Grief is the universal human response to loss — we all grieve when we lose someone or something important to us. But grief is not universally understood. Most of us are totally unprepared for the intense and confusing reactions that can follow a significant loss. We do not feel (or think or act) like our normal selves while grieving. We feel like there is something wrong with us.
But in reality, our grief tells us something is right with us! We grieve because we love; we grieve because we care. As writer Paul Irion says: ”Life can be the same after a trinket has been lost, but never after the loss of a treasure.” Loss profoundly changes our world, sometimes even shatters that world; it is natural that we are also changed. It is normal that we are not our normal selves while grieving.
But if grief is natural and normal, why does it make us feel so crazy?
Normal does not equal easy. Times of change (especially unexpected or unwanted change) are times of stress. Grief is a special kind of stress that affects our whole being, causing inner turmoil and unfamiliar behaviors as we struggle to adjust to a very changed world.
Grief is commonly thought of as a time of sadness that we passively endure until it somehow subsides, but it is much more than that. It is a powerful, surprising, demanding body/mind/spirit experience. Grief causes changes in all aspects of our lives and wellbeing: physical, mental, behavioral, emotional, and spiritual.
Physical grief reactions include changes in sleep and appetite, profound exhaustion, chest heaviness, increase in illness and tension/aches. Our bodies grieve.
Mental grief reactions include “brain fog,” forgetfulness, inability to concentrate or make decisions, repetitive thoughts of events leading to the loss or what could have prevented it, disbelief, apathy. Our brains are preoccupied — and sometimes off-line.
Behavioral grief reactions include social withdrawal (or increased social activity), irritability, changes in work performance and self-care, increased accidents and risk-taking. We are surprised by our actions.
Emotional grief reactions in addition to sadness include loneliness, anxiety, guilt, anger, relief (and guilt for feeling relief), abandonment, lowered self-esteem, numbness, shock, fear (or lack of fear, because the worst has already happened.) We often feel conflicting emotions.
Spiritual grief reactions include changes in deeply-held life beliefs (for some a religion, for others a personal spirituality or philosophy.) These beliefs can be strengthened, questioned, or shattered. There can be a profound sense of comfort and gratitude, or a profound sense of anger and abandonment.
This list is neither exhaustive or a set of requirements— you may experience additional grief reactions or few of those listed. Grief is highly personal — each of us grieves differently. But however we respond to loss, we are not our usual selves when grieving, which is confusing both to us and to those around us. It can help to know that these are natural, normal reactions — even when they don’t feel natural or normal.
Many of these changes are temporary even if they are intense at times, and most people reach a place eventually where they feel much more “like themselves.” But some changes are profound and long-lasting; some are even positive. Like it or not, grief is a process of transformation.
It is natural to want to be normal again. Right now! But if we can accept that this is normal right now, we can take better care of ourselves in this very challenging time. We can acknowledge our current limitations, seek support for what we need, and treat ourselves with patience and compassion as we find our own way forward toward healing.
This blog first appeared in the Cognitive Psychiatry of Chapel Hill blog.