Grief and Loss: What does it feel like, emotionally and physically, and how can you help yourself during that time?

I’ve recently spent time with my aging mother and aunt on a vacation and recognize the impending experience of loss that will occur upon their death. Maybe you’ve experienced this yourself or, as many do, tried to avoid thinking and feeling it. Grief happens to us all, and is not necessarily related to death (our own or someone else’s), but to situations and experiences coming to an end (loss of independence with physical illness, loss of a home to fire, loss of a job, empty nest experiences, etc). Loss and grief are normal feelings and phases we go through in life. It can be confusing, frightening, and painful. It also may help to make sense of some experiences you have already had that were confusing, but in the context of grief, may be understood differently.

Here I plan to focus on the experience of the death of another person, although it will still apply if you are grieving for another kind of loss (relationship, job, phase of life).

1. What is bereavement or grief?

Bereavement and grief are an emotional transition between loss and renewal. We have choices on how to manage this process, even though it may not seem like it at the beginning of the bereavement process, which can often be a very dark and lonely place.

2. Like with life, death can occur in so many different circumstances:

  • Some deaths are expected and we can prepare for them.

  • Other deaths are unexpected and come as a shock.

  • Deaths can be self-inflicted, due to natural causes, disasters or lives taken by others.

  • We may have a lot of information about what has happened, or not.

  • We may find out immediately, or not for some time.

  • We may have been in regular contact with the person, or not.

  • We may have parted on good terms, or not.

  • The person who has died may have lived with us or been in a relationship with us for a long time.

  • We may be sad about their death; we  may (also) feel a sense of relief.

3. What does loss and grief feel like?

While your experience of bereavement is as individual as you, there are also common themes which apply to us all:

  • We all move through bereavement stages, not necessarily in the same order or at the same speed.

  • The length and intensity of the overall experience depends on the nature of the loss and the nature of our relationship with the person who has died, the timing of death, our support network, and our previous experiences of death and loss.

  • Bereavement does not necessarily get more easy or difficult the more we experience it.

  • It can remain just as painful and devastating.

  • We can develop an inner trust, that the pain will lessen with time, and that we can continue to live in the knowledge that we will emotionally survive the loss and pain.

4. Look at grief as a process.

When you accept that your experience is a process, you may feel less overwhelmed and with a greater sense of control, and may be less at risk of getting stuck in these difficult and dark places. It may give you hope and trust that you can survive these emotions and develop an attitude and view on things, that might be helpful to you in your life with grief and in other difficult emotional times as well. This does not bring back the person or circumstances you may have lost, or reverse your health situation, but it can help you feel more settled and emotionally strengthened. Let me take you through the process:

Emotional signs of grief

The sensation of grief immediately after we learn of the death can be mental, emotional and physical (maybe like an electric shock, combined with feeling sick or breathless).

In that moment, which can stretch over days, weeks, even months, which can diminish and return from nowhere, in that moment not much else may seem to matter.

We often don’t have room or space for anything else, mentally or emotionally. We can be all-consumed by the feeling and struggling to comprehend or accept the reality of what has happened.

  • We feel denial: “This can’t be happening. How? It isn’t possible.”

  • In this state of disbelief we can feel isolated and isolate ourselves from others, who seem to move on, and tell us ‘time is a great healer,’ that ‘we will get over it,’ that ‘death is part of life.’ But at that moment, it seems nothing can help.

  • We may be angry with the person who has died and left us behind. Our anger may go toward others and ourselves.

  • We may bargain and blame, in an attempt to gain some control of the situation: ‘If only I had…,’ ‘If only they had...,’ ‘Why didn’t I…’

  • We may feel depressed, numb, lack motivation and feel overwhelmed.  Our energy, emotional and often physical strength is weakened. We may feel very vulnerable and extra-sensitive.

  • The thought of making funeral arrangements can feel overwhelming and may cause anxiety.

  • Everything seems too much, even our usual routines, and we may start to think or say ‘I can’t do this anymore/any longer.’

  • We are regularly confronted with reminders of them (photos, smells, clothing, letters, emails, food, a song, a location, a walk, an argument and so much more depending on the nature of the relationship), especially if we have lived or worked together.

  • Places where we spent a lot of time (eg our homes) together are constant reminders of their presence or lack of, and a way of life that has also come to an end.

  • Gradually we may start facing up to the reality that the other has died and that we continue living without them. We learn to accept and bear the pain with greater calmness than depression.

Physical signs of Grief (depending on the relationship)

  • Shock and stress reactions, like being on high alert (feeling jumpy, tense muscles etc.)

  • Your breathing may change and may become more shallow and laboured, or you may experience chest pain.

  • Heightened anxiety (a more consistent state of flight or fight, stomach churning and constipation or diarrhea, feeling sweaty).

  • You may experience tension headaches, difficulty in focusing and holding concentration, and disturbed sleep.

  • Your appetite and eating habits may change, which may lead to weight gain or loss.

  • Overall you may feel more tired.

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5. How can you help yourself?

Dealing with the emotional and physical aspects of bereavement can be very individual.

Some people prefer for a time to avoid reminders of the person and their death.  Others create their own meaningful ways of support, rituals, comfort and closeness. None of this is set in stone, and it can change over time.

Emotional Self Care

This is not an exhaustive list and you may have your own, very different, ideas. What is important is that you follow your intuition, and make time for allowing emotions to be felt and not simply pushed down and avoided.

  • Visiting a grave or other place of meaning regularly

  • Speaking with the deceased (in your head or out loud),

  • Meditate, pray or engage in any other religious or spiritual activities,

  • Looking at pictures, letters, listening to music, etc.

  • Keep a journal, draw or be creative in other ways.

  • Speak with someone about how you feel: a trusted friend, a counsellor or therapist. This can often be difficult because we believe that we will burden others or remind them of their own grief that they are experiencing.

  • Simply recognizing that your experience is normal and your own. Trying to ‘get over it’ only leads to a belief that grief is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ simply because it is uncomfortable.

Physical Self Care

Pay attention to your body, and take care of it in a nurturing, compassionate way.

  • For as long as you need, reduce stress, responsibilities and obligations.

  • Get plenty of rest.

  • Be aware of your diet, your alcohol intake if you drink, your smoking if you smoke and any other ways of self-medication and attempts to numb the pain. This will only delay the real grief recovery and may lead to additional physical and emotional complications.

  • Have a daily routine.

  • Spend time outside, in nature, and do some moderate exercise, like walking.

6. Summary

In cases where we mourn the death of another, the bereavement process is likely to be more difficult during the first year, while we go through various anniversaries or annual events of meaning to us, which we can no longer share with the person who has died.

As I said before, the experience of bereavement will be individual to you. It is normal for you however it is experienced. Try to avoid blocking your bereavement process by holding on to negative thoughts or pushing them away in avoidance. When you notice these thoughts and feelings, then notice them, as you might notice a cloud or storm go by. The storm will not stay forever.

If you, or someone you know, would like help with processing grief and loss, consider contacting me at (717) 288-5064 / and schedule an appointment today.