, laugh, or participate in activities with others that we are being disloyal to our loved one. At this time, our thoughts may turn to our own mortality.

Behaviorally, we walk around from room to room in a daze. Sometimes all we can do is sit and stare. Other times we may be restless and agitated. It seems impossible to sit and relax. We only feel comfortable being busy and on the move. Some may begin to wear articles of clothing from the deceased. Some make quilts from shirts to comfort them at night. Talking to our loved one or carrying objects of theirs helps to keep them close. We may call them for dinner and then realize they won’t be coming.

People are often surprised to learn that our physical well-being is affected by grief. Problems with sleep and appetite are often hallmarks of grief; weight gain or loss is not uncommon. Headaches, stomach pains, fatigue, trembling, muscle aches and pains, and heaviness in our chest are some other ways that our body reacts to grief.

Spiritually, our relationship with God may change. Some will draw closer to God while others may withdraw in anger and feel betrayed. Some will have “visitation” dreams of their loved ones. These are dreams in which the deceased appears to tell you that they are fine and/or that they love you. (We will explore these dreams in a future post.) Many will ask why or why me.

Socially, we may be afraid to be alone or we may withdraw from contact with others. Others may try to fix us and encourage us to move on. Some will say and do things to comfort us while other comments may upset and anger us. Initially, support and care is plentiful. Later, some will fade away. People will return to their normal lives long before you are ready. Feelings of abandonment are not uncommon. Relationships may be forever altered during this time. Some we thought would be there for us are not, while others will rise to the occasion.

The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “When a person is born, we rejoice, and when they are married, we jubilate; but when they die, we try to pretend that nothing has happened.” We are a death-avoidant society. We deny that death exists until it is upon us and then are at a loss as to what to do.

Grieving is one of the hardest things we will do in this life. Death shakes us to the very core of our being. It impacts every aspect of our functioning. The order and rhythm of our life has changed. 

While knowing what we can expect in grief does not take away the pain of our loss, it can provide us with the reassurance that others have experienced something similar and the hope that we, too, will be able to reintegrate back into life.