“There is no right response to death. You make it up as you go along.” – Joan Connor
On your journey through the wilderness of your grief, a critical trail marker to be on the watch for is Touchstone Four, which guides you in exploring your many and varied feelings of loss. Actually, this fourth touchstone colors all the others, because your emotions shape what each of the other touchstones feels like for you.
As strange as your emotions may seem, they are a true expression of where you are right now. Rather than deny or feel victimized by your feelings, I want to help you learn to recognize and learn from them. Naming the feelings and acknowledging them are the first steps to dealing with them. It’s actually through this process of becoming friendly with your feelings that will help you heal.
My goal in this touchstone is to help you see how normal your grief thoughts, feelings and behaviors are. I have worked with thousands of grieving people and they have taught me about many, many different thoughts and feelings after a death. Rest assured that whatever you are thinking and feeling, while in one sense your thoughts and feelings are completely unique to you, they are also usually a common human response to loss.
Shock, numbness, denial and disbelief
“It feels like a dream,” people in early grief often say. “I feel like I might wake up and none of this will have happened.” They also say, “I was there, but yet I really wasn’t. I managed to do what needed to be done but I didn’t feel a part of it.”
Thank goodness for shock, numbness and disbelief! Other words that mourners use to describe their initial grief experience are dazed and stunned. These feelings are nature’s way of temporarily protecting you from the full reality of the death. They help insulate you psychologically until you are more able to tolerate what you don’t want to believe. In essence, these feelings serve as a “temporary time-out” or a “psychological shock absorber.”
Especially in the beginning of your grief journey, your emotions need time to catch up with what your mind has been told. On one level, you know the person is dead. But on other, deeper levels, you are not yet able or willing to truly believe it. This mixture of shock, numbness and disbelief acts as an anesthetic: The pain exists, but you may not experience it fully. Typically, a physiological component also accompanies feelings of shock. Your autonomic nervous system is affected and may cause heart palpitations, queasiness, stomach pain and dizziness.
You may find yourself hysterically crying, having angry outbursts, or even laughing or fainting. These are all normal and necessary responses that help you survive right now. Unfortunately, some people may try to squelch these behaviors, believing them to be hysterical or out-of-control. They may try to “quiet you” in an effort to feel more comfortable themselves. But this is an out-of-control, uncomfortable time for you. Trying to “control” yourself would mean suppressing your instinctive response to the loss. Don’t do it. Remember—your needs are the priority right now, not theirs. Do what you need to do to survive.
During your time of shock, you may not remember specific words being spoken to you. Your mind is blocking; it hears but does not listen. Although you may not remember some, or any, of the words other people are telling you, you may well remember that you felt comforted. Their nonverbal presence is probably more important to you than any words they might say.
Even after you have moved beyond the shock, numbness and disbelief, don’t be surprised if these feelings resurface. Birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions that may only be known to you often trigger your shock that this person you loved so very much is no longer there to share these days with.
Denial is one of the most misunderstood aspects of the grief journey. Temporarily, denial, like shock and numbness, is a great gift. It helps you survive. However, your denial should soften over time as you mourn and as you acknowledge, slowly and in doses, that the person you loved is truly dead. While denial is helpful—even necessary—early in your grief, ongoing denial clearly blocks the path to healing. If you cannot accept the reality of the death, you can never mourn it.
Usually in grief, denial goes on at one level of awareness while acknowledgment of the reality of the death goes on at another level. Your mind may approach and retreat from the reality of the death over and over again as you try to embrace and integrate the meaning of the death into your life. This back-and-forth process is normal. I describe it as “Evade <—> Encounter.” The key is not to get stuck on evade.
Disorganization, confusion, searching, yearning
Perhaps the most isolating and frightening part of your grief journey is the sense of disorganization, confusion, searching and yearning that often comes with the loss. These feelings frequently arise when you begin to be confronted with the reality of the death. As one mourner told me, “I felt as if I were a lonely traveler with no companion and worse yet, no destination. I couldn’t find myself or anybody else.”
This dimension of grief may give rise to the “going crazy syndrome.” Mourners often say, “I think I’m going crazy.” That’s because in grief, thoughts and behaviors are different from what you normally experience. If you feel disorganized and confused, know that you are not going crazy, you are grieving.
After the death of someone loved, you may feel a sense of restlessness, agitation, impatience and ongoing confusion. It’s like being in the middle of a wild, rushing river where you can’t get a grasp on anything. Disconnected thoughts race through your mind, and strong emotions may be overwhelming.
You may express disorganization and confusion in your inability to complete tasks. You may start to do something but never finish. You may feel forgetful and ineffective, especially early in the morning and late at night, when fatigue and lethargy are most prominent. Everyday pleasures may not seem to matter anymore.
