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Understanding the Emotions of Grief

Emotions might follow a flow: shock, numbness and disbelief; experiencing the pain; acceptance.

Shock, numbness and disbelief

Mind and spirit go into shock with a severe emotional jolt.  Emily Dickinson called it, “the hour of lead”.

The first and nature response is to doubt or deny.  It’s an unconscious way of preventing emotional overload.  It helps to face the loss bit by bit as one gathers inner resources and external supports.

Numbness is also a buffer that makes it possible to do what must be done in the immediate aftermath of a personal loss:  make arrangements, take care of daily needs, attending to others.  This feeling of unreal and emotional distance is a temporary support.  Periods of clarity can weave with the inability to think, restlessness and confusion as the reality sinks it.  It’s the waffling between “I’m OK, I’m not OK” until the numbness is replaced by the strong presence of emotion.

Experience the pain.  Numbness gives way to feeling.  When grief reaches the heart, the real pain begins.  The reality of loss begins a reminder of a time that once was. Four strong emotions intertwine in endless and often troubling patterns…fears, sadness, anger and guilt.  Emotions serve their purpose and subside in time.

  • Fears come and go without warning and surface without predictability.  Fear of being alone is what motivates relationships with others.
  • Sadness is often the consuming emptiness.  Hopelessness and helplessness spill forth at unexpected times.  Enjoyment is lost, then a fleeting sensation.  Tears, though often embarrassing, are part of the healing process. Sadness redefines priorities, goals and sense of purpose.
  • Anger may be rational and focused or irrational and broad.  Feelings of irritability, bitterness, hostility and aggression are often so surprising that mourners may fear themselves on the verge of a breakdown.  Powerful energies of stress are released when issues reach a point of resolve.
  • Guilt, anger turned toward ourselves, can be disabling.  It erodes self esteem and evokes self-condemnation.  If not resolved, the healing cannot be complete.  Surprisingly, guilt is a natural response when one first begins to feel happy again after a long path of grieving.
  • Amidst all the emotional turmoil, physical and intellectual stress can add layers of complications and distractions.  There are physical complaints, emotional swings, thinking disturbances and changes in behavior.  Sleep disturbance, excess energy/lethargy, overeating/lack of appetite, confused thinking, changed behavior…Threads of stress weave together to form the fabric of mourning.

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

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