What Grief Feels Like

As an experience, grief can be foreign and feared. We’re not sure if what we’re feeling is healthy. Maybe it’s unbearable. What grief feels like is itself a conversation that can help many.

Grief is an ever-changing chameleon of everything: emotional instability, physical changes, joyous celebration, introspection, expression, and mental disruption. In the interest of letting readers know that what they’re going through is normal, here are the side effects of grief. In brief, if it exists in your life/body, grief effects it. And, grief changes as you move through new phases of life. Grieving a parent who died when you were 6 will look different at age 18. This is called “regrief.”

 

Emotional realm

Feelings of guilt, powerlessness, out of control, anger, jealousy, relief, sadness, depression, instability, anguish

How is it that something so volatile (grief) is instigated by something so static and unchanging (death)? Death is final, so final, and yet our response to it can feel like we are at the beginning of a roller coaster over and over. Grief often feels like a period of deep lack of control, and it can be tempting to focus on the raucous feelings that come up at the most inconvenient time. They might come through in waves, spurts, shocks, or clouds. Each one is normal and each one has a lifespan; they do not last forever. Get friendly with your emotions – all of them!

Mental Realm

Going crazy, disorientation, judgmental thoughts, reviewing past events for proof of causing the death, dreams/nightmares with death content, indecisiveness, rumination, overachievement, difficulty concentrating, thoughts of joining the deceased in non-reality (a different realm of thought than suicide ideation)

Mental changes after a loss can be shocking and persistent: memory loss, disorientation, questioning of reality, etc. These are normal reactions to something that has upended what was once stable. Megan Devine (It’s OK That You’re Not OK) describes how difficult it was to read simple sentences after the loss of her partner, despite a lifetime of voracious reading. New grievers describe difficulty doing the simplest of tasks. This new fumbling can add to the layers of self-doubt and blame that accrue after loss.

One explanation for this phase of struggle is that your brain is busy doing something else while it “should” be remembering where you put your keys. It is cataloging, organizing, remembering, and marking things to keep about the loved one, perhaps knowing  our brains are malleable repositories of our past, and things can drop in and out without much consciousness. In this technology-minded world, your brain is “backing up” the memories of the loved one who has recently died.

Physical Realm

Sensation of gasping for air, doubled over, no breath, heart pain, numb, restlessness, voracious appetite, no appetite, restlessness, insomnia, constant fatigue, high libido, no libido, chest pains, nerve pain or stiffness, weakened immune system (stress-induced), nausea, etc.

A bereaved person is six times more likely to suffer heart disease than the national average (broken-hearted). Some recent research revealed that surviving partners were 66% more likely to die within the first three months to the first few years after their partner’s death.   The body is the repository of all emotions and thoughts, and it is deeply sensitive to stress and change. If it is a bodily function, it can be affected by grief. (from It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine).

Spiritual Realm

Questioning of the meaning of life, purpose of love/relationships, doubt in God/higher power/spiritual realm that would permit such cruelty and/or loss, loss of security in reality

Reality is based on clinging to values, ideas, and patterns. “This happened to me because I worked for it.” “God will protect her.” “When I call my mother, she will pick up.” And then…change. The reality you believed in can turn out to be simply a belief, not secure. It is understandable to wonder about the “why” of it all. Why me? Why now? Why them? What is the purpose of this? Why do “bad” things happen to “good” people? These are questions of world-shaking doubt. Asking them leads to profound shifts in relationships to reality, self, and others.

Interpersonal Realm

Loss/change/gain friendships, irritability, radical honesty, reversal of care-taking roles, desire for extreme intimacy, frustration at others’ “good intentions,” distance from those who haven’t experienced loss, dread of social engagements, shame

Relationships change tremendously after loss. First, there is a new relationship to build with the person who is gone. Although it is not shown in romantic comedies, separation and grief is a natural part of the life-cycle of a relationship. Either through a break-up or death, loss will come to every relationship.

The quality of relationships with others, still living, also changes. Those whom you expect to show up when you are in pain may not show up. Or if they do, they may not know how to support you. This could mean you end up  with empty comments or bad casseroles and dishes to add to your overflowing sink. People you barely know may hear about the loss and come out of the woodwork, offering real, meaningful connections and a listening ear. Strangers can become confidantes while acquaintances may become the source of your raging irritability. Like the body, mind, and heart, interpersonal relationships are fair game for grief’s wide berth.

Cultural Realm

Loss of language, customs, history, native healers, desire for ethnocentric enclave and community, denial of loss by majority culture, PTSD, violence, genocide, denial of cultural resources, internalized oppression, assimilation, inter-generational distance, self-hate.

“Cultural bereavement,” coined by Australian researcher Maurice Eisenbruch (www.eisenbruch.com; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0193953X18303459), refers to the experience of refugees, immigrants, and minority populations whose home culture is disturbed by war, political regimes, ethnocentric discrimination, or other forms of displacement. It can be seen in the economic and health realities of Native Americans in the United States and in marginalized cultures around the world. It can look as big as genocide or as small as schoolyard microaggressions that train a young person of a marginalized group to distance themselves from their parents’ customs. This mental, social, and cultural displacement grow into assimilation (loss of culture), loss of linguistic diversity, and mental illness.

Even with all of this comprehension around the effects of grief, there is still so much mystery and unknown. Even with a strong social network and close relationship with the person who died,, one cannot predict a tsunami of grief until it happens, and while it’s happening, one does not have the presence of perspective to express the storm fully. It is only after time has passed and initial grief has ebbed out more than it has flowed in that it can be spoken of. What remains is “the unending absence,” as Joan Didion describes it: “Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself” (from The Year of Magical Thinking).

For more vocabulary around different types of grief (anticipatory, delayed, disenfranchised), check out this very helpful glossary:
https://whatsyourgrief.com/types-of-grief/.