Once someone we love has died, our new normal is something completely different from anything we have known before. We are different than we were before. Our lives are different than they were before. "Normal" seems like something far, far away. Unfortunately, this is the new normal. Losing someone you love dearly, who was an integral part of your life, is an intense and incredibly difficult experience. Often, bereaved people find that their grief can be misunderstood by others who have not experienced the same kind of loss or who have not yet faced the death of someone they love deeply or who was an integral part of their lives. Sometimes in grief, it can seem nearly impossible to understand yourself, much less find others who can understand.
If this is the first time you are experiencing the loss of a loved one, or if you are having difficulty understanding the intensity of your grief in this loss, you may feel completely alone, confused and possibly afraid. You may be experiencing thoughts, feelings, and unusual phenomena you never have experienced before. You should know that in light of what has happened, the things you are experiencing are normal. The pain and symptoms of grief impact every area of your life. Your body, mind, thoughts, feelings, and spirit. The journey of grief is difficult, but it can bring some comfort to know that you are not alone. Information about the normal ways that grief can affect us can be very helpful. Sadly, though nearly all of us will experience the death of someone we love, and the pain that follows, very rarely does anyone tell us what to expect.
Grief affects us physically. It can feel like a weight on our bodies. Grieving people frequently experience changes in appetite, either eating more or less than usual. Along with appetite changes, weight gain or loss may occur. Your eyes may feel tired, irritated, dry or itchy. You may cry daily, several times a day, or you may not cry at all. You may feel unable to cry. Crying a lot, not at all, or somewhere in between, are all normal. You may notice changes in your skin including pale or sallow color, dehydration and dryness. You may feel as though you are having difficulty breathing. You may notice that you are holding your breath at various times throughout the day. Your energy level may change drastically. Usually grieving people experience a decrease in energy; getting out of bed can seem like a huge task, but occasionally, energy levels can be extremely high with restlessness and a need to be engaged in activity. You may want to pace or have a hard time settling down. You may feel the need to discharge excess energy, or you may experience extreme tiredness or fatigue after only a small bit of physical activity. You may experience headaches or other pain in various parts of your body, including pain in the chest. Some grieving people report feeling pain in their heart area, as if their heart is literally broken. You may notice changes in your sleeping patterns, including inability to sleep, frequent waking, or sleeping more than is usual for you. Some grieving people report having increased sensitivity to loud noises or light. All of these physical changes are common during grief and can sometimes be very difficult to understand.
Grief affects us cognitively, changing the way we think and how our brains work. We may feel confused, in disbelief or have feelings of unreality, as if this cannot be really happening. We may forget things, or have trouble gathering our thoughts. Many people have experiences of seeing or hearing their loved ones. Often grieving people talk about feeling as if they have been in contact with their loved ones. This is a very common experience that many grieving people have but are often reluctant to talk about. Sometimes these experiences may feel scary or create added anxiety, but most often, these are comforting experiences. Grieving people also have frequent thoughts of their loved one and often spend a lot of time trying to "make sense" of the loss.
Spiritual and Philosophical Changes
Grief affects us spiritually and philosophically on very deep levels. No matter what a person's religion or spiritual belief system, the death of someone we love deeply changes us fundamentally. The death can cause all sorts of questions to play over and over in our hearts and minds. Why did this happen? Why did God let him or her die? Why him? Why her? Why me? Why is God punishing me? What did I do to deserve this? Is there a God? Where is my loved one now? Can they see me or feel me? Life is Unfair. What is the meaning of life?
Some grieving people may find that everything we thought we knew or believed in is suddenly called into question after the death of a loved one. It is common to face a spiritual crisis following the death of a loved one. Conversely, some grieving people find their spiritual lives become greatly enriched. They may find great strength in spiritual or religious practices, including increased prayer, meditation, or other spiritual activities.
