Common Responses to Grief
This page discusses common responses to grief. These responses are natural and normal initial grief reactions. If any of these are exceedingly intense or continue for a length of time that prevents the bereaved from regaining balance in their life, then professional support and guidance should be sought.
- A feeling of tightness in the throat or heaviness in the chest
- An empty feeling in the stomach and loss of appetite or increased appetite
- Restlessness and a need for activity accompanied by an inability to concentrate
- A feeling that the loss is not real, that it did not really happen
- A sense of the loved one's presence, like expecting the person to walk in the door at the usual time, hearing their voice, or seeing their face
- Aimless wandering, forgetfulness, inability to finish things
- Difficulty sleeping; frequent dreams about the loved one
- A tendency to assume the mannerisms or traits of the loved one
- An intense preoccupation with the life of the deceased
- Anger at the loved one for dying; anger at God; anger at others (doctors)
- A need to take care of other people who seem uncomfortable around you by politely not talking about the feelings of loss
- A need to tell and retell the "story". A need to remember things about the loved one and the experience of their death
- Crying at unexpected times
- Lack of energy, desire to just sleep; withdrawing from others and daily routines
Anger and Grief
Although we seldom expect it, anger is often a part of grief. Feelings of anger are among the most upsetting feelings we experience. This is due in part to the fact that many of us were raised to believe that it is not acceptable to be angry, much less mad, and now, we may find ourselves angry and upset. Our anger may be directed at our deceased loved one because they didn't take better care of themselves or didn't go to the doctor earlier. We may feel anger because we resent the fact they have left us and we must face problems and issues that remain. Anger may also be directed at the physician or medical staff because we expected them to save our loved one's life. There may be anger at members of our family because we don't like the way they responded or the way they are grieving (or not grieving). We may be angry at God for allowing this death to happen. Also, we may be angry at ourselves because all we did was not enough to prevent the death.
What can we do with our anger? The first step is to acknowledge that it is anger that we are feeling. Anger that is not acknowledged or recognized can lead to guilt feelings. We can easily feel guilty when our anger is aimed at God, our deceased loved one, or others whom we love. When we refuse to acknowledge that we are feeling anger and refuse to express it, our anger may be expressed in bodily symptoms, such as headaches, tight muscles, upset stomachs, and even chest pain.
Anger that is not acknowledged but hidden from ourselves, as well as from others, may come out in indirect actions or communications that can poison our relationships. Sharp words or hurtful actions may come from us without us being fully aware of what we are doing. This is our hidden anger coming out in ways that can be damaging.
It is hard to acknowledge our own anger because it shatters our self image of always being a nice, good, or loving person. It is important to learn that one can be nice, good, and loving and still experience anger. Anger is what we feel. Aggression is what we do or choose not to do. Our feelings are not right or wrong. They are simply our feelings and being honest about what we feel is the starting point in dealing with anger.
Once we accept that anger is what we are feeling, we can then express the anger. We can choose to express our anger in many ways. We may need to decide what we are angry about and with whom we are angry. Some people find it helps to write it out as if in a letter to the one to whom we feel the anger is directed. We don't have to mail it. Writing out our anger can be a way of acknowledging, accepting, and allowing our feelings. Some people feel their anger so greatly they need to express it physically, as in beating a pillow or hitting a punching bag, as opposed to hitting a person. We can express our anger in an assertive way, rather than an aggressive way, by speaking directly with someone. This direct confrontation can clear the air, allow for a real, rather than a false, relationship. One can say, "I feel...", or "I want..." to directly express one's feelings and desires rather than "you make me feel...", which is usually seen as an attack and a disowning of responsibility. By saying what we feel, rather than attacking people, we give people the opportunity to respond to our needs, to act differently, and to not repeat the hurtful actions. We may find we feel better about ourselves when we do this because we have affirmed and owned up to our own feelings. We have used our anger in a positive way, rather than to deny, distort, or hurt others or ourselves.
From Hope Hospice, Fort Meyers, FL; Wayne Leaver, Ph.D., Bereavement Coordinator
The experience of guilt is universal. No one is perfect, so we all have done things we wish we had not done or failed to do things we feel like we should have done. Often in grief, we experience feelings of guilt. These may be seen in our "If only..." statements as we reflect guilt about these things we did not do. Guilt may be part of feelings of depression, particularly if we blame ourselves for things that have happened. Guilt may be expressed in self-punishment, self-reproach, feeling unworthy as a person, in self-sabotage, withdrawing from others, or in attempts to make amends.
With the death of a loved one we may feel guilty for wishing death would come soon due to their suffering, or anger or frustration we have felt toward the deceased, for feeling repulsed by the rage the disease caused in our loved one, for not being able to protect our loved one from death, or for enjoying ourselves at the time our loved one was dying or enjoying ourselves in the present time. We may feel guilty because we could not live up to any unrealistic image that we created for ourselves at a time of crisis. We may even feel that the illness and death was a punishment for some wrong thought or action in the past, or simply feel guilty that we are still alive and our loved one is dead.
Guilt can complicate grief and prevent resolution, particularly if it keeps us from reviewing our relationship with our deceased loved one. We will avoid doing that because we fear facing the issues of guilt. Guilt and responsibility go together. A realistic acceptance of our limits and responsibility may help us determine what, if any, guilt is appropriate.
From Hope Hospice, Fort Meyers, FL; Wayne Leaver, Ph.D., Bereavement Coordinator
Click on the statements below for more information.
We need to acknowledge our feelings and ventilate them.
Simply talking about them brings them out in the sunshine and allows us to see them as they are. By bringing them out we release a lot of the pressure that was building up by keeping them hidden. In the light, they may not be quite as large and frightening as they were when they were hidden in the dark.
We need to see what is real guilt and what is not.
By identifying and letting go of irrational beliefs or ideas we can face what is real. Basically, one cannot be held responsible for, or accept guilt for, that which they cannot control. As for things we did not do or did not foresee, we may need to admit that we cannot foretell the future or read minds, and therefore, cannot take responsibility for such things.
We may need to acknowledge other limits.
We are not supermen or superwomen and cannot do all things. We have human limits We do get tired, irritated, and maybe a little angry as all humans do. Our emotional responses are our gut level response to events. We seldom consciously choose what we feel immediately in a situation.
We may need to forgive and ask forgiveness for ourselves.
We can ask this of our spiritual faith or we might write a letter to the deceased speaking of our regrets and need for forgiveness. We may need to write a letter of self-forgiveness to ourselves.
We may choose to give ourselves to altruistic activities.
For some this may be an act of atonement or simply a giving of oneself to others in a positive way.