Grief: What to Expect

(Adapted from material presented by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Founder and Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He is a respected grief counselor and author, known throughout the world for his compassionate messages of hope and healing in grief. Visit his website at: http://www.centerforloss.com).

Introduction

Arnold Toynbee said, “There are always two parties to a death; the person who dies and the survivors who are bereaved … and in the appointment of suffering, the survivor takes the brunt.” When a believer in Christ dies, his or her pain has ended. For those of us who remain, it may have just begun. Our loved one is in heaven, eternally in the presence of God where there is no sickness, suffering, sorrow, or death. But we are left in a world that is surround by sickness, suffering, and pain, not to mention the horrible emptiness of death and the unending void it has brought in to our lives.

We rejoice that our loved on has made it home. We are relieved to know that whatever pain they were experiencing is over forever. We are comforted by the knowledge that they are safe in the arms of God. But we must live on with the perpetual ache deep inside us created by their passage, accompanied by an intense yearning to be with them again.

It is for this reason that scripture teach that we are not to sorrow as those who have no hope. The Apostle Paul, who wrote these words, did not teach that we should not sorrow, but that in this life our sorrow is tempered by the certain hope we have in Christ, and in the world to come it will be totally eclipsed by an indescribable reunion with those whom we have loved. “So shall we forever be with the Lord. Comfort one another with these words.”

I have come to believe that some of the saddest words in the English language are “good bye.” One of the greatest joys of heaven is that they will never be spoken there. Friends who love the Lord never see each other for the last time.

What Should I Expect?

Experiencing the death of a loved one affects the head (cognitive), the heart (affective/emotions), the body (physical), and actions (behavior). While the general responses to grief are common among most people, the specific expressions of grief are unique to each individual.

Grief has been described as “hitting like waves from the ocean.” At times the ocean is calm and the waves are small – barely noticeable. But when it is least expected, a huge wave of grief may pull an individual’s feet out from under them. Sudden surges of grief should not be unexpected or overwhelming – they are the normal responses to the death of someone loved.

A vital part of walking through grief is to understand the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors usually experienced on the grief journey that we might nurture ourselves in ways that lead to healing.

Shock, Denial, Numbness, and Disbelief

In most instances the first response to the death of a loved one is shock and denial. This is especially true if the death is completely unexpected from an accident, tragedy, or sudden medical crisis. But even when death is anticipated (a hospice situation, for example), survivors may be shocked and caught off guard when their loved one actually passes.

Psychologists suggest that these emotions – shock and denial – are a God-given “shock absorber” as a means of temporarily protecting ourselves from the full reality of death. They serve as a momentary “time out” to insulate us from the reality of death until we are better able to tolerate what we don’t want to believe. Our emotions need time to catch up with what our mind has been told.

It is not uncommon for a physiological component to accompany this dimensions (a physical reaction), such as heart palpitations, queasiness, stomach ache, dizziness, hysterical crying, outbursts of anger, laughter, or even fainting, to occur. Unfortunately, uninformed but well-meaning individuals may try to shut down these behaviors that help us survive. They may try to quiet you to feel more comfortable within themselves.

These responses typically reflect the beginning of the grief journey. Embracing the full reality of death cannot and should not occur quickly. There may be times when the full depth of the loss hits us and we are overwhelmed (may not fill like getting out of bed). But keep in mind: with the hurt comes healing. Just remember to take it one day at a time. We will encounter the reality of the loss only when our head, heart, and spirit are ready.

As we move beyond the initial feelings of shock and denial, we should not be surprised if these feelings return at some point in the future. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or other special occasions often “trigger” a grief response, even years later. This is normal. Our minds may approach and retreat from the reality of death over and over again as we try to embrace and integrate the meaning of death into our lives.

Helping yourself:

Recognize that shock, denial, numbness, and disbelief are not feelings to be prevented. Instead, be grateful for the “shock absorber” at the moment it is needed most.

Resist the urge to “push” yourself into a premature acceptance of the full reality of your loss. Don’t allow others to do this either. Give yourself time to embrace the reality of your loss at your own pace.

Be compassionate and patient with yourself. Don’t try to measure up to someone else’s idea of what it means to “be strong.”

