our society, many people struggle to determine if their grief after a loss is normal. After all, we don’t get to see other people grieve. Most people don’t grieve publicly and often feel they have to hide their grief in social situations, like at work. In fact, there’s almost an expectation in our society that you should be able to just pull yourself together, even after a large loss.
But it hasn’t always been this way. In the past, a widow might wear black for a year. You might wear a lock of hair in a necklace to mark your status as a bereaved parent. Grieving was allowed to be public, which made finding support easier.
In our society, with no cultural signal of grief, many people feel that their grief is abnormal when the vast majority of the grieving experience is normal.
What’s normal when it comes to grief
Grieving feels terrible. It’s normal to feel your grief physically in your body. People who are grieving may experience:
These, and other physical issues, are normal feelings of grief. If you feel this way while grieving, you don’t need to try to treat these issues with medicine. They can even be good for you. For instance, sleep disturbances are part of your brain’s desire to process grief. You might have images of the person you’ve lost, smell their perfume or hear their voice. It is all part of your brain handling your grief.
It’s also normal when grieving to have unpredictable emotions that can make you feel out of control. Your emotions may feel very intense and chaotic, ranging from anger to sadness. You may feel like you continue to spiral with these emotions, switching from one to another over and over. Pausing and sitting with these emotions, as painful as they are, can help you process your grief.
You can also take an active approach to processing your grief by talking to family members and friends or even your health care provider. Your provider can help you understand what is normal and direct you to resources like a therapist or a grief support group like Caring Connections. Trying to ignore your grief won’t help it go away; by accepting it and sharing it with others, you can work through the complex and intense emotions you might be feeling.
You also may feel grief in your spirit, whatever that means to you based on your religion or personal faith. Your spiritual beliefs may bring comfort—or devastation and anger. If you believe in eternal life, you might feel comforted knowing you will see your loved one again. But you might also feel angry at your God, whoever they are. You might not feel ready for spiritual counseling until you have had some time to process your grief further and that’s okay.
Grief is normal, and we all need to hear that in our darkest moments.
When grieving becomes too much
While physical aches, emotional rollercoasters and spiritual questioning all happen with grief, self-harm or harming others is not part of a healthy grieving process. Self-harm isn’t always as obvious as bruises or cuts. Sometimes, it is as simple as not eating or drinking, which can cause health to fail.
Self-harm can be part of a stress or trauma response, and it’s not totally uncommon. For instance, it’s common in our society for friends or neighbors to bring food to your house when they know you are grieving. It’s not only a way to provide comfort, but to help encourage you to eat even when you are under stress or grieving very deeply. Not eating is common enough that everyone knows to try to help the bereaved.
As medical providers, we need to encourage people who are grieving to care for themselves physically and mentally in empathetic and understanding ways. The bereaved don’t need a lecture on eating, but rather a sympathetic ear. When we are aware of grief, we also need to follow up in regular intervals to check the mental and physical health of our grieving patients. Patients who say they feel stuck or cannot seem to progress in a healthy manner, especially a month or more after a loss, may need additional support.
Providers can help normalize the grieving experience for their patients and refer them to a grief support group, like Caring Connections, to find others who are feeling the same way. Whether or not your patient ever comes to the group, you can reach out to us to find out if their grief is normal or if they need additional support and mental health referral.
While grief is uncomfortable to feel and uncomfortable to witness, it is a normal process after a loss. The more we can accept and show grief, the better we can all work through it together.