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What to Expect in Grief

Updated: Sep 7, 2021



Grief impacts us in every way: physical, emotional, cognitive, social and spiritual. There is a huge range of normal reactions depending on your loss, your personality, your current situation, and your history.


Emotionally, many people initially react to a death with shock and sometimes with numbness. Following that, some of the more common reactions are sadness, loneliness, anger, guilt and fear. Other emotions are perfectly normal and may include difficult emotions, such as anxiety, helplessness, and irritation, as well as more positive ones, such as relief, warmth, gratitude and peace. All feelings may come and go either with triggers that can be identified or seemingly at random.


Grieving is also a physically demanding process. Some common physical symptoms include exhaustion, shallow breathing, appetite changes, sleep disturbances, muscle tension, nausea, heaviness in the chest, and dry mouth. Adjusting to a loss uses energy in the brain, creates tension in the body, and releases stress hormones, all of which can cause grief to manifest in physical ways.


There is a great deal of brain activity in grieving people. New neural pathways are created and old ones are pruned. The overwhelming emotions of the loss keep grievers from being able to access the thinking parts of their brains as easily as they could before. Because of this, some common cognitive reactions are disbelief, absentmindedness, forgetfulness, lack of concentration, intrusive memories, denial, and inability to plan and prioritize. These abilities will return in time.


Socially, some people react by wanting to isolate and others by wanting to be around people. Either is normal as long as it is being done out of a desire for comfort and not because it is forced on the griever. Many people find that they have an urge to caretake others, which can be soothing and feel useful.


It is normal for questions of spirituality and meaning to come up at times of loss. Death can be a time when people wonder about God, about the afterlife, and about the meaning of their own life. All of these are normal. Loss can be a time of great growth for some people.


There is no timeline to grief. Professionals no longer talk about getting over grief but rather integrating the loss into a new life. Depending on the nature of the relationship and the nature of the griever, this could take weeks, months or even a couple of years. As long as the griever can see movement and change when looking back at the unfolding of the grief, they should be on the right path.


 

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