While we expect to feel sadness, sometimes the intensity of that sadness can take us by surprise. Feeling anxious, nervous, or confused are common emotions grieving people feel. Other emotions such as irritability, frustration, anger and loneliness, are also normal. Feeling depressed, hopeless, or having no interest in activities that previously interested you can also be very normal. It can be very common to experience relief after a person you loved has died, particularly if your loved one suffered greatly or if the illness was extremely prolonged. Feelings of relief can often lead to guilt feelings. Guilt can be a very difficult, but common, emotion to experience after the death of a loved one. All of those feelings (and many more) and combinations of feelings are normal. It can be important to recognize that what you are feeling is normal, but it is equally important to let someone know about your feelings, especially if you have prolonged experiences of deep sadness, guilt, anxiety or depression. If you notice that you are feeling one or more of those feelings every day, all day or for long periods of each day, for more than a 6 to 8 weeks, please share your feelings with a trusted friend and seek out support and help. While it is normal to feel those things after a loved one dies, even for long periods of time, it can be very helpful to find support to help through your experience of grief.
There is Hope
Sometimes it seems that many people in our society believe that the time for grieving should be over soon after the funeral, or at most a few weeks or months later. This is not true. Each person is individual. How much and how long your grief impacts your life depends on your relationship to the person who has died, how emotionally intertwined your lives were, and your own personal coping patterns.
Time rarely has much to do with it. The deep and overwhelming feelings of sadness and the rawness of the pain can lessen, with time but there is no time limit. This also has a lot to do with how you spend the time. Finding ways to remember and honor your loved one, honoring your own experience in grief can help so much. You may feel that you are not strong enough to bear it, but over time your “grief muscles” develop and you can manage your feelings in ways you could not have imagined early on in your grief journey.
There is no specific time-table for healing to occur. The time will vary for different people and depending on your relationship to the person who has died. The strongest and most intense feelings generally occur over the first year following the person’s death. This is not always true. Some people report having more difficulties in the second year after a traumatic loss. But whenever you may notice some of the rawness has gone, even after the immediate, intense feelings subside, it is important to know there will always be times throughout your life when you will miss your loved one and feel sad. This is okay. You will never forget your love for someone so important to you.
There may also be times when you are not expecting it that sadness and intense feelings of missing your loved one will wash over you. Be aware of “triggers”—events, circumstances—that cause you to suddenly feel awash with sadness and the pain of missing your loved one. Sometimes you will already know what they are, but sometimes you won’t see them coming. It may be helpful to spend some time thinking of things that may be triggers for you and how you will handle your feelings when they occur. Birthdays (including your own), holidays, anniversary days, special times that the two of you shared.
When you are in the midst of intense pain from grief, it can seem as though things will never get better. You may feel better for a little while and then find yourself feeling wrapped once again in pain as raw as you remembered your very early days and weeks of grief. It can seem as though the work of grieving is never done. The time will come though, when you can begin to build a different life for yourself. You can find meaning again in your life. You will be different. Your life will be different. You will still miss your loved one, but you can survive and even thrive. It takes courage and patience, it is difficult and painful, andyou can do it. Try to be gentle with yourself and the process and to remember that this is the new normal.
Support and help when you are grieving is very important. An excellent way to help manage the stress of grief is to talk to people who are non-judgmental and supportive; people who will not tell you what you should do or shouldn't do or what you need to do, or what you need to stop doing. Find a friend or family member who can be there for you, or attend a support group. Support groups can be very helpful for grieving people and can provide the kind of non-judgmental listening support grieving people need.
Remember that there will always be times throughout your life when you will miss your loved one and feel sad. You may even have periods of intense sadness, you may cry, even years later. You can expect that certain times of the year will be more difficult, such as holidays, anniversaries and birthdays. Having a planned activity for honoring your loved one can be incredibly helpful for these times. You don’t even have to follow though with the plan, just having one can be immensely helpful.
