Reactions to Loss
For weeks, months, or even years after the death of a loved one occurs,
the shock of loss continues in a wave of disbelieving aftershocks. The
process is a gradual one of weaning and disconnection. “Forgetting”
that your loved one is gone, you may find yourself setting an extra
place at the dinner table, expecting your loved one to walk in the door
at the usual hour or to be on the other end of the line when the
telephone rings. And each time it happens, you’re confronted once
again with the brutal reality that your loved one is forever gone. Denial
is a defense against that brutal reality. It blunts the impact of the
loss, offers you a temporary respite and allows you to process those
overwhelming feelings more gradually. On one level you recognize that
your loved one has died; on another level you’re unable to grasp all
the ramifications of that reality.
As the fog of shock and denial begins to lift, you will find yourself
headed into the very heart of grief, and you’ll become painfully aware
of how very much you have lost. An entire gamut of feelings washes over
you in overwhelming waves of sorrow. You are flooded with intense, raw
feelings of anguish, sadness and fear as you realize that life will
never, ever be the same. You may be flooded with questions: Why did this
happen to me? How will I be able to go on? How will I be able to face
the future without this person? When will I get myself together?
The sorrow of grief saps your energy, making even simple tasks like
getting out of bed in the morning, tending to personal grooming, fixing
a meal or going somewhere with friends seem overwhelming and exhausting.
You may feel negative and critical toward everything and everyone,
including yourself. Even in the company of others you may still feel
lonely, and may prefer to avoid gatherings of any size.
You may be flooded with bittersweet memories: all the things you would
have, could have, or should have said and done, and now will never be
able to say or do. You may have difficulty concentrating and
remembering, and feel incapable of making the simplest decision. You may
experience nightmares, dreams, and phobias, and you may fear that
you’re going crazy.
You may find yourself crying at the slightest provocation or at
unexpected moments. On the other hand, you may fear that if you show
your sadness, there will be no end to it— that if you permit yourself
to cry the tears will never stop. As a child you may have been taught
that crying is a sign of weakness, and strong people (especially men)
don’t cry. If it is the style of some in your family to be strong and
silent in front of others, you may have to accept it and allow for it.
Nevertheless, it is far better to let the tears come, and welcome them
as a natural and helpful form of release. When you permit yourself to
let go for a time and release what you feel, you’ll be better able to
function afterward. And get rid of the notion that you’re crying too
much; there is no such thing. It is physically impossible for anyone to
cry 24 hours a day. Let others (especially children) see you cry. It
shows them that you care deeply about the person who died, and reassures
them that it’s all right to express sad feelings in front of others.
You may have the pessimistic belief that things will never get any
better, as if life and living are useless, and you may even want to die.
Be aware that thoughts of suicide are not unusual when you’re grieving.
It is difficult for you to imagine life without your loved one, and you
may feel a compelling need to join or to be with the person who has died.
Nevertheless, there is a vast difference between thinking about suicide
and acting upon such thoughts. In grief, thoughts of suicide are usually
fleeting and reflect how desperately you want the pain of loss to end.
Coping with Emotional Reactions
Copyright © by Martha M. Tousley,
RN, MS, FT, DCC All