With the holidays and early winter being statistically the most popular season to die, late winter can be a time of grief for many survivors left to face life without a loved one – an experience that can feel overwhelming, destabilizing, and confusing. We all know that it is normal to feel sad for a while when we lose a loved one, but grief is often much bigger than just sadness, encompassing symptoms that can make it hard to feel like yourself, leaving you to wonder if you are really ok.
You’re not crazy if you feel it; grief is real, and grief is suffered. It means you loved someone, deeply. And now, everything is different. More than just being sad, grief can have many different faces, affects everyone differently, and is a process.
Understanding and recognizing some of the surprising aspects of normal grief can help you get a better handle on your experience so that you can take at least one thing off your over-flowing plate: you don’t need to worry that you’re going crazy.
1. Tearfulness: Of course grief is sadness, and the gut-wrenching pain of missing a loved one you weren’t ready to let go. We want them back. We want things how they were. We don’t want to change and from this the tears seem to keep coming. Sometimes they seem like they won’t stop, are real, and can sometimes be unpredictable, and even scary. You might wonder if you will ever stop crying… You will, but for everyone it’s different. Luckily, shedding tears are one of the most efficient things you can do to facilitate healing.
2. Apathy: Grief can feel like you are walking through quicksand, literally at times. You go through the motions of everyday, but things take longer and everything feels harder. Your energy only goes so far, and it just doesn’t feel like you have enough. Worse, you might not care. Grieving is hard work, and it takes a toll on your energy. The good news is that with time, you will regain your interests and your energy again, as you adjust mentally and emotionally to your new reality.
3. Grumpiness: Coping with loss can make even the most easy going person irritable – life just isn’t right anymore, and it feels like it might never be again. This simmering frustration with a new reality can loom in the background of everything you do, and consume a lot of your precious energy, leaving less energy and patience for others, and yourself. Understanding the physical and emotional causes of your irritability can help you recognize it, and mitigate its prominence by taking better care of yourself and slowing down.
4. Mental Fog: Grief can make it hard to sustain attention and concentrate, leaving you feeling as mentally tired as you do physically. This might be one of the most distressing aspects of grief: feeling mentally depleted at a time when it can feel like you need everything you’ve got and more. Not only do life’s responsibilities march on, but often death can usher in even more responsibility. Laying a loved one – and their affairs – to rest requires focus, energy, attention to detail, and patience at a time when you simply aren’t at your best. Don’t worry if everything feels a bit harder than it should, or if you can’t accomplish the things you usually can. You’re not crazy, you’re experiencing grief. Look for places where you can reduce your expectations of yourself for a while, whether cutting corners, or putting off nonessential tasks.
5. Grief is shared: Losing a loved one is a family affair, and often occurs in the context of having to care for others while caring for yourself. Moreover, family discord can be fueled by a shared loss, as painful emotions and their typical coping mechanisms, run their course. Remembering that you aren’t the only one experiencing grief can help you be more compassionate to your loved ones, and to yourself.
6. Sleep changes: Not only is grief emotionally draining, but it can be physically draining too. Sleep can be a victim of grief: it can become increasingly hard to go to and stay sleep, and for some, sleep doesn’t even feel restful. Dreams tend to amplify as you try to cope with this new reality and loved ones are often the subject of these wishful dreams, making it harder to wake up to the grim reality of their loss. Try not to get spooked by these dreams – they are your mind’s way of processing the loss, and they are helping you learn to adjust to your new reality.
In 1969, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed what she called the five stages of grief that can occur along the path to healing from a loss. In addition to elucidating the various expressions of loss, her model highlights grief as a fluid process, not a static event, that is different for everyone. Remembering that your grief will be your own unique experience can help you accept your process of healing, and be more gentle with yourself.
Grieving takes time, and goes smoothest when it has space, time, and most importantly, love. Yes, love. At its core, grief is about love. The love for your departed loved one that lives on in your heart and mind’s eye, and also the love that person had for you that also lives on in you. Showing love to yourself and others is one of the best ways to honor the love you shared with your loved one, and to facilitate your healing.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist Washington, DC Private Practice since 1999 Assistant Professor, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Washington, DC campus Member, American Psychological Association