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Common Grief Reactions

Most people are aware that grief is a painful thing to experience. But I wanted to talk about the most common grief reactions. This will help you understand what to expect during this emotionally painful time in your life. The only way to deal with grief is to walk through it.  Yes, grief is very painful emotionally… but grief also affects us physically, mentally, socially, behaviorally, and spiritually. It is time to seek help when these symptoms cause significant distress or health problems.

Common Grief Reactions Physical- When we are in a deep state of grief it is a very raw time for us. Grief shows up physically in the following ways. Pain- our bodies’ experience pain as a result of our loss. We will feel extremely tired sometimes to the point of being exhausted. The phrase, “sick with grief” is a real thing. Medical knowledge suggests that our bodies already know what our words have long implied that grief can, quite literally make us sick. It’s vital to try to take as good care of your body during this time as it is already weakened in grief. Sleep our sleep gets thrown off after a loss. We either sleep all the time or we experience the opposite of not sleeping at all. Our appetite changes as well, we either eat everything in site or we stop eating. Everyone handles grief differently there is no right or wrong way. These are just symptoms of one of the most painful human experiences we go though on this earth which is grief. A lot of people experience a feeling of “heartache” or a tight heavy feeling of the chest, and or a hollow feeling in their stomach. As if these symptoms aren’t enough we also may experience muscle tension or be extremely agitated, in addition also be very clumsy. It is vital that during this time you try as best as you can to take good care of your body, even though you may not have any desire to do so at all.


Common Grief Reactions Emotional- We know that after a loss our emotions are impacted. I wanted to talk about how they are affected to help you understand that feeling “crazy” after a loss is normal. One of the things most people experience is a sense of shock or feeling numb. Weather it was a sudden death or we knew our loved ones were sick we still experience a state of shock when they die. However sudden death is extremely difficult to process and handle. One minute we are speaking on the phone the next hour we get a call about a horrific accident or overdose. We then go into a state of shock or numbness. In my opinion it is our minds way of trying to protect us from the awfulness that death brings. The sadness and loneliness that comes with grief isall encompassing. I always say there is no part of our lives that grief does not affect. Grief makes us want to isolate and be alone and all we can think about is our loved one. As bizarre as this sounds it is normal. Grief is the other side of love, we can’t avoid it. We can temporally escape it if we are lucky enough to be able to sleep without nightmares, but sadness and loneliness are a normal part of grief. Anger and resentment are also common with grief. We become angry at the world, ourselves, and our loved one for dying. This is a common theme with grief and it can be worked through in therapy. One of the biggest emotions people experience with grief is Guilt. The guilt can be rational or irrational. Talking this through with a grief counselor can be extremely helpful in working through your guilt.  Regardless of whether it’s rational or irrational. When our loved one dies we also can experience fear, anxiety and insecurity. We are not sure what the world will look like without or loved ones.  This creates fear and insecurity. One of the most taboo things that our society won’t talk about in relation to grief is the feeling of relief. This can occur when our loved ones die. How can we be relieved when our loved ones die? Doesn’t that make us horrible human beings? The answer is no…being relieved when our loved one isn’t in pain anymore or suffering is a normal response to death. However when we experience relief we may also feel guilt, it can be a vicious cycle. We experience an Emotional roller coaster with grief. One minute we are ok and the next minute we are balling in the corner. These can make us feeling like we are going crazy when we are in fact in deep grief.


Common Greif reactions Mental- After the loss of a loved one we experience denial and confusion. This can be compounded with feelings of disorientation. In my opinion grief is the hardest thing we experience in life. It is no shock that we become confused and feel disorientated. We may do things like put our keys in the freezer or walk into a room having no idea what we were going to do. This feeling makes us feel even worse when we are already in such sadness and despair. With time we stop doing things like putting our keys in the freezer as our minds have time to process our loss. Feeling absentmindedness and forgetful are all normal grief reactions. That doesn’t mean it will be like this forever… but it does mean for a certain time we won’t be ourselves and that’s okay. From putting our keys into the freezer or walking into a room and not remembering why? These actions will slowly decrease with time, even though it may not feel that way. Another common grief reaction is having a hard time focusing/concentrating and lacking an attention span. It is extremely hard for our brains to concentrate on anything when we are in grief. Sometimes we aren’t even able to do mindless activities because we just have zero motivation to do anything. Cut yourself some slack and give yourself the time needed to get through this. Mentally even though it makes no sense we sometimes expect to see or hear from our loved ones. We look at our phones expecting to see their name; we look around the house and expect them to walk around the corner. While none of this makes sense….it is a normal mental grief reaction. It takes a while for us to mentally accept the fact that our loved one is gone. So naturally we would expect to have them call, or see them walk around the corner. With time this slowly goes away. After our love one dies it is also normal to need to tell the story of their death over and over. This is our way of processing our loved ones death. Please tell this story as much as you need to as it is a way of healing. We may also have dreams about our loved ones. This can include thinking we are seeing our loved ones, smelling them and hearing them. Again as bizarre as this sounds it is a normal part of the grief process.


Common Grief reactions Social/Family- After our loved ones die we usually tend to isolate ourselves from others. We have no desire to make small talk or to have to “hold ourselves together.” Again this is normal…however I suggest having someone you trust around you…it is ok if they see you fall apart. You are only human. We may see a shift in our relationships. People who we thought would step up don’t and those we didn’t think would. Therefore it only makes sense that we lose some friends and make new ones as well. Our society does not openly talk about grief. We tend to hide or hold in our grief as to not burden others. While this is appropriate at work it is ok to show our family and friends our grief.  This is what will eventually help us to heal. It is also normal to have a hard time relating to those who aren’t grieving. We begin to think they don’t understand what we are going through…they may or they may not. No one can truly know what you’re going through even if they have experienced the same type of loss, however it is beyond helpful to connect with others who have experienced a similar loss.  Your grief is yours alone.


Common Grief reactions Behavioral- Crying, and carrying around mementos are normal grief reactions. Carrying something from our loved ones give us a sense of connection with them. We can have their favorite shirt made into a quilt or a pillow etc. It is normal to want to feel connected to our loved ones. It is normal to carry around something of theirs.  Sometimes we cry unexpectedly like in the grocery store when we see their favorite cereal or ice cream. This is also a normal part of the grief process. Going to our loved onesgrave site or ash scattering site also makes us feel connected with them and is a normal part of grief.  Another common behavior is looking at photos, videos, or listening to tapes of their voice. These are all ways to help us stay connected to our loved ones. Some people talk out loud to their loved one, while others avoid doing so. Some people find it helpful to stay busy while others do not.   Some people avoid being in any situations that remind them of their loved ones, others do not. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. The process is individual for each person.


Common Grief reactions Spiritual- While you may or may not believe in God people tend to have questions about a higher power. Your religious belief may get stronger or weaker as people have many questions about where their loved ones are: Where are they, Are they all right, can they see me, will I see them again?  These are the most common questions people wonder about.  People also tend to think about their own mortality as well. You may try to figure out what your purpose is and you may also sense your loved ones presence. These are normal if you experience them and normal if you don’t. As I have said before grief is as individual as we are.


If all of these things are normal then when is it time to seek help? It is time to seek help if these symptoms are causing significant distress. Yes grief sucks. In my opinion time does not heal all wounds…time just makes them different. There is a way through grief and that is to walk right through it and deal with it head on.

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Jillian Sokoloff M.A., MFT


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