Share your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend. Silence is pain.

Disorganization, Confusion, Searching, and Yearning

One of the most frightening and isolating parts of the grief journey is the sense of disorganization, confusion, searching, and yearning that often comes with loss. These emotions usually emerge as we confront and accept the reality of the loss. As one bereaved person said, “I felt as if I were a lonely traveler with no companion, and worse yet, no destination. I couldn’t find myself or anybody else.”

This dimension of grief may cause the bereaved to feel as if they are “going crazy.” This is due, in part, to the fact that in grief our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are different from what we usually experience (note the word “different” not “abnormal”). Some of the common emotions, thoughts, and behaviors associated with this dimension of grief are highlighted below:

  • Restlessness, agitation, impatience.
  • On-going confusion, disconnected thoughts, and overwhelming emotions.
  • Inability to complete tasks; unfinished projects; forgetfulness and low-work efficiency.
  • Fatigue and lack of initiative (sometimes referred to as the “lethargy of grief”).
  • Ordinary pleasures may not matter any more.
  • May feel most disoriented and confused in the early morning and late at night.
  • A shift in perception: other people may look like the loved one who died.
  • “Memory pictures” (preferred over the term “hallucinations”); may think they “see” them in other settings.
  • Difficulties with eating; loss of appetite or overeating.
  • Sleep difficulties; unable to sleep or sleeping too much.
  • Dreams of the loved one; unconscious means of yearning for the person.
  • Pleasant dreams should be embraced; disturbing dreams talked out with a trusted caregiver.

It is helpful to remember that disorganization comes before any kind of reorganization can take place. Disorganization and confusion are actually stepping-stones on the path toward healing.

Helping yourself:

Be assured that disorganization is a normal reaction. No, you are not crazy or losing your mind.

Remember that these emotions don’t necessarily come all at once, but in waves. Take them one at a time as they come.

Do not over interpret what you think or feel; just experience it.

Delay critical decision making like selling the house moving, changing jobs, remarrying, etc. Ill-timed decisions may result in more losses.

Anxiety, Fear, and Panic

Anxiety, fear, and panic may find expression in questions like, “Will my life have any purpose without this person?” “Am I going to be okay?” “Will our family survive this?”

These questions arise out of a fear for the future; increased awareness of one’s own mortality; feelings of vulnerability and survival without the person who died; inability to concentrate; emotional, mental, and physical fatigue. If the passing of a loved one causes financial problems, fear will probably increase about becoming dependent upon others.

Helping yourself:

Talk to a trusted companion about your fears and anxieties.

Under no circumstances should fear go unexpressed. Repressed anxieties can become controlling emotions. If they are not talked out, many disconnect from other people and from the world in general. Many bereaved persons become prisoners in their own home.

Physiological Changes

The human body has many ways of letting us know it us under stress. One meaning of the word “grievous” is “causing physical suffering.”

Among the most common responses to loss are trouble sleeping and low energy. One may have difficulty getting to sleep and the have problems getting back up (lethargy of grief); may find themselves getting tired more quickly.

On the grief journey the body needs more sleep than normal. But sleeping normally after a loss would be unusual Primarily, sleeping relates to releasing control. When someone loved dies, one feels a loss of control. The need to stay awake may be related to the fear of additional losses (staying awake to prevent further losses).

Dreams may also interfere with sleep; or the fear of being alone in bed when one is not use to sleeping alone.

Other physical symptoms may include:

  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling of emptiness in the stomach
  • Tightness in the throat or chest
  • Digestive problems
  • Sensitivity to noise
  • Heart palpitations
  • Queasiness, nausea, and headaches
  • Increased allergic reactions
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Agitation
  • Tension

Existing health problems may worsen. The stress of grief can suppress the immune system, causing greater likelihood of illness.

Helping yourself:

See a physician for any symptom that concerns you.

Take good care of your body. Do your best to eat right, get plenty of rest, and strive for nutritional balance.

Maintain appropriate fluid intake. The thirst mechanism can be overridden during grief and mourning.

Excessive amounts of caffeine should be avoided, along with alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

Exercise regularly. A brisk 20 minute walk with a close friend can provide physical and emotional healing.

