Numbed Out: When Feelings Freeze Up After a Bereavement
Numbness is normal after a bereavement—but that can be hard to accept.
Posted Jun 30, 2019
In my clinical work, I often find it useful to explain the difference between "intellectual knowledge" of something and "real knowledge" of something.
Survivor’s guilt is a good example. Of course, people who survive a tragedy "know" they could not have done anything to prevent others from dying. But it often takes a long time—and sometimes some good trauma therapy—to change that hollow-feeling knowledge into a bone-deep, internalised ‘truth’.
Similarly, though many of us know intellectually that numbness is a completely normal response to bereavement, truly taking this truth in and believing it when it happens to you can be extremely challenging.
I know this first-hand because I’m a "numb" griever. So in addition to my clinical knowledge, I have my own experience to draw from, and there were plenty of important lessons along the way that my psychotherapy training re-confirmed for me.
Here are three examples of what numb grief isn’t—and one important thing to remember about what it is.
1. Numb grief isn't a sign that there is something seriously wrong with you.
I can remember the confusion and shame I felt continually being the only dry-eyed one in the room in the days after my brother died. I can remember asking myself over and over, with horrible sick desperation: What is wrong with me? Don’t I care? Am I a psychopath?
It wasn’t like I didn’t know that some people feel completely numb when they suffer a traumatic loss. But it sure didn’t feel acceptable when it was my own feelings that had packed up and left the building.
And actually, I think as a society we’re less accepting of numb grieving in others than we’d like to think. We all have a picture in our heads of how grief looks, and when someone's actions don’t fit that image we think there’s something wrong. There have been numerous examples of people—particularly women—who have come under suspicion of murdering their loved ones after they failed to show an ‘appropriate’ response to their loss (i.e., crying a lot, but not "too much"). Lindy Chamberlain, Joanne Lees, Madeleine McCann. Every time a child goes missing and the mother appears stoic, the comments are there if you can stomach a look.
“Definitely suspicious, she can’t even squeeze out a tear.”
“She doesn’t look too upset. If that were me, I’d be howling on the floor.”
Actually, you can’t know how you’d really respond in such an extreme situation. If you'd asked me fifteen years ago how I would respond to a death in the family, I'd probably say something about crying uncontrollably and feeling unbearable pain. Now, having experienced it several times, I know that in the aftermath of such a shock I experience a terrible hollow absence of any feeling at all. That’s normal for me, and may well be normal for you too.
2. Numb grief isn’t proof that you don’t care as much as emotional grievers—and definitely doesn’t mean you loved the person any less.
Lack of caring seems to be one obvious explanation for feeling nothing in the wake of bereavement. Maybe you're just a monster.
But if you really didn’t care, why would your lack of emotion feel so horrible?
Because you do. You just can't access the feelings right now, because your brain is doing what it needs to do to keep you safe and sane.
It can be extremely difficult to hold this in mind, especially if you’re surrounded by overt displays of anguish. For some people, it can feel like sadness is a way of honoring your lost loved one, that the strength of your pain shows the strength of your love.
Having shared in the stories of many numb grievers, I don’t believe we suffer any less in the long run—we simply have a different way of processing things.
Having also met a couple of "psychopaths" (people who would probably meet the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder), it also seems important to point out that they’re pretty chilled out about not being crippled by emotions. So if you’re asking "What’s wrong with me?" and feeling afraid or guilty about your lack of overt grief, you’re most likely not psychopathic!
3. If you’re feeling numb after a loss, it isn’t necessary to try and "force" your feelings.
If you’re a numb griever, there can sometimes be a temptation to try and evoke feelings of sadness, for example by looking at photographs of your lost loved one, or listening to music that reminds you of them. But the thing is if you’re not feeling something you can’t force it—so try to resist the temptation to try.
The exception to the rule is if you’re "running" from your emotions, pushing them away when they start to come up or keeping yourself so busy you don’t have the mental space to think about anything else.
It’s very likely that if you give yourself time, space and compassion to simply "be" with whatever feelings are—or are not—present, you will move through the grieving process (which, remember, can include a whole lot of different feelings and experiences).
4. If you’re not able to feel anything after a traumatic bereavement, it’s probably for a very good reason.
It’s not always safe to feel everything at once, and it’s important to respect your brain’s process.
A therapist I once worked with used to use the analogy of a bottle of Coke to explain grief. When it’s all shaken up and under pressure, you can’t just take the cap off or it’ll explode. You have to turn the cap a little at a time, let a tiny bit of the pressure out, then twist it shut again. The same is often true of grief—when you’ve been rocked to the core by a loss, you can’t feel all the pain at once.
Some of us just need to keep the cap shut for a bit longer.
So to return to the original point about "intellectual knowledge" and "felt knowledge" … how do you get from understanding on a surface level that numb grieving is completely normal and acceptable, with your entire being?
The answer's simple—but not easy.
You keep reminding yourself of what you "know" intellectually. Trying to take it in. Working to stay open to the knowledge with self-compassion and accept things exactly as they are.
Hopefully, this information is a good starting point.
Boerner, K., Mancini, A. D., & Bonanno, G. (2013). On the nature of complicated and uncomplicated patterns of grief. In M. Stroebe, H. Schut, & J. van den Bout (Eds.), Complicated grief: Scientific foundations for health care professionals (pp. 55-67). New York: Routledge.
Cooper, R. (2013). Complicated grief: philosophical perspectives. In M. Stroebe, H. Schut, & J. van den Bout (Eds.), Complicated grief: Scientific foundations for health care professionals (pp. 3-26). New York: Routledge.
Jordan A. H., & Litz, B. T. (2014). Prolonged Grief Disorder: Diagnostic, assessment, and treatment considerations. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 45(3), 180-187. doi:10.1037/a0036836
Rando, T. A. (2013). On achieving clarity regarding complicated grief: Lessons from clinical practice. In M. Stroebe, H. Schut, & J. van den Bout (Eds.), Complicated grief: scientific foundations for health care professionals (pp. 40-54). New York: Routledge.