Loss can come into our lives in many different forms. Loss of a loved one, loss of our health or independence, loss of dreams and hopes. We might struggle with grief related to terminal illness, divorce, the death of a beloved pet, infertility or miscarriage, or even with a devastating fire that destroys all we have.
Hopefully our losses are few and far between. But when we do experience loss, the days, weeks, months, and even years following can be very difficult to navigate. As a therapist, I work frequently with people experiencing loss. Very often people do not realize that the experiences they are having are normal. And not only normal, but healthy.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no set time limit for grief. Today I’d like to discuss some common reactions to loss. Not everybody will experience every reaction or even have the reactions in the same order. The timeline of grief is different for everybody.
The key message to take away from today’s post, if nothing else, is that there is no “wrong way” to react to a loss. Whatever you are feeling, not feeling, thinking, or doing is a legitimate response to loss. It’s OK to feel how you’re feeling.
Of course, if you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or self harm in reaction to a loss, do not act on these thoughts and contact somebody to help you right away. There is the crisis lifeline, textline, 911, or call me at (531) 289-8246.
So what are some of the ways people react to loss?
Shock or Disbelief
Often, people’s first reaction to a loss is shock. Some people describe this as a numbness or emptiness. In fact, you might not feel anything at all. Other people describe the shock as feeling in a daze, or like they’re in a dream.
Another level to the shock is frequently called “denial.” Denial can be accompanied by thoughts like “This can’t be happening,” or “These types of things don’t happen to me.” A person might continue living their life as though nothing has changed. Going to work, doing the shopping. Eventually, however, the disbelief, shock, or denial will fade and other reactions to the loss will surface.
Following a loss, some people may try to hide from others for some time. This is a defense mechanism meant to make the person feel more safe. A family might isolate by staying home and avoiding seeing other people. A child, teenager, or parent might shut themselves in their room more often. Some people start binge watching TV, reading books, or playing video games to lose themselves in another world.
Isolation in small doses can be healthy for a person, giving them the space and time needed to start healing. However, isolation can also be dangerous if too severe. By distancing ourselves, we prevent new interactions and experiences from happening that could help us heal. If a friend or loved one is isolating to an alarming degree, considering talking to them about finding a therapist.
As denial and disbelief wear off, the pain can become overwhelming and intense. One of our body’s emotional reactions to intense psychological pain is anger. Grievers may find themselves angry at the loved one who has passed, at themselves, at the situation, at God or the universe, with medical providers, or with people and life in general.
One of the most painful questions the human mind has the capacity to ask is also one of the most simple: why? Why did this happen? Once the question has been asked, our brains try to give us the answer. Through (often faulty) reasoning, the brain places blame for the pain we are feeling. And even if it is completely unreasonable, people feel anger towards the object(s) that the blame is placed on.
If we direct blame for the loss at ourselves we also might feel guilt. As humans, we like to believe that we have some degree of control over the events in our lives. To believe we have no control over our lives is a terrifying thought. So, naturally, if we believe we have control, then when things go wrong it is easy for us to blame ourselves. Even if the event was completely outside our control.
People might also feel guilty for their initial reactions to the loss – for being in shock or for feeling angry. People could feel guilty for something they said or didn’t say. For something they did or didn’t do.
To regain a sense of control over their life following a loss, people may find themselves bargaining. This can look different for different people. Some pray for God to reverse the situation, ask for the return their loved one, or make promises in attempt to prevent an inevitable loss. Others find themselves ruminating over thoughts such as “If only we had gone to the doctor sooner…” or “If only I hadn’t gone to work on that road that day…”
Depression cannot be diagnosed following a loss because the depressive symptoms are a normal reaction to loss. However, people may find themselves feeling exactly like they were experiencing a depressive episode. Depressive reactions in grief include: frequent or uncontrollable crying, deep or unending sadness, emptiness, difficulty eating enough or over-eating, insomnia or over-sleeping, loss of interest in hobbies or fun activities, and others.
Worries and anxiety may also accompany the depressive reaction. Worries about practical implications of the loss are common, such as anxiety about finances, burial costs, or even who is going to take the kids to school in the mornings now. Loss often comes with changes in daily routine and functioning, and each change can be a sharp reminder of the loss.
Many people are surprised to learn that emotional difficulties following a loss are not the only reaction to grief. Many people experience physical symptoms of grief without realizing what’s causing the problem. In fact, in some families or cultures the physical symptoms of grief are more common than emotional reactions. Common physiological reactions to loss include:
Increased susceptibility to illness
Acceptance and Hope
The beginning stages of acceptance can be scary. People often feel like acceptance is “betraying” the loved one lost. Or that acceptance means that a traumatic event was “Ok” to happen, when it was not “Ok.”
As acceptance develops, grievers come to a place of recognizing the validity of the pain felt over the loss AND that they can continue to live a meaningful life despite the loss. Acceptance is not “getting over” or “forgetting” the loss. Rather, it is more a sense of peace. Of realizing that life cannot return exactly to how it was before, but that a new life can be rebuilt that still contains joy, purpose, peace, and happiness. Acceptance brings new hope in the midst of pain.
Grievers often want to skip the other reactions to loss and jump straight to acceptance and hope. However, the only way to get to acceptance is by allowing the grief to unfold in its time. This is difficult and frustrating and may seem like peace from the pain will never come. However, trust in the process and know that there are things you can do to help the grief become processed.
The next blog will focus on ways to help you process loss and grief. Talking with a therapist that will guide and help you process can be very healing and comforting. I offer free half-hour consultations to help you determine if therapy is right for you. You can contact me at (531) 289-8246 to set up a time. I have morning, afternoon, and evening hours available.