What to Expect with Grief

For many people, grief is more than just feeling sad.  There are a wide range of physical and emotional grief symptoms beyond those we might be familiar with.  It is important to remember that everyone grieves in their own way, and while you might share some of these common symptoms of grief, you may not necessarily experience all of them.  

NOTE: Please remember that within one family or circle of friends, grieving for the same person will be different for everyone at any given time.  While one person may feel sadness and loss, another in the same house may be going through anger for the loved one leaving.  Be gentle with yourself and others around you during this time.

Emotional Grief Symptoms

When we think about the symptoms of grief, it is usually the emotional response that probably first comes to mind.  When we experience serious loss, we often feel a very deep sadness.  Many people also experience some of these additional emotional grief symptoms:

  • guilt and remorse
  • shock and numbness
  • anger
  • feeling lonely or abandoned
  • fear and anxiety
  • relief
  • feeling that you are going cray
  • feeling like you can't control your emotions

It is not uncommon to feel contradictory emotions, like isolating yourself while feeling lonely.  You might be angry at the person who died but are relieved that they are no longer suffering, then feel guilty for your anger or relief.  If you feel like you can't control your emotions, talk to someone who can help.  Seek out a close friend, a professional counselor, a support group or clergy.  Often when we grieve, we fear that people will judge us or question our reactions.  Look for support.  And, there is no "wrong way" to grieve.  Whatever you are feeling is a valid, appropriate emotion.

Physical Grief Symptoms

Additionally, many people have a physical reaction to loss.  You may feel some of all of the following:

  • insomnia
  • headache and muscle pains
  • stomach ache and nausea
  • restlessness
  • difficulty breathing and chest pain
  • confusion and the inability to concentrate
  • increase in blood pressure
  • weakened immune system

A number of studies have been done on how grief affects the heart.  Research indicates that people are at a higher risk of heart attack in the days following a loss.  In addition, the stress of grief can cause a cardiomyopathy known as "broken heart syndrome" which is a weakening of the left ventricle.  This is treatable and most patients recover over time.  SEEK MEDICAL ATTENTION if you are ever having difficulty breathing with or without chest pain, and if you are having chest pain with or without difficulty breathing.

Delayed Grief Symptoms

This type of grief is a delayed reaction to loss.  In many cases, delayed grief symptoms are similar to the previous two types, they just take place months or even years after the loss.  People may feel like they need to be strong for others after a death, so they don't allow themselves to mourn.  They may suddenly feel the grief months later when the situation has calmed and seemingly been handled.

Complicated Grief Symptoms

Also known as prolonged grief disorder complicated grief is characterized by heightened, ongoing feelings of grief that last typically six months or longer.  Other symptoms include:

  • feelings of numbness or apathy
  • the inability to thing about anything other than the deceased
  • being unable to think about any positive experiences with the deceased
  • deep bitterness, anger, and irritability
  • intense sorrow and longing for the loved one who passed away
  • being unable to find any meaning in life

Complicated grief often requires professional treatment.  If you or someone you know does not seem to be able to move on several months after a loss and no longer is able to carry out normal activities, it's time to ask for help.  

If you have an urgent need, you can speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.  Call 911 if you feel like you are going to hurt yourself or someone else.