Rest during the day. Watch out for well-intended advice to “keep busy.”

Consider a medical examination within the first two months of the death.

“Talk out” your grief. If you repress your grief your body will respond in kind. In other words, avoidance of grief is often marked by pronounced physical symptoms.

Explosive Emotions

Anger, hate, blame, resentment, rage, jealousy – are all explosive emotions that may be a volatile, yet natural, part of the grief experience. Emotions such as these are an expression of the desire (and perhaps the need) to protest. But because our society lacks an understanding of the normalcy of protest emotions, their manifestations are often upsetting to others.

Protest emotions are inclusive of a whole range of emotions stemming from anger. Underneath these emotions are usually feelings of pain, helplessness, fear, and hurt. They may be directed toward the person who died, friends, doctors, or even God.

Well-intended people may counter protest emotions by pointing out they are not logical. They might say, “Anger won’t bring them back.” Or, “He didn’t mean to die so don’t be mad at him.” While this is logically correct, it fails to understand that thinking is logical; feeling is not.

Our society is quick to stifle, repress, or deny the bereaved the right to protest emotions. Emotional hurt, expressed as anger or resentment is judge as wrong. This is especially true in church setting when protest emotions are expressed as anger or questioning directed towards God. There is the tendency to quickly jump in and “retool” one’s theology out of a felt need to vindicate God.

Protest emotions are part of the grief journey and are normal reactions to the pain of losing someone. They should be directed out and upward, not inward. Explosive emotions should be expressed, not repressed. They need to be talked out rather than directed inward (where they may contribute to chronic feelings of low self-esteem, depression, guilt, and physical disorders).

Helping yourself:

More than anything else, you need a trusted friend who will listen without judging, arguing, or trying to stifle your protests.

Keep in mind the difference between the right to feel explosive emotions and the right to act on those feeling. You have the right to be angry, but not the right to hurt others, destroy property, or seek retaliation or revenge.

Protest emotions are not necessary good or bad, but are symptoms of an injury that need nurturing, not judging. The way to diminish explosive emotions is to experience them.

Guilt and Regret

“If only I had gotten her to the doctor sooner!” “If only I hadn’t let him drive that day.” “If only I had visited her more often before she died.”

The “if onlys” are expressions of guilt and regret that are frequently experienced in grief. It is only natural to think of actions or responses that might have prevented the death or made the passing of a loved one less painful.

But while they are natural, they are frequently irrational to the people around the bereaved. Because they are misunderstood there is the tendency to repress the feelings of guilt and regret, rather than allow their expression.

Guilt and regret may find different expressions:

Survival Guilt: why did he die, but not me?; common in accident survivors.

Relief-Guilt Syndrome: feelings of guilt when the bereaved is relieved at the death of a loved one (after a prolonged illness, for example).

Joy-Guilt Syndrome: feelings of guilt for re-experiencing any kind of joy in life after someone loved dies; a misguided sense of “loyaty” to the deceased person that they should never be happy again.

Magical Thinking Guilt: after wishing for the death of someone loved (someone who is suffering, for example), to imagine that those thought actually caused the death.

Helping yourself:

Talk about any feelings of guilt you may have with a compassionate, patient, and non-judgmental companion.

Remember that all human beings are fallible – we all make mistakes. Be compassionate with yourself and forgive yourself as you remember there are some things in life beyond your power to control.

Many physical and emotional problems arise from the repression of guilt and can seriously complicate the healing process. Should this problem become pervasive, consult a trained professional.

Loss, Emptiness, Sadness, and Depression

The feelings of loss, emptiness, sadness, and depression are among the most common and normal grief reactions. Sadness is a symptom of our wound. Paradoxically, the only way to lessen this pain is to move toward it and through it, not away from it.

C. S. Lewis said, “Grief is like a long winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” The grief journey may take the bereaved around a bend into varying dimensions of sadness and depression. One’s full sense of loss does not occur all at once, nor could we tolerate all of our sadness at once.

Our body, mind, and spirit need time to allow us to embrace the depth of our loss. At death a vital and precious part of our lives is no longer present. We have every right to feel loss, emptiness, and sadness.

