What It Feels Like to Lose a Loved One: What They Don’t Tell You About Grief

sad lady by the sunset

It’s an unfortunate reality just how ill-prepared we are individually and as a society when supporting the people we love through profound grief.

Grieving process

If you have ever lost a family member, friend or partner, in that case, you’ll likely be familiar with the various emotions, experiences and challenges that follow after the death of a loved one.

This article will explore the true nature of grief, the losses that often occur within a loss, what you can expect after losing a loved one and how to cope.

Platitudes

In the aftermath of loss, grieving people often receive unwanted platitudes, the kind of sentences that almost always start with the words ” at least”.

“At least your loved one is no longer in pain.”

“At least they are no longer suffering.”

“At least you have some great memories with your mum, dad, spouse, and so forth.”

If you’ve ever endured the death of a loved one, you’ll likely be familiar with the above terms.

In acute grief, such terms may feel like a prickly thorn grating against your bare skin, and you may wonder why you cannot find comfort from those you expected it from the most.

Talking to someone about your feelings

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You may find it hard to open up about your feelings and how your loss affects you, and you may feel that those around you are doing all they can to “blue sky” you out of your grief.

Many non-grievers are unaware that talking with mourners about their loved ones can relieve the unrelenting pain and torture of the person’s absence.

The above helps keep their loved one’s memory alive and allows grievers the space to process all that has happened in the aftermath of their death.

Feelings of grief

Although likely spirited with good intention, platitudes speak only to the intellect, not to the heart; they rarely offer comfort to grievers.

However, you may find that most people will reel off a list of platitudes after the death of a loved one, and you may find yourself feeling hurt or confused or like you are going crazy.

Of course, a loved one no longer suffering is a great thing.

However, your suffering feels never-ending, an avalanche of physical, mental and emotional ups and downs that can wreak havoc on the nervous system, causing many problems you never anticipated.

Grief journey

Those who have never experienced grief and loss often assign specific emotions such as sadness and intense sorrow to the litany of grief symptoms.

Although such emotions are expected after the death of a loved one, many grievers encounter other thoughts and feelings that are a normal part of the grieving process.

Symptoms

mental health disorders file concept

After losing a loved one, you may experience symptoms such as:

  • Numbness
  • Feelings of emptiness
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Fears you never had before
  • Flashbacks related to the death, e.g., if a loved one was sick for a long time or the death was traumatic in some way.
  • Loss of faith, religion or beliefs
  • Social withdrawal and isolation
  • Dissociation
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Depression and anxiety
  • A sense that nobody gets you or understands your experience
  • Loneliness
  • A loss of support from friends and family (secondary losses)
  • Relationship struggles or the ending of significant relationships
  • Physical health problems such as skin disorders, stomach issues, unexplained body aches and pains, and other health complaints
  • Substance abuse to cope with feelings of grief

What it feels like to lose a loved one; what they don’t tell you about grief

Inherently, grief is much more than sadness and longing, and you may feel overwhelmed by countless other feelings and emotions in your body as your grief evolves.

The way we grieve

Each of us experiences grief differently; the way we grieve is as unique as the relationship we had with the person who died and having to say goodbye to that person forever ultimately changes that relationship and how we feel about ourselves and the world around us.

Sense of self

The people in our lives shape our sense of self; our parents, siblings, partners, friends and co-workers all play a role in shaping our identity.

When someone you love dies, your old identity shifts somewhat as you navigate a new world without your loved one – when changes like this occur, many other things slip away and get replaced by new perceptions, ideas and beliefs.

We can classify the effects of grief into the following thoughts, feelings and behaviours.

How you may think and reflect

signs psychosis sad man by the stairs

Many grievers experience changes in how they think and remember their lost loved one after a bereavement.

Such changes may occur before the loss (anticipatory grief), where the death of a loved one is expected, or after a loved one has died.

Many grievers may experience:

  • Worries about how they will cope with the loss
  • Anger at the person for leaving them
  • Ruminating over what they could or should have done to prevent the loss
  • Thoughts about how life is going to change and how things will be different
  • Remembering conversations or arguments with a deceased loved one
  • Flashbacks and nightmares
  • Joyous or happy memories
  • Hearing or seeing their loved one

The emotions you may feel.

Grievers can feel various emotions and physical sensations after losing a loved one.

Such an experience involves physical and emotional symptoms, such as:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Numbness
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Yearning
  • Irritability
  • Pain
  • Heartache
  • Shock
  • Disbelief
  • Struggling to sleep
  • Unable to eat
  • Loss of memory
  • Regret
  • Tiredness
  • Peace
  • Relief
  • Contentment

How you might behave

After a loss, you may find that you behave differently from how you did before your loss occurred.