"Normal" Ways Grief Can Affect US
(you may experience any of these & more that are unique to you)
"Normal is somone you don't know very well." ~Anonymous
Emotional ~Shock and numbness ~Feelings of unreality ~Anxiety (many, many people experience extreme anxiety in grief, even those who have previously not had difficulty with anything beyond typical anxiety. It is important to know you are not alone in this experience) ~Guilt ~Distance from others ~Need to be with others ~Sadness ~Despair ~Fear ~Worry ~Irritability ~Frustration ~Anger ~Depression (non-clinical depression) ~Loneliness ~Relief ...and more that are unique to you
Physical ~Appetite (eating more or eating less) ~Crying, or inability to cry ~Dry mouth and skin (dehydration from crying, not drinking enough fluids can occur) ~Breathing (holding your breath, feeling as if you cannot breathe, shallow breathing. It is important to know too that breathing difficulties can cause us to go into a stress mode in our bodies, i.e., "fight, flight, freeze" mode) ~Energy level changes (usually low, sometimes extremely high) ~Extreme fatigue and exhaustion ~Pain in various parts of the body—including feeling as if you literally have a broken heart with pain in the chest. Women whose babies have died often feel physical pain in their arms, with the need to hold their child. ~Sleep patterns channge (sleeping a lot or inability to fall asleep) ~Lack of motivation to do anything ~Increased sensitivity to loud noises, bright lights, crowds, activity. Many people experience changes and differences in sensory perception in grief (how we see, hear, smell, feel, experience all input from our senses). ~Feeling "clumsy," actually tripping, dropping or fumbling much more than is your typical norm. Cognitive ~Confusion ~Disbelief ~Forgetfulness (including misplacing items, forgetting to pay bills or appointments, losing things) ~Changes in attention span (inability to focus, "spacing" out, mind wandering) ~Hallucinations (not necessarily "visitations" from the loved one, but sometimes actual auditory or visual hallucinations of sights and sounds that no one else can see or hear and which may seem totally unrelated to the death of the loved one.) Seeing, hearing or sensing your loved one is also a very common occurence. ~Frequent thoughts of loved one ~Trying to “make sense” of the loss ~Dreams that may be disturbing, or those that are comforting--or the lack of dreaming ~Frequent and sometimes intrusive thoughts of your loved one, the death or the circumstances, your life without them. ~Feeling distracted
Spiritually/Philosophically ~Questioning ~Why did God let him die? Why him? Why her? Why me? ~Why is God punishing me? ~What did I do wrong to deserve this? ~Life is Unfair! ~What is the meaning of life? ~What is the reason for this? ~If there is "a reason for everything," where is the reason in this? I don't care what the reason might be. ~Is there a God? ~Where is my loved one really? Is he safe? Does he know I am here? Does she know I miss her? Can he see me? Feel me? Hear me? ~Increase in spiritual activities, prayer, etc. ~Decreases in spiritual activities. Feeling unable to embrace or tolerate spirituality or religious practices. ~Many people experience "visitations" or "signs" from loved ones--including seeing their loved one, hearing the voice of the loved one, smelling a smell of either the loved one's scent or a smell that reminds them of the loved one. Feeling that their loved one is sending messages of comfort or other attempts to communicate. This may occur through animals, insects, wind, rain, snow, other elements of nature. Many receive a great deal of comfort from these visits and signs.
Ways to Help Decrease the Stress of Grief Symptoms
~Journaling--writing down thoughts and feelings
~Create Something—draw, paint, cook, write, garden, sculpt, scrapbook, collage, build or make something. Creation is the antidote to destruction. Not the antidote to death, but to the destruction we feel has ravaged our hearts, our lives, when someone we love deeply has died.
~Engage in rituals and activities in honor of and in memory of your loved one
~Be physically active (take a walk, stretch, move your body)
~Talk and share with people who do not judge or advise or tell you what to do or not do, should's and shouldn'ts. Support groups are wonderful places for this kind of help.
Find more ways to manage the stress and symptoms of grief in my new book Finding Your Own Way to Grieve. It's written for kids & teens on the autism spectrum who are grieving, but really it's meant for everyone. Click here to find out more about the book.