Common Feelings of Early Grief

Just about everyone has heard about the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  You may have even had some well-meaning person hand you a pamphlet outlining these stages.

The stages of grief form a tidy little bundle of words that easily roll off the tongue.

When I was given a copy of the stages, I nodded politely and thanked the person while thinking in my head something like “ummm, wouldn’t I be experiencing a serious break with reality if I was in denial he died?  Or that I could bargain my way out of this experience altogether?” Widowhood is tough enough, especially in those first few months, without also trying to make a leap to connect metaphors!

The fact is, the stages were actually written by Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross for her book “On Death and Dying” and were meant to describe the experience of terminally ill patients … not their survivors.

No one experiences or recovers from loss in the exact same way.

We are all the sum of our individual experiences, every relationship is different and every death is different.  But the following feelings and behaviors* seem to be those most commonly felt in the earliest months:

•    Incredulousness and shock
•    A sense of everything being surreal
•    Feeling profoundly alone and like life is moving forward for everyone but you
•    Inability to concentrate
•    Pervasive sadness
•    Crying jags
•    Loss of appetite – or binge eating
•    New or unusual body aches and pains or muscle tension
•    Insomnia – or sleeping far more than usual
•    Anger and frustration
•    Second-guessing and guilt
•    Anxiety and insecurity or feelings of impending doom
•    Pessimism – especially about the future

Not everyone goes through all (or even any) of these feelings and some of us experience several of them concurrently.  Some feelings go away and then recur periodically, sometimes following huge strides in re-starting your life or during extreme stress.

I’ve expanded a little on three of the most common reactions experienced in the first few months.

Incredulousness and shock –how can this be happening to me/us????

Even if your spouse was terminally ill, it’s still a shock when they die.  The shock for those who lose their spouse to fatal medical emergencies, accidents, murder, war or suicide is exponentially greater.

It seems impossible you are never going to have another conversation.  After all, their shoes are right there, their toothbrush is in the rack, and that book they were reading is laying on the table.  You glance at “their” chair and expect to see them.

This feeling is intensely painful—sometimes even physically so.  The merciful thing is that the physical sensations mostly occur during the first few months after the death and then go away.

FOR AWARENESS:  As you continue toward building your new normal, you may revisit a more subdued version of this feeling several times.  Particularly as you move through all the ‘firsts,’ you may experience a few days of feeling like everything is ‘wrong’ all over again before you resume pulling yourself forward.

Sometimes even years later a major special event can trigger feelings of sadness and incredulity that your loved one is not there to share in the joy (i.e. “I can’t believe X isn’t here to see Y”).  This is very different though and the feeling is far more fleeting – often lasting no more than a few minutes.

Anger and frustration – at yourself, at your dead spouse, at friends, at family, at strangers and at the world in general.

In many ways, this is probably the stage that feels the most uncomfortable since we are often taught that anger is a wrong and petty emotion.  I say:  go ahead and be angry because this experience sucks!

It can, and often does, feel like Job and Sisyphus had it easy by comparison!  From household catastrophe’s to learning new tasks to changing relationships to failed attempts to gain some forward motion, life itself can become a daily exercise in irritation and disappointment.

BUT – be careful where you spew that anger and frustration and try to avoid becoming bitter.  You are not likely to always feel this way (unless you really want to stay stuck in this dark place).  Those friends, coworkers and family members who say stupid things to you?  Unless they were nasty people before, it’s likely that what they are is clueless – not evil.

It can be helpful to vent your harsh words at a piece of paper or a computer screen.  Or to have that angry conversation in your head, maybe while taking a walk outside since physical exercise can help relieve stress.  I know someone who actually yelled and beat on a pillow—she likened it to when her kids were small and had tantrums and felt like it stopped her from taking out her frustration on others.

FOR AWARENESS:  If anger starts to take over your life, consider seeing a licensed counselor or therapist, even for just a couple of sessions.  Sometimes we just need an objective ear to vent our anger to and they can help you find a way to acknowledge and reframe your anger.

Second-guessing, playing the ‘what if?’ game and feeling guilty for actions, inactions, or for feeling relief (particularly after a spouse’s long illness).

You start questioning every single decision and conversation prior to and after your spouse’s death.  What if I didn’t sign that DNR?  Why didn’t I make him see a doctor?  What if we had followed the Mediterranean diet?  What did I do wrong?  The list of things to feel guilty about and second-guess yourself on is endless.

This is something many of us do in every aspect of our life, it’s human nature.  We live in an instant-replay society.  Triumphs and defeats, glory and shame, it’s all there to rewind and replay over and over. But revisiting these situations repeatedly doesn’t change the outcome … and can cause you to get stuck in an endless, painful loop.

FOR AWARENESS:  As with anger, if you find yourself starting to ruminate too much and it starts to preoccupy your thoughts, a licensed counselor or therapist may be helpful in helping you find a way to break the pattern.

* Some of these things can also be signs of serious, clinical depression.  The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) reports that nearly 7% of the population suffers from clinical depression each year.  If it’s been more than a few months since the death, if you are not taking care of yourself, or if you are finding it harder and harder to participate in life, make an appointment with your doctor.  Clinical depression is a serious illness that may require medication and/or therapy.

Here is a link to the Mayo Clinic’s page on depression.

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