You also may experience a restless searching for the person who has died. Yearning and preoccupation with memories can leave you feeling drained. You might even experience a shift in perception; other people may begin to look like the person in your life who died. You might be at a shopping mall, look down a hallway and think you see the person you loved so much. Or you might see a familiar car whiz past and find yourself following the car in hopes that the person who died is inside. Sometimes you might think you hear the garage door open and the person entering the house as he or she had done so many times before. If these experiences are happening to you, remember—you’re not crazy!
Visual hallucinations occur so frequently that they can’t be considered abnormal. I personally prefer the term “memory picture” to hallucination. As part of your searching and yearning when you’re in grief, you may not only experience a sense of the dead person’s presence, but you also may have fleeting glimpses of the person across the room.
You may also dream about the person who died. Dreams can be an unconscious means of searching for this person. Be careful not to over-interpret your dreams. Simply remain open to learning from them. If the dreams are pleasant, embrace them; if they are disturbing, find someone who’ll understand to talk to about them.
Other common experiences during this time include difficulties eating and sleeping. You may experience a loss of appetite, or find yourself overeating. Even when you do eat, you may be unable to taste the food. Having trouble falling asleep and early morning awakening are also common experiences associated with this dimension of grief.
And finally, keep in mind that disorganization following loss always comes before any kind of re-organization. While it may seem strange, feelings of disorganization, confusion, searching and yearning are actually steppingstones on your path toward healing.
Anxiety, panic, fear
Feelings of anxiety, panic, and fear also may be a part of your grief experience. You may ask yourself, “Am I going to be OK? Will I survive this? Will my life have any purpose without this person?” These questions are natural. Your sense of security has been threatened, so you are naturally anxious.
As your head and heart miss the person who was a part of your life, panic may set it. Feelings of anxiety and fear often elicit thoughts about “going crazy.” If you begin to think you are “abnormal,” your level of fear may also increase.
A variety of thoughts and situations can increase your anxiety, panic and fear. For example, you may be afraid of what the future holds or that other people in your life will die soon. You may be more aware of your own mortality, which can be scary. You may feel vulnerable, even unable to survive, without the person who died. You may feel panicky about your inability to concentrate. Financial problems can compound feelings of anxiety.
Your sleep might be affected by fear at this time. Fears of overwhelming, painful thoughts and feelings that can come up in dreams may cause you difficulty with sleeping. Or you may be afraid of being alone again in bed when you are not used to sleeping by yourself. Again, these are natural, but usually temporary, ways that fear can be part of your grief.
While unpleasant, anxiety, panic and fear are often normal components of the grief experience. The good news is that expressing them can help make them feel more tolerable. And knowing that they are temporary may help you during this trying time.
Anger, hate, blame, terror, resentment, rage, and jealousy are explosive emotions that may be a volatile yet natural part of your grief journey. It helps to understand that all these feelings are, at bottom, a form of protest. Think of the toddler whose favorite toy is yanked out of his hands. This toddler wants the toy; when it’s taken, his instinctive reaction may be to scream or cry or hit. When someone loved is taken from you, your instinctive reaction may be much the same.
Explosive emotions may surface at any time when someone you have loved dies. You cry out in anguish, “How could this happen? This isn’t fair! I hate this!” You may direct these emotions at the person who died, at friends and family members, at doctors, at people who haven’t experienced loss, at God.
Unfortunately, our society doesn’t understand how normal and necessary these feelings can be. Demonstrating emotional hurts is judged as wrong. The implicit message is that you should try to “keep it together.” When you’re raging or terrified, others may get upset. The intensity of your own emotions may even upset you. Still, you must give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel and to express those feelings. If you collaborate with the well-intentioned but misinformed people around you, your body, mind and spirit will probably be damaged in the process.
Some people may tell you that explosive emotions are not logical. “Anger won’t bring him back,” they might say. “He didn’t mean to die, so don’t be mad at him.” Watch out. You might find yourself buying into this rational thinking. That’s just the problem—thinking is logical; feeling is not.
Another problem is that people oversimplify explosive emotions by talking only about anger. Actually, you may experience a whole range of intense feelings such as those listed above. Underneath these emotions are usually feelings of pain, helplessness, fear and hurt.
If explosive emotions are part of your journey (and they aren’t for everyone), be aware that you have two avenues for expression—outward or inward. The outward avenue leads to healing; the inward avenue does not. Keeping your explosive emotions inside leads to low self-esteem, depression, guilt, physical complaints and sometimes even persistent thoughts of suicide.
Experiencing explosive emotions is normal. They should, however, change in intensity and duration as you do the work of mourning. Again, I want to emphasize that the key is finding someone who will help you understand what you are feeling and allow you to embrace your grief. Remember—you can’t go around your grief, or over it, or under it—you must go through it. I hope that as you journey through grief you will be surrounded by people who understand, support, and love you and will help you explore your explosive emotions without trying to stifle you.