Especially difficult times include:

  • Weekends
  • Holidays
  • Bedtime
  • Waking in the morning
  • Awakening late at night
  • Family meals
  • Arriving home to an empty house (or empty bedroom)
  • Anniversary occasions

Helping yourself:

When we hurt, what we need most is to know that someone cares. Lean upon a close and trusted friend.

Remember – when we are sad, it is normal to cry. Give yourself permission to cry as much and as often as you need. Tears cleanse the body, mind, and spirit.

Recognize that temporary feelings of depression are nature’s way of allowing a “time out” while we heal. It slows down the body and prevents major organ systems from being damaged and allows us to turn inward and slowly reorder our lives.

Relief and Release

It may seem strange to speak of feeling relief and release at the death of someone loved, but in some instances this is a common and normal grief experience. Death may bring relief from suffering, especially when it comes at the end of a prolonged and debilitating sickness. Feeling a sense of relief and release does not equate to a lack of love for the person who died.

Bereaved persons who cared for a loved one who died may feel a sense of relief and release from the daily burden of that responsibility, and then feel guilty because they feel relieved. But not only have they carried the heavy weight of caring for a loved one, they have perhaps been suffering with “anticipatory grief” (grieving in advance of the death). All of this combines to create a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual drain. When the suffering loved one dies, it is natural to feel a sense of relief for them and for one’s self.

Helping yourself:

Feelings of relief and release are legitimate, natural feelings that do not in any way indicate a lack of love for the person who died.

Write about your feelings – perhaps a letter to the loved one who died.

Other Considerations

The following may or may not be part of one’s personal experience, but they are common and normal grief responses:

Time Distortion: “I don’t know what day it is, let alone what time it is.” Time may seem to move very quickly. At other times it may seem to crawl. One’s sense of past and future may seem to be frozen in place.

Obsessive Review and Ruminating: A frequent repeating of the circumstances surround the death or stores about the person who died; telling one’s story over and over again. This is a normal process that helps to bring the heart and the head together. Do not be angry with yourself or allow others to judge because you want to retell your story. It can be an important part of the healing process.

Search for Meaning: It is natural for one to try and make sense of why someone you loved died. “Why him or her?” “Why in this way?” All of these are normal questions from human beings who are simply trying to understand the grief experience. Answers may not be given to these questions, but you have permission to ask them.

Transitional Objects: These are the belongings of the person who died, such as books, clothing, and prized possessions. They can bring comfort and help you to feel close to the loved one you’ve lost and should be embraced. To do away with them too soon takes away a sense of security. Once you have moved toward reconciliation, you are better able to decide what to keep and what to discard. Some things will be kept forever. This does not mean that you create a “shrine” where everything remains as it was years after the death. Creating a shrine prevents acknowledging the painful new reality. Understanding the difference between transitional objects and creating a shrine is important. One helps the bereaved to heal; the latter does not.

Grief Attacks and Memory Embraces: These are the episodic pangs or spasms of grief that may come suddenly and unexpectedly; may continue to occur years after the death; usually “triggered” by something attached to the deceased – photo, favorite song, a particular smell, favorite food, etc. Grief attacks are normal reflections of those we have loved and are determined not to forget. When they occur, you should be compassionate with yourself and embrace them.

Anniversary and Holiday Occasions: Holidays such as Christmas, birthdays, wedding dates, family rituals, and other special occasions often create a heightened sense of loss and the person who died id more deeply missed during those times. This, too, is a normal response. Sometimes the anticipation of the special event may be worse than the event itself. Do not suffer in silence by ignoring these anniversaries, but plan/prepare for these days with the recognition that they will need more support from caregivers during these times.

Final Thoughts

Remember that grief and mourning are not the same thing. Grief is our personal, private sense of pain to sudden loss. Mourning is the public expression of grief. Psychologists say we need both in order to heal. To mourn, you must share your grief with at least one other person – a close companion who is willing to walk with your through grief.

Reconciliation with grief does not mean that the person who died is forgotten. To the contrary, one way to gain emotional release from what is lost is by making it a memory. Reminiscing or remembering with another person is the principal way we build such a memory. Planning for the future is another.

The work of grieving is best understood as alternating between remembering and hoping.