Such behaviours may seem confusing at first, and you may wonder why you act or feel the way you do about certain things. You may:

  • Avoid all reminders of your lost loved one
  • Avoid being with friends, family and other people
  • Avoid being alone
  • Not feel like getting up out of bed
  • Carry on as if nothing has changed
  • Ruminate, dwell or go over the details of the death and your loved one
  • Distract yourself
  • Engage in risky behaviours
  • Drink alcohol or take drugs to cope with feelings of grief
  • Tell other people that you are fine
  • Look at photographs of your loved one
  • Search through their belongings and look in old drawers and wardrobes
  • Stop doing the things you once did

Managing losses within a loss

CFHH Mood Disorder Window

The grieving process is dynamic and involves much more than just a series of stages – grief impacts your entire life and may create a tumult of experiences and challenges, some tougher than others.

You may find that you experience many losses after a loved one dies.

Mourning

Other intangible losses may follow throughout the grieving process. Coming to terms with your loved ones’ absence will take time, but what may be less anticipated is the experience of other losses within a loss, such as:

  • The loss of a shared future together – such as plans, dreams and hopes you may have had for the future
  • The loss of your shared social life – can mean the friends and family you acquired when your loved one was alive.
  • Secondary losses – you may find that your friends and family cannot offer you the level of support you need to process your grief; hence many people find that significant relationships come to an end after losing a loved one.
  • You may grieve everything your loved one did for you and vice versa – they may have helped out with finances or did certain things around the house.

What other factors impact how a person grieves?

Certain factors may impact how a person grieves – not all losses are the same, and not everyone grieves similarly.

Researchers say that specific factors can affect how a person grieves, such as:

  • The death of a loved one occurring suddenly or unexpectedly – In situations where a person loses a loved one suddenly, i.e., through a medical event or because of an accident or suicide, the individual will likely be consumed with disbelief and shock as the mind and body process what has happened.
  • A traumatic or violent death – This may involve a violent death or a loved one dying by suicide – in such cases; there may be significant layers of grief and shock.
  • An expected or anticipated death – Under these circumstances, the person may know their loved one will pass after a long-term illness. Such a death has a profound impact despite being somewhat anticipated, and many people may grieve long before their loved one dies or when they find out about the illness.

Other factors

Studies suggest that additional factors may impact how you grieve, including other peoples’ reactions to the loss, the type of relationship you had with the person who died, and the other things going on in your life.

Complicated grief

There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to the grieving process. Likewise, there is no timeline or schedule for how and when a person grieves and when the pain of loss should be less debilitating.

However, some peoples’ grief seems to follow a different trajectory than what is experienced in typical or “normal” grief.

Mental health experts call such a bereavement experience “Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder” or “Prolonged Grief.”

Since we all grieve so differently, there is no way to quantify what is expected and what isn’t in grief.

Integrating the loss

However, experts look at complex grief and consider the intensity of grief reactions that continue to be unbearable and ongoing for much longer than expected.

Typically, most grievers can integrate the loss into their lives after a certain period.

Researchers explain that ”normal” grief does not cause long-term impairment and dysfunction. Although these are predominant features in early grief, the person somehow assimilates the loss over time.

However, in complicated grief, the person continues to experience intense reactions at an unbearable intensity.

Researchers say that a prolonged grief reaction is more likely when the loss occurred under traumatic circumstances, such as a violent or traumatic event, losing a child, or losing a loved one suddenly.

Grief recovery

Mourning the loss of a loved one is something you will have to do throughout your entire life to varying degrees.

Although losing a loved one is a lifelong process of coming to terms with their absence, the grief usually evolves and becomes more integrated with time.

Note the word ”integrated” in the above sentence – the reality is that you will always long for and miss your loved one – time may take away the initial rawness, disbelief and shock that seems so unrelenting in the beginning. Still, grief endures as long as love does.

One might say that grief and love are dual emotions; the presence of suffering emerges in the absence of what’s profoundly missing.

Inherently, grief is a symptom of love – something that must not be avoided or silenced but expressed, acknowledged, and felt to its most profound capacity.

Contact us

If you are struggling with losing a loved one or want more information about this article, contact the Centres for Health and Healing team, who can help.

Helpful resources

Lisa Davies - Program Director of Vaughan Recovery and Kirby Estate

About Lisa Davies

Lisa is the Program Director at Centres for Health and Healing. She lived for most of her life in the Durham region, before moving to Peel five years ago.

Lisa is a Master Hypnotist and is certified in Hypnotherapy (2008), Self-Hypnosis and in 5-phase Advanced Therapeutic Healing. As a Member of National Guild of Hypnotists, she is also specialized in hypnosis training in pediatrics, pain management, neuro-linguistic and stage programming.

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