What Does Grief Feel Like?

So, what might we experience when we are grieving? Especially in the days immediately following the death of a loved one some people feel numb, they cannot believe that their loved one died. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is our minds way of protecting us, by allowing us (when we are ready) to process the horrifying news in bite-size, manageable doses. One of my patients once told me that at the time of her mother’s death she had to deny it because “I just wanted everything to be the same.” I think that denial is the most human instinct. None of us want to believe that our loved one is gone. It is just too painful and the ramifications for us are far too frightening. Especially when it is a spouse, child, or parent, the implications for the survivors are far-reaching. Nothing is ever the same after the death of a loved one. We are never the same. How could we be? In A Grief Observed, C.S Lewis commented on this phenomenon (as he experienced it) when he compared grief to someone who has lost a leg. He says that the person might get over the loss of his leg in the sense that the stump will heal but not in that they will ever be as they were before. Neither will we ever be the same after the loss of a loved one.

On the other side of the spectrum are the folks who are either fighting accepting the death through being angry or who are furious because the person died. These people tend to be in a rage. This is a very common response, as it should be. People who have lost a loved one have a lot to be angry about. It seems so unjust. The questions are unrelenting, “How could this happen to us?” “Why did this happen to us?” “What did we ever do to deserve this?” Sometimes it can be hard to know where to direct our anger. For some people it lands in God’s lap, while others get angry at the deceased or at the doctors, still others turn their anger in on themselves. The death of my grandfather when I was seven was one of my first experiences with the loss of a loved one. I will never forget that when my father arrived to tell my mother that her father had died, she slapped him! Although few of us resort to physical violence, many of us lash out (or want to lash out) with our tongue when we are grieving. This is a completely normal reaction to the loss of a loved one. I think that lashing out prevents us from feeling the pain of the loss that we are not able to bear at that point.

Still other people suffer from feelings of guilt. They blame themselves for the loss they have experienced. These are the people who say, “If only I did A, then B would not have happened.” They also might review the relationship and discover something they did or did not do that they now feel guilty over. On an unconscious level claiming responsibility for the death makes the person powerful. For most of us, as counterintuitive as it may be, feeling powerful and in control, even if we are holding ourselves responsible for a death, is a better feeling, then acknowledging that we were totally helpless, in the face of a loved one’s suffering and death. We wish that we could have control over matters of life and death, that we could have prevented the death of our loved one. I will never forget spending the night with my mother at the hospice while she was dying from cancer. Over and over again, she screamed, “Meghan, help me!” It was a terrible feeling knowing that there was nothing that I could do to save her life, all I could do was to hold her and to try to ease her pain.

Feelings of being overwhelmed, anxious, and afraid also emerge while grieving a loved one. Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what we feel, the feelings become so intertwined. C.S. Lewis commented on his own experience of grief: “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the same yawning. I kept on swallowing” (1961, p. 7). Immediately following the death of my mother I felt very restless. I did not know what to do next, could not sleep, and was very busy doing things that did not necessarily need to get done. This is what sometimes happens when we are grieving.

Some people find that they cannot stop sobbing and they feel completely exhausted. Sometimes this yearning for the lost loved one takes the form of thinking that you are seeing them or hearing their voice. At other times, the bereaved might pick up the phone to call their loved one only to realize that sadly, they are gone. During this period of preoccupation with the deceased the bereaved might lose interest in everything else such as friends, work and food, to name a few things. People often report feeling physically ill. At times, grievers say that they feel faint, sick to their stomachs, or that their chests hurt. Grief can mimic depression. Hang on, it will get better, you will get through this.

While grieving, not everyone experiences all of the things I mentioned above, but many of us experience a lot of them at different times while processing our grief. Sometimes we have several different feelings simultaneously and at times we have feelings and thoughts that I have not mentioned. It is impossible to name everything that grief encompasses since we are each unique and grieve in our own way. What has your experience with grief been?

Once we emerge from being bombarded by grief, what we need to figure out next, is how we will go on, how will we continue to live without our loved one. Next time, I will offer some suggestions about how to “work through” grief.

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