1. Expect the unexpected.
Sometimes when we lose a loved one, we set expectations for ourselves around our grieving process. We think that we will feel a certain way for a certain number of weeks or months and then be done grieving. The truth is grief doesn’t abide by our expectations or the expectations of those around us. You are a unique human being. Your grief will be unique to you. The poet Alla Renee Bozarth says: “As no love is the same, no loss is.” We can say the same for grief. Our loving experiences are highly individual and so too will be our grieving experiences. While we cannot put a time cap on our grief, we can become aware of the physical, emotional and psychological aspects of grief so that we will not be left feeling isolated and “crazy” as we journey through our grief. Here are some things you should know to expect as you grieve your loss:
2. Expect to be physically and emotionally exhausted.
Grieving is the most difficult thing that you will ever do, and it is particularly hard on the body. It is common to experience difficulty sleeping, a lack of interest in eating and a weakened immune system when you are grieving. Some people even exhibit symptoms such as hives, chest tightness, nightmares and migraine headaches. It is important to tell your doctor about your loss and report any physical symptoms you may be experiencing. He or she may be able to help you find an effective medication, alter your lifestyle to reduce your symptoms, or refer you to a good grief counselor. It is also common to feel disrupted as you return to daily activities after your loss. Grieving people often report feeling less able to concentrate in the workplace and even apathetic about their careers after a loss. Workplace performance can easily decrease and some co-workers may be more understanding than others. Try to find co-workers in whom you can confide in what you are experiencing, and pay attention to your emotional energy from day to day. It may be more beneficial on anniversary dates to take a day off than to go into work.
3. Expect “grief triggers.”
It is common to experience unexpected reactions to simple, every-day events when you are grieving. For example, a woman once told me that she burst into tears opening a can of soup one evening because she realized that it was her deceased husband’s favorite brand. These moments of unexpected emotional outbursts are often referred to as “grief triggers.” The triggers can come in a variety of forms: a song played on the radio, a phone message reminding your loved one of an appointment, the smell of your loved one’s perfume. While we might find ourselves wanting to hide our pain in these moments, the emotional release that these moments bring can help us to heal. Try to surround yourself with people who will listen to your pain in these moments.
4. Expect “could haves” and “should haves.”
It is natural for individuals grieving a loss to feel as if something was left unresolved. You may, for example, feel that you did not have a chance to say good-bye to your loved one. You may have not had an opportunity to extend or receive forgiveness from your loved one. You may believe that your loved one’s death could have been prevented or that your loved one’s life could have been extended and that you were responsible for the results. It is very important to share these feelings of regret and guilt with a non-judgmental friend or professional. A good grief counselor or clergy person can help you explore ways to forgive yourself and to ask forgiveness of your loved one if that is what’s needed. Another way of addressing “could haves” and “should haves” is getting involved in your community. Volunteering and getting involved in a greater cause can help shift your focus away from the past and boost your sense of purpose. There are countless awareness groups across the country that would benefit from your experience and energy.
5. Expect existential questions.
Any kind of life loss causes us to reexamine what we believe about how the universe operates. While your faith or belief system may bring you comfort after your loss, you may also feel angry or disconnected from it. It is perfectly OK to question what you believe, and it is absolutely OK to be angry with God and the world around you. It is just important not to act out on your anger in an unhealthy way. You may find healing in being with others who are also questioning the meaning of their life losses. Locating a bereavement support group may help in that others in the group might be able to understand some of your feelings and questions.
*Remember, because your grief is unique to you, you may experience just one, all or even none of these elements. And if and when you do experience something unique to you, remember you are not going crazy. You are grieving.