You can expect a wide range – even a whirlwind – of feelings when someone important to you dies or is dying. It may be even worse if the death was sudden, unexpected, violent, or self-inflicted, or if it left you with a lot of unfinished business, emotional and otherwise. Don't feel bad about what you feel; it is a normal part of grieving. You may not experience all of the feelings typical of grief, or experience them in a fixed sequence. But avoiding uncomfortable feelings that do arise will only make things worse. The work of grieving, and the only way to get through mourning, is to experience your feelings fully. You may feel a strong desire to anesthetize your feelings (with food, drugs, alcohol, sex, work, or busyness) or stuff them. Doing so will only delay the experience of grief or push it underground; it will generally express itself anyway, in ways you'll have even less control over.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book On Death and Dying
, identified five stages of grief:
Don't be surprised if you feel:
• Shock, numbness, dazed disbelief, a feeling of just "going through the motions," a sense that part of you is functioning but part of you is not.
• Laziness, fatigue, a sense of depletion.
• Bewilderment, confusion, indecisiveness, clumsiness, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, a reduced attention span. Confusion is especially common.
• A whirlwind of changing feelings, unexpected surges of emotion, of mental chaos and disintegration, the feeling you might be going mad.
• Anger, at the person who died, at the medical establishment, at the people trying to help or console you, at the people who didn't die, at yourself, at whoever gets in the way when the anger feels like coming out; bitterness, hostility.
• Pain (both physical and emotional), sorrow, weepiness (tears you have no control over – they won't come when you want them, and then they'll come at times that are embarrassing), despair, intensely painful feelings of loss.
• Fear, anxiety, panic, agitation, hypochondria.
• A "selfish" preoccupation with your own feelings; a need to be babies, to regress.
• Depression, emotional flatness, apathy, defeatism, thoughts of suicide, a feeling of "What's the use?" "Why live?"
• Loneliness. A fear of being alone, yet a yearning to be left alone; a need for company, yet no desire to socialize.
• A yearning to see and feel the person who died.
• The sense of a void, a missing part, an enormous sense of loss and emptiness.
• A flood of memories, a restless search for the person who died, a feeling that he or she is nearby or visiting you.
• Guilt, regrets ("if only..."), ambivalence (especially if you had unfinished business with the person who died), feelings of shame about having "unacceptable" thoughts and emotions.
• A mental replaying of the illness, the death, or the life that preceded it; talkativeness, an urge to tell the story of what happened, to talk about the past.
• Sleeplessness, overeating or loss of appetite, weight loss or gain, and a wide variety of physical symptoms to which you are unaccustomed.
• Conflict with other survivors, or the resurfacing of conflicts from earlier in life – a common problem.
• An inability to remember what the dead person looked like; a tendency to idealize (or make a monster of) the dead person; eventually (when you’ve worked through some grief) the feeling that you are absorbing some of the dead person's personality, that his or her values, qualities, or behaviors are becoming part of you.
• Relief that a difficult time has ended.
• Acceptance, peace, joy.
• Dreams of the deceased; a sense of their presence nearby.
Copyright © Pat McNees. Reprinted from DYING: A Book of Comfort, which you can order here.
• Getting Grief Right
(Patrick O'Malley, Opinionator, Couch, NY Times, 1-10-15) The story of a woman's lost of her child and her inability to get through her grief. "Based on my own and my patients’ experiences, I now like to say that the story of loss has three “chapters.” Chapter 1 has to do with attachment: the strength of the bond with the person who has been lost. Understanding the relationship between degree of attachment and intensity of grief brings great relief for most patients. I often tell them that the size of their grief corresponds to the depth of their love.
Chapter 2 is the death event itself. This is often the moment when the person experiencing the loss begins to question his sanity, particularly when the death is premature and traumatic. Mary had prided herself on her ability to stay in control in difficult times. The profound emotional chaos of her baby’s death made her feel crazy. As soon as she was able, she resisted the craziness and shut down the natural pain and suffering.
Chapter 3 is the long road that begins after the last casserole dish is picked up — when the outside world stops grieving with you. Mary wanted to reassure her family, friends and herself that she was on the fast track to closure. This was exhausting. What she really needed was to let herself sink into her sadness, accept it." And support groups can be helpful: " the relief she felt in the presence of other bereaved parents, in a place where no acting was required. It was a place where people understood that they didn’t really want to achieve closure after all. To do so would be to lose a piece of a sacred bond."