The following examples are normal grief reactions and there is nothing pathological about any of them. However, feelings that persist for abnormally, long period of time and at excessive intensity may signal a complicated grief reaction.
- Sadness is the most common feeling and is not necessarily manifested by tearfulness or crying. Some grieving individuals have a fear of sadness – mainly the fear of the intensity of grief. Others try to block sadness through busyness but find themselves sad late at night. Complicated grief often happens when individuals deny the sadness or don’t let it be experienced.
- Anger is another frequent feeling experienced after a loss and it most often comes from one of two sources: a sense of frustration that there was nothing that could be done to prevent the death, and from a type of regressive experience that occurs after the loss of someone close. In the loss of an important person there can be a tendency to regress, to feel helpless, to feel like you are unable to exist without that person, and then to experience the anger that goes with those feelings of anxiety. The anger that the grieving person is experiencing needs to be identified and appropriately placed in order for healthy grieving to occur.
- Guilt and Self-Reproach are common feelings of survivors. The guilt is usually manifested over something that happened or something that was neglected around the time of the death, something that may have prevented the loss. The guilt is usually irrational and mitigates through “reality testing”. Of course there is the possibility of real guilt, where the person has indeed done something to cause the death.
- Anxiety can range from a minimal sense of insecurity to strong panic attacks that lead the survivor to thinking they are having a heart attack. The more intense and persistent the anxiety, the more it suggests an abnormal grief reaction. Anxiety most often comes from two different sources: fear the survivor won’t be able to take care of him- or herself on their own and secondly, anxiety relates to a increased sense of personal death awareness – the awareness of one’s own mortality is heightened by the death of a loved one. C.S. Lewis (1961), after losing his wife said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing”.
- Loneliness is experienced by those who have lost a loved and who were used to close day-to-day interactions. Social support can help with social loneliness but it does not mitigate against emotional loneliness due to a broken attachment.
- Fatigue can sometimes be experienced as apathy or listlessness. Fatigue is usually self-limiting.
- Helplessness is often a surprising emotion experienced by the survivor early on in the grieving process.
- Shock usually occurs in the case of a sudden death.
- Yearning for the lost person is what the British call “pining” and is a normal response to loss. When it diminishes, it may be a sign that grieving is coming to an end.
- A surprising emotion often experienced after the death of a loved one is relief, particularly if the loved one suffered a lengthy or particularly painful illness. The knowing that their suffering, both physical and mental, is over can often help the survivor cope.
- Numbness or a “lack of feelings” is also a normal response to grief. This is usually experienced early on in the grieving process, usually right after the person learns of the death. It probably occurs because there are so many feelings to deal with that to allow them all into consciousness would be too overwhelming, so the person experiences numbness as a protection from this flood of emotions. It is during this time that the survivors are usually making final arrangements and taking care of unfinished business so the “lack of feelings” can serve the person grieving in a positive manner.
“Happiness is gone out of our lives; grief has taken the place of our dances.” Lamentations 5
Just as there are common feelings experienced by people who have lost a loved one, there are also commonly reported physical sensations:
- Tightness in the chest
- Tightness in the throat
- Hollowness in the stomach
- Oversensitivity to noise
- A sense of depersonalization: “I walk down the street and nothing seems real”
- Breathlessness, feeling short of breath
- Weakness in the muscles
- Lack of energy
- Dry mouth
While these feeling and physical sensations are common symptoms of grief, if they continue over a sustained period of time, it may be time to seek help. Contact Anchored Hope Counseling today.
Lewis, C. S. (1961). A grief observed. London: Faber & Faber