by Karen Omand,
Thanatologist (counselling that specializes in bereavement, loss and grief)
Grieving Is Natural
Grieving a death loss is a natural and unconscious response. Someone experiencing acute grief will feel a variety of symptoms that can range from sadness to a total inability to function normally. Most people do not understand the full spectrum of effects that grieving entails. Here are some things to keep in mind when you or others are grieving.
Emotional Symptoms of Grief
After the death of a loved one, we may feel like we are riding an emotional rollercoaster. Some emotions are so painful that it can be hard to bear. We may experience a strong yearning for the deceased and feel totally numb to the world around us. This yearning and numbness is natural. It’s called detachment distress. It is a natural way of protecting ourselves from the reality of death.
Eventually, over the next few weeks and months (sometimes up to 6 months), the reality sets in. In some cases, this can lead to a state of depression and isolation. Other common emotions that may surface are guilt, anger, anxiety, irritability, sadness, loneliness, disbelief, apathy (not feeling anything), emptiness, fear, helplessness, and loneliness. Relief or shame is often felt if the death is connected to difficult circumstances such as death by suicide, a long term illness, after years of caregiving or from a drug overdose.
Mental Symptoms of Grief
Grief can also affect our cognition and reasoning. Many grievers ask themselves “Am I going crazy?” The answer is no. It is perfectly normal to be affected cognitively while grieving. We may forget appointments or where we are going when driving our car. We can also feel zoned out, foggy, distracted and have hallucinations of the deceased one. This is totally normal during the acute grief phase at the beginning of the grieving process.
It is interesting to note, that in the Japanese culture, hallucinations are looked upon as a normal part of bereavement. Hallucinations are not mentioned but they can quite common among grievers. Similarly, grievers can have a visitation dream where their deceased loved one visits them in a dream that seems very real. This can be quite normal, highly meaningful, and ultimately helpful in the healing process of the griever.
Biological Symptoms of Grief
Our biology and physical health are definitely affected when someone close to us dies. When grieving, the stress hormone cortisol is released. Since grief is long-lasting, our body will continuously pump out this stress hormone for an indefinite period of time. Our immune system is automatically affected, we get completely worn down, and our body struggles to fight off viruses or pathogens. That’s why we are more susceptible to sickness and illness.
Because of our strong physiological attachment to a loved one, grief can affect the following: the quality and quantity of our sleep, the strength of our immune system, our appetite, our ability to digest properly, and our heart rate. Some common physiological symptoms of grief are nausea, diarrhea, headaches, body aches and pain.
Spiritual & Social Effects of Grief
Spiritually, we may question everything we value such as our beliefs, our faith or religion, our sense of self and our sense of meaning in the world. Some people turn to their faith and it becomes stronger, while others can turn against it. There are others who leave their faith and turn to other faiths or never go back to their traditional belief system.
Socially, our identity changes. Family roles and dynamics can shift. Friendships will evolve. Widows, widowers and divorced people can feel very alone when they are amongst couples. We may lose interest in day-to-day chatter and the little problems of life. Socially we may turn inward. In some cases, the person who died could be the one person who you relied on for much of your support.
You Are Not Alone
Understanding the symptoms that arise when we are in acute grief, may help us better discern the normalcy of the situation. There is no correct way to grieve, no map, and no directions that will help us navigate through this pain. Everyone is different and unique in how they cope with the death of a loved one. Note that these symptoms can also be associated with a major non-death loss such as a divorce, a partner breakup, a job loss, infertility, the loss of a major friendship, family drama, a chronic illness, the loss of a dream, etc.
Having support is essential when you are grieving. If you are feeling alone and isolated in your grief or you need someone to talk to, consider seeking extra help from a counsellor. Feel free to contact me for a free 15-min chat. I understand what you are going through and I am here to help you on your grief journey.