Am I grieving? If you ask this question, the answer is probably yes. There’s an excellent chance that even if you’re NOT asking the question, the answer is probably yes, too. Grief applies to so many situations.
“While grief can result from a variety of situations, ranging from divorce and separation to traumatic injury or illness, probably the most difficult and heart-wrenching circumstance to deal with is the loss of a loved one through death.
“According to US government statistics, approximately thirty-six percent of the population is grieving at any given time. Grief associated with this type of loss is devastating for family and friends. This type of grief is a profound and all too often devastating experience for family members who are left behind. If left unchecked, grief can quickly turn into a deep depression and other serious psychological disorders.” —THERAVIVE, grief counseling
(Note that the above quote was written in 2019, BEFORE the global pandemic. The numbers are most likely much higher currently).
People generally think of grief as applying only after the death of a loved one. However, grief is a reaction to loss of something (or someone) that was meaningful to the person who lost it. That includes death, divorce, or other loss of relationship; loss of career; financial loss/issues; bankruptcy; loss of health, dementia and other ambiguous loss (the person may still be alive, but physically or psychologically absent); relocation, death or loss of pets; miscarriages; loss of routine/structure and other pandemic-related losses; retirement; death of an ex-partner; really anything perceived as loss of something/someone valued.
People also tend to think that grief looks like sadness and depression. Withdrawing, moping about, crying and sighing a lot, staying in a dark room without doing much all day long. It certainly CAN look like that, for some people, some of the time. It can also look like screaming, flailing limbs, wailing, lashing out, hitting things and looking very out of control, often in the beginning, upon discovery of the death, when grief is in an acute phase. Neither of these captures the whole picture. Each person’s grief experience is as unique as a fingerprint, with a highly individual timeline and journey.
Grief and mourning are two different things. Mourning is what is seen on the outside, the face and behavior presented to the outside world. Grief is what is felt and experienced on the inside, in private. These may be radically different. You may not see much of a reaction at all- stony-faced stoicism. Or you may see someone quick to anger at the slightest provocation—or without ANY provocation. Irritability, frustration, anger, worry, panic can all be symptoms.
There may be cognitive, behavioral, physical, emotional, spiritual symptoms. You may experience restlessness, akathesia (that feeling like you’re about to jump out of your skin), anxiety, worry, panic, physical pain that may either remain in one spot or move/travel around your body. You may feel scattered, disorganized, confused, easily frustrated, irritable, short-fused, quick to rage, overwhelmed, have no enthusiasm for anything, can’t sleep or sleeping way more than usual; increased or decreased appetite; wanting to shut everything and everyone out or retreat.
You may seek out help and support and then sometimes reject it, often angrily. Or grieving may look like throwing yourself into work or hobbies to distract yourself from how you feel. It may be that when you have quiet time, you feel a flood of emotions and it seems as though they’ll never stop—like you’ll cry forever. (You won’t). You may lose interest in things you usually enjoy. There’s a great deal of overlap between depression and grief. Grief in fact isn’t one emotion, it is many, often conflicting emotions and often all at once in a tangled ball. Often in waves, or “grief attacks” or “grief bursts.”
Grief taxes your immune system. I’ve had many people tell me “I didn’t used to get sick and now I seem to catch one thing after another!” You may feel like you’re “going crazy.” That’s actually normal. Because we’re comparing ourselves to how we were BEFORE loss(es) to how we are now, after loss. And we’re not the same person. It’s also unfair to compare how we are now to how others appear to be handling their lives and losses. This is because grief (and lives) and so highly unique to each person. It’s not a competition and there are no awards for “best at grief.”
You may experience confusion. I’ve had folks tell me “I got lost in my own neighborhood that I’ve lived in for years/decades!” Brain fog is a big one. It’s because our brains are affected by grief. It activates the pain and stress systems. We can’t engage our executive functioning. It’s like the brain has gone offline.
We’re in survival mode in grief. Pain and social bonding are connected. We literally feel physical pain alongside loss. These systems sit on top of one another in the brain. We are essentially looking for reunification with the lost person or thing—which is often not possible. These systems can be activated even when we lose something voluntarily, like leaving a relationship or moving. Those situations still come with losses that must be grieved.
Some of the best things you can do is to seek (and accept) support from people who won’t ally with your own inner critic. Exercise is also helpful. Journaling or other means of self-expression can help with processing after loss. Do all the things you can to improve your physical and mental health and wellbeing. Engage in activities that are meaningful to you—which may be the same activities you’ve previously enjoyed or may be new ones.
It is a universal human experience to endure losses: moving, divorce, changes in friendships and other relationships, and of course, death of our beloved pets and in our inner circle, all of which usher in a host of other “secondary losses.” Time on its own will not heal. It’s what you do with the time. Finding—and perhaps learning to accept—comfort and support in your community, finding meaning, going through your own journey of grief.