Death or loss can feel overwhelming for the people left behind. The grief which accompanies or follows loss can be complicated, unpredictable, and scary. The good news is that this sort of experience usually means that a person is making progress with their grief. In contrast, when life seems very normal after a loss it could mean that the grief has been suppressed, only to surface sometime later in a destructive fashion.

In other words, if a mourning or grieving person can allow themselves to be a "basket case" from time to time, they will likely do all right with their grief. It's when a person tries too hard to keep it all together that problems can result.

Over the years, the grief experience has been described by some as unfolding in stages. However, this concept is too narrow. A more encompassing framework would be reactions, which can include the spectrum of emotions.

The grief process usually needs a lot longer to play itself out than most people realize. One year is seen as a minimal time for healing from a death or significant loss. A person has to pass through all the special anniversaries and memory days in a year without the loved one, and with each event the grief will reawaken strongly. For many bereaved people, the most important anniversary date tends to be Christmas.

Healthy grief reactions

Every aspect of a person is involved in the grief process, including the physical, social, spiritual, and psychological (logical thinking and emotional) elements. Different reactions can be looked at within each category.

Physical reactions: These include shock or numbness, periods of intense anxiety (perhaps leading to hyperventilation or an anxiety attack), shaking, or tremor. Other physical reactions may be a tightness in the throat, lethargy, or ongoing tiredness or insomnia. In some, oversleeping, loss of appetite, or overeating (as if to fill a void) may occur. Specific pains may also be present, such as a stiff neck, back pain, abdominal discomfort, or surgical site sensitivity. These physical reactions tend to show up in early grief and then gradually begin to disappear.

Social reactions: The key word here is loneliness. Early on, there are lots of people around, yet because of the shock and numbness one is detached in the midst of a crowd. Later, old friends may abandon the mourner, which causes new pain. This likely happens because the friends or family are not sure what to say or do, and so avoid contact. Often, widows and grieving parents will complain of being abandoned.

Spiritual reactions: Confusion may take the place of what seemed to be a secure and stable belief in God. This often happens when the deceased person is young and the loss seems so senseless. Some believers become angry with God and abandon their faith. However, others who previously did not believe begin to do so.

Psychological (logical thinking) reactions: The initial shock of a loss also affects the thinking processes of the mourner. There can be a sense of unreality. Memory is disrupted, as is concentration. For those who like to be in control most of the time, these reactions are particularly troublesome. Confusion and irrational thinking are common for a period of time. Apathy or hyperactivity can also occur.

Psychological (emotional) reactions: For a short time after the loss there is frequently numbness or anxiety, and an absence of emotion. However, this soon changes, and a rich array of emotions begins to surface. Classic grief emotions include sadness, yearning or craving for the lost person, anger, and guilt. Yet any other feeling is also appropriate. Anything goes. The analogy that many people find comfortable is that of a roller coaster ride (in the dark). The grieving person is suddenly and unexpectedly up and down with their feelings, without quite knowing what will come when.

The feelings of grief are chaotic and strong, particularly in the early months after a loss. If bereaved persons understand that this is normal and give themselves permission to "ride the roller coaster," they do not become fearful of the grief experience.

Getting better

Getting better involves sharing the reactions of grief with others who will listen and offer support without advice. The grief experience is constantly unfolding and needs to be shared repetitively over time. It can also be very helpful to write about what is happening. C.S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after his wife died and offers a firsthand witness to the journey of grief.

Denis Boyd, MA, 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team