We use the terms "grief" or "grieving" as if there is one standard definition, and that can be a problem to most grievers. Often, the words evoke feelings of sadness, actions of crying, and maybe thoughts of "How will I live without my loved one?". While we all commonly understand that grief usually happens when someone passes away, we all actually grieve differently, and that grief is unique to each and every one of us. Grief is a living, breathing process, and, like plants, animals, or humans, grief interacts with and reacts to its relationships and environment. While each of us are born with the innate capacity to grieve, we may not always know just how to do it, or recognize that we are. I write this post to even the playing field about the different ways people grieve a loss in their lives. Note that this list isn't exhaustive, and the details below may not apply to you. That's OK; your grief is as unique as you are.
Psychological Symptoms of Grief include both the thoughts and feelings that come upon us when we are grieving. As mentioned above, most people tend to characterize grievers as feeling sad, or lonely, or maybe even anxious. But did you know that other emotions that arise during the grief process can include anger, guilt, or the absence of feelings at all, such as numbness? The circumstances of a death may contribute to how you grieve. If your loved one died suddenly, you may feel immune to the loss thus far, as though you have not quite processed it. Or, you might feel shock and confusion, wondering if this is really "real life". Survivor's guilt, where you might wonder, "Why not me?", is common, as well as feelings of anger or abandonment. This may be especially true when someone who was a caregiver or emotional support to you died. Ambivalence is also common: this happens when you're just not quite sure how you feel. Perhaps you had a conflicted relationship with the person that died. Maybe you didn't even like them. Or, you may feel relief if your loved one died after an extended and painful battle with an illness such as cancer, and then judge yourself harshly for it. This is normal, and I encourage you to mindfully observe your feelings, and maybe even run toward them, embracing them, instead of judging yourself harshly or turning away.
Behavioral Symptoms of Grief are related to the actions you take (or don't take) as a result of loss in your life. You may have been a formerly social person but have decided to withdraw and isolate yourself because you feel as though nobody understands your loss, or as though you are a "changed" person. You may find yourself getting in arguments as a result of feeling more irritable or sensitive to others around you. Though it has been widely overplayed in the media, some people may turn to substance use to numb feelings that become overwhelming. As you can see, behavioral symptoms are closely tied to psychological ones. A thought or feeling may arise, and in an attempt to cope with it, a griever may choose certain actions to engage in as a result. Some people who have experienced traumatic grief may find that they are exposing themselves to dangerous situations in an attempt to relive or "resolve" the trauma they experienced. This can be quite dangerous and result in further harm. However, not all behavioral symptoms are signs of poor coping or trouble. For example, if you have decided to pare your group of friends down to a smaller cohort of those whom you feel really "get" you, that may not be a bad thing. You may choose different diets or self-care activities than before based on how grief or the circumstances of a death (such as heart disease) affect you. I encourage you to journal and keep track of your daily activities in a calendar and notice whether you're engaging in different activities than before.
Physical Symptoms of Grief are perhaps the most under-recognized reactions to loss. We see these more commonly among children, but we also know that adults are not immune to their bodies physically processing a death before their minds do. Most commonly, we see loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting, headaches or other somatic complaints such as body aches, extreme fatigue, muscle cramps, or even tingling in the extremities. If a loved one died of a physical disease you may even feel you have some symptoms of that disease yourself. Most people do not appreciate that their bodies are reacting to loss, and write off these symptoms as colds, flu, or just being run down. However, a physical loss of a human being can produce very physical reactions, and your body may even remember certain loss anniversaries, resulting in insomnia, pain, or lack of focus around important dates. You can become more mindful of your own physical reactions to grief by practicing deep breathing: in a calm and safe environment, take a moment to check in with your body. Inhale slowly through the nose, being sure not to scrunch your shoulders, but to fill your belly, expanding it with air. Exhale even more slowly through the mouth, continually checking the position of your body in space: where are you holding your tension? Is your jaw clenched tight, or are your fists balled? Your body may have assumed a "grieving posture" that you need to take some time to address through gentle yoga, exercise, or massage.
When to Seek Help Grief is common, and grief is normal. There is no time limit as to when grief should be resolved, and many people worry that their grief is going to cause them to go crazy, or that they will be hurting forever. Some people do experience grief more intensely than others, and they may find that they are spending more and more time thinking about the loss and wondering how they'll go on. While this is common in the early months (and, for some, year), of grief, over time, most of us are able to adjust to a life without our loved one(s), attempting to ride the waves of loss as they sometimes knock us down, or sometimes lap at our feet as gentle reminders. You may feel, in those early months, that you need a dedicated listener to talk to about your loved one, and that's a great time for therapy. Or, you may be concerned that some time has passed and you still feel the loss as if it is too fresh. You may find yourself experiencing depression and not finding joy in areas that you once did, or perhaps you are increasingly isolating yourself and your life has changed from before. Maybe friends or family have expressed concern about you, but you just don't see where they are coming from. You should know that there is never a bad time to seek help for grief: it is never too early or too late. If you think you could benefit from a safe, caring, supportive and non-judgmental professional, think about giving us a call to help walk you through your symptoms. We're here to help.