Although some experts talk about grief occurring in set stages, each individual grieves in his or her own unique way. Do the differences in reactions to grief mean that some people are less saddened by their loss or are “suppressing” their feelings? Not necessarily. While acknowledging and expressing grief can have a healing effect, there is not one “right way” to grieve. Much may depend on an individual’s culture, personality, and life experiences, as well as the nature of the loss.
HOW BAD WILL IT GET?
Bereaved ones may not know what to expect following the death of a loved one. However, certain emotions and challenges are common and can often be anticipated. Consider the following:
Feeling emotionally overwhelmed. Crying spells, yearning for the deceased, and abrupt mood changes may be experienced. Emotions may be further charged by vivid memories and dreams. Initially, though, the primary reaction may be shock and disbelief. Tiina recalls her response when her husband, Timo, passed away unexpectedly. She says: “Initially I was numb. I couldn’t even cry at first. I was so overwhelmed that at times I found it difficult to breathe. I just couldn’t believe what had happened.”
Bouts of anxiety, anger, and guilt are also common. “For some time after the death of our 24-year-old son, Eric,” says Ivan, “my wife, Yolanda, and I were so angry! This surprised us, since we had never before thought of ourselves as angry people. We felt guilty too, as we questioned whether we could have done more to help our son.” Alejandro, whose wife died after a prolonged illness, also experienced feelings of guilt: “At first I felt that if God was allowing me to suffer this much, I must be a bad person. Then I felt guilty, as if I were blaming God for what happened.” And Kostas, quoted in the preceding article, says: “A few times I even felt angry at Sophia for dying. Then I felt guilty for feeling that way. After all, it was not her fault.”
Troublesome thinking patterns. There may be periods during which one’s thoughts become erratic or illogical. For instance, a bereaved person may imagine that the deceased one can be heard, felt, or seen. Or the bereaved one may find it difficult to concentrate or to remember things. Tiina says: “Sometimes I’d be having a conversation, but I’d find that my mind wasn’t there! It was racing, going over the events surrounding Timo’s death. The inability to focus was of itself distressing.”
A desire to withdraw. A grieving person may feel irritable or awkward in the presence of others. Says Kostas: “In the company of couples, I felt like a fifth wheel. But I also felt out of place with single people.” Ivan’s wife, Yolanda, remembers: “It was so difficult to be around people who complained about problems that seemed trivial compared to ours! Then, too, there were those who would tell us how well their children were doing. I was happy for them, yet at the same time, I found it hard to listen to them. My husband and I understood that life goes on, but we simply didn’t have the desire or patience to deal with it.”
Health problems. Changes in appetite, weight, and sleep patterns are common. Aaron recalls the year following the death of his father: “I definitely had trouble sleeping. I would wake up at the same time every night thinking about my father’s death.”
Alejandro recalls having mysterious health problems: “Several times I was examined by a doctor and was assured that I was healthy. I suspected that grief was causing my physical symptoms.” Those symptoms eventually disappeared. Even so, Alejandro’s decision to see a doctor was wise. Grieving can lower the immune system, aggravate an existing health problem, or even cause a new one.
Difficulty handling essential tasks. Recalls Ivan: “After Eric’s death we had to notify not only relatives and friends but also several others, such as his employer and his landlord. There were also numerous legal documents to fill out. Then we had to go through Eric’s personal items. All of this required focus at a time when we were fatigued mentally, physically, and emotionally.”
For some, however, the real challenge comes later, when they need to handle matters that were previously handled by their loved one. That was Tiina’s experience. She explains: “Timo had always cared for our banking and other business matters. Now this became my responsibility, which only added to my already heightened levels of stress. Could I really handle all of this without making a mess?”
The above-mentioned challenges—emotional, mental, and physical—may paint a daunting picture of grief. The reality is that the pain following the loss of a loved one can be intense, but knowing this in advance may help recently bereaved ones to cope. Remember, too, not everyone experiences all of grief’s potential effects. Furthermore, there may be some comfort for bereaved ones in knowing that the intense feelings associated with grief are normal.
WILL I EVER BE HAPPY AGAIN?
What to expect: The intensity of grief does not last forever; it eventually subsides. This is not to say that one fully “recovers” or forgets his or her loved one. However, little by little, sharp pangs of grief soften. They may resurface when certain memories arise unexpectedly or at certain times such as anniversaries. But eventually, most people come to a point of emotional balance and can focus once again on life’s daily activities. This is especially so when the bereaved person has the support of family members or friends and takes reasonable steps to cope.
How long will it take? For some, the worst may be over in a matter of months. For many, a year or two may pass before they notice themselves feeling better. And some need even more time.* “For me,” recalls Alejandro, “deep grieving continued for about three years.”
Be patient with yourself. Take one day at a time, move at your own pace, and know that the pangs of grief do not last forever. That said, are there things you can do to ease your grief now and even prevent your grief from being unnecessarily prolonged?
The intense feelings associated with grief are normal
A small minority may experience grief so severe and prolonged that it leads to what has been termed “complicated” or “chronic” grief. Such ones may need and benefit from professional mental-health assistance.