What is a Normal Grieving Process?

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Regular Symptoms of Mourning and Loss

When someone you love dies, it’s hard to tell if what you’re going through is normal, or if there’s something really wrong. In this article, we divide these symptoms or characteristics of grief into four categories:

  1. Feelings
  2. Physical Sensations
  3. Thoughts
  4. Behaviors

All of these are normal, natural reactions to death that may ebb and flow throughout the grieving process. They are not a sign of weakness. Also, everyone grieves differently — there is no right or wrong way to feel!

Normal Feelings of Grief

Many emotions are normal, and not everyone will feel the same ones. They may come like a tidal wave, or they may sit in the background. As a person works through some emotions, new ones may crop up. It’s important to lean into the feelings because the only way to heal is to feel what you feel. It is a painful and difficult task, but it gets better. Each day is different from the one before.

  • Sadness
    Sadness is the most common feeling. It’s a deep sorrow that sometimes feels hopeless and pervasive. Sadness from bereavement does not mean that you are depressed — grief and depression are not the same thing.
  • Anger
    Anger is normal. You may feel frustrated that you couldn’t prevent the death. Or maybe you are mad that you have to learn to live without them. You might feel angry that you were robbed of time and experiences with the person who died.
  • Guilt
    Guilty feelings are usually irrational and connect to something that happened around the time of the death. For example, you may feel guilty that you didn’t get your loved one better medical care, that you didn’t get them help sooner, that you didn’t say “I love you” before they died, etc.
  • Anxiety
    Anxiety can be very strong, and levels can range from a low-level insecurity to a powerful panic attack. You may fear you won’t be able to take care of yourself on your own or become more aware of your mortality. People don’t think very much about their own death until someone close to them dies.
  • Loneliness
    There’s now a hole in your life that used to be filled by an important person, and that can feel crushingly lonely.
  • Fatigue
    You may feel like you don’t care or don’t have any energy. 
  • Helplessness
    Helplessness may come in the form of feeling like you can’t handle daily tasks or take care of yourself or your family. You may also feel helpless that you couldn’t or can’t stop death.
  • Numbness
    The numbness or lack of feelings arises because you have shut yourself down in order to protect yourself from the painful flood of emotions.
  • Shock
    Shock, a feeling of complete disbelief can be especially present if the death is sudden.
  • Yearning
    As the feeling of yearning, really wishing for and wanting to be with the lost loved one lessens, it may signal that mourning is coming to an end.
  • Freedom
    A feeling of freedom may be unexpected, but is not uncommon. This can be a positive feeling if the relationship was oppressive. Having this feeling may make you feel uncomfortable, but it may be a normal response depending on the nature of the relationship.
  • Relief
    Finally, you may feel relief. This is especially true when the deceased suffered a long illness, especially if you were the primary caregiver.

“Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.”

—Earl Grollman

Normal Physical Sensations of Grief

Grief impacts your body, too! One thing I like about the book of Psalms in the Bible is the clear and poignant communication from God to us that He gets it. God has a lot of empathy for us in our pain and fully understands the all-consuming power of grief.

Common Physical Sensations Include:

  • Hollowness in the Stomach
  • Tightness in the Chest and/or Throat
  • Oversensitivity to Noise
  • A Sense that Nothing is Real (feeling like you’re in a movie of yourself)
  • Breathlessness, Feeling Short of Breath
  • Weakness in the Muscles
  • Lack of Energy
  • Dry Mouth

“Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and my body with grief.” (Psalm 31:9)

Normal Thoughts of Grief

Grief impacts the way you think. It can be hard to make sense of the new reality that death brings, and it can take some time to make sense of the shocking change that has taken place in the survivor’s life.

Survivors May Experience:

  • Disbelief
    Often the first thought people have after learning of the death. You can’t believe it’s real and wonder if the news is a dream.
  • Confusion
    The inability to organize thoughts; difficulty concentrating.
  • Preoccupation
    Thinking obsessively about the deceased, including how to get the deceased back.
  • Sense of Presence
    Feeling like your loved one is somehow still there. This can be especially true just after the death.
  • Hallucinations
    Sometimes the survivor sees or hears the deceased, and this doesn’t mean that there’s something badly wrong with them. This experience usually happens within a few weeks after the loss.

“How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:2)

Normal Behaviors of Grief

Rest assured that the following behaviors are normal and usually go away with time.

  • Sleep Disturbances
    You may have difficulty going to sleep, or you may wake up too early. Sleep problems can be the result of a fear of dreaming, a fear of being in bed alone, or a fear of not waking up.
  • Appetite Disturbances
    Overeating and under-eating. Under-eating is more common.
  • Absent-Minded Behavior
  • Social Withdrawal
    This includes withdrawing from friends who invite you too often to do too much. You don’t want to keep saying “no,” so you withdraw more. It may also look like loss of interest in the outside world.
  • Dreams of the Deceased
    It is common to have both normal and distressing dreams or nightmares.
  • Avoiding Reminders of the Deceased
    For example, you might put away all pictures of the deceased. Getting rid of all the things associated with the deceased quickly after the loss could lead to complicated grief.
  • Searching and Calling Out
    You may call out the deceased’s name or say something like, “come back to me!”
  • Sighing
  • Restless Overactivity
    You may find ways to constantly stay busy or constantly look for a way to find relief from restlessness. If this behavior describes you, take a moment to examine yourself to see if you are avoiding your feelings.
  • Crying
    Tears relieve emotional distress. Find uninterrupted time and let the tears flow.
  • Visiting places or carrying objects that remind the survivor of the deceased
    This may help you feel close to your loved one. You may also be afraid of losing the memory of their loved one.
  • Treasuring Objects that Belonged to the Deceased
    Wearing clothing or jewelry that belonged to the deceased can help you feel connected to your loved one.

Has Someone You Love Died?

Make an Appointment with Watershed Counseling

If someone you love has died, you may be going through many of these symptoms of grief. Counseling can help put words on your thoughts and feelings. You can get a better sense of what to expect as you go through your journey of grief. Grief is a process and a journey, and it does get better.

If you feel stuck or want a little extra help with your grief, Caty Coffey would be happy to meet with you. Contact her to make your first appointment or call the Watershed Counseling office at (601) 362-7020.

Other Grief Resources

  • GriefShare: a 13-week group program that helps grieving people lean into their grief and heal from their pain.
  • Wendt Center: General information about grief and mourning.
  • Hello Grief: An online community to share and learn about grief and loss.