Loss is a confusing time. Practically speaking, you’re dealing with the everyday tumultuous changes brought about by the loss of your loved one. And emotionally, the confusing turmoil of grief may even make you question your sanity while you’re grieving.
Although research supports the idea that avoiding difficult emotions is a natural and adaptive response in small doses, studies have found that chronic, prolonged periods of avoidance of grief-related emotions only makes things more difficult. Suppression of grief-related emotions actually increases the activation of these emotions, and leads to poorer concentration and functioning, as well as recurrent intrusive thoughts in the future.
Several emotions are common to the grief process, and it’s helpful to watch for these emotions and embrace them while grieving, according to grief expert Alan Wolfelt, PhD, founder of The Center for Loss & Life Transition. Wolfelt also recommends some positive steps to take (and also ones to avoid) for each.
Shock & numbness
Feelings of shock and numbness are normal feelings and serve as the bridge that carry you from the tragedy to the next step of each day.
- Do: Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Remember, you’re delicate right now, so treat yourself kindly.
- Don’t: Reject offered support. Now is not the time to isolate. Let other people take care of you during this time.
Disorganization & confusion
Don’t be surprised if you feel scattered and disorganized. Feelings of confusion and disorientation are normal after a loss. Sometimes, day-to-day tasks such as self-care (bathing, dressing, eating, etc.) can seem too complex to coordinate.
- Do: Make written lists of priority tasks, and talk to others about confusing thoughts. Take things one step at a time and find allies to help you sort confusing thoughts and details. Remember, people want to help.
- Don’t: Make unnecessary commitments or make critical decisions. Your mind is on overload, which means it can’t process difficult decisions. Avoid making important decisions until things have settled.
Strong emotions may seem to “explode” from you at unexpected times for unwarranted reasons. These types of explosive emotions – anger, hate, blame, terror, resentment, rage and jealousy – are normal, and their intense expression is normal, too. Think of it as your psyche’s way of making space for the healthier emotions that underlie them – pain, helplessness, frustration, fear and hurt – to express themselves in healthy ways.
- Do: Express these emotions outwardly in ways that don’t harm others. Doing so will lead to healing. Find a compassionate listener or engage in physical activities.
- Don’t: Bottle up. Keeping difficult emotions like these inside leads to low self-esteem, depression, guilt, physical complaints, and sometimes even persistent thoughts of suicide.
It’s natural to live this part of your life looking backward, and hindsight is always 20/20. There will always be “should-have’s,” but dwelling on them will do nothing to help you in the present moment or the future.
- Do: Focus on self-compassion. Find self affirmations and repeat them to yourself when you start to run through the memory reels of past regrets.
- Don’t: Allow others to explain away your feelings. Find a listener who doesn’t instantly dismiss your feelings of guilt.
Sadness and depression can make grieving people feel isolated and alone. Depression is normal while you’re grieving, but it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes normal can slide its way into something more. If your depression isn’t softening over time, if you can’t function in your daily life, and if you feel a pervasive sense of worthlessness and hopelessness, it’s time to seek help. The Center for Loss and Transition has helpful tools for finding a grief therapist. Grief therapists are counselors specifically trained in grief support and recovery.
- Do: Talk to others and express yourself in other ways, too. Talking with others will keep you connected to community. Paint, sing, dance—do anything that makes you feel you can express your pain in your own way.
- Don’t: Hold back tears. Crying is nature’s antidepressant. It activates that calming part of our nervous system and reduces pain (physical and emotional) through the release of oxytocin and endogenous opioids, also known as endorphins.
Remember, regardless of what your emotion may be in the moment, realizing you’re not your emotions – and avoiding the tendency to label them as “good” or “ bad” – will go a long way in helping you heal.
Try to find “…a place to be quiet and alone with your thoughts and feelings,” Wolfelt recommends. “In these moments of solitude, learn to check in with yourself about the death. Ask yourself, ‘What am I thinking about feeling right now about this loss?’ Allow your thoughts and feelings to surface without judgment. Look your grief in the face and say hello to it.”