The early weeks of grief feel so overwhelming. Your world has been shaken to the point that you can’t even find your footing. Even if you had been expecting your loved one to die soon, the shock of the actual loss can take you by surprise.
How you might feel during acute grief
Physical signs: Your breathing feels shallow, like you can’t take a deep breath. Your neck and back muscles feel achy and sore, even though you have not been to the gym. You are either sleeping all day or barely at all. You are either eating snacks constantly or you are forgetting to eat most meals.
Mental signs: You are having trouble concentrating, because your brain feels “foggy.”
Emotional signs: Your emotions are like a roller coaster, up and down with lots of unpredictable mood swings. One minute you are lost in profound sadness, and the next minute you are possessed by an uncontrollable rage.
Spiritual signs: You begin to question what you previously believed about the afterlife. You look for someone or something to blame for the loss. You feel unexpected anger at God, and your previously comforting faith rituals feel challenging or inauthentic. For example, you no longer want to attend church services or practice daily prayer.
Social signs: You feel alone and disconnected, even when you're in a group. You want supportive people around, at the same time you want to push away from others. You find that well-meaning folks are expressing their opinions about your grief process. They might tell you that it is “time to move on” or that you are crying “too much.”
This time of extremes requires an extreme response. You might think that if you just keep busy, you will “get over it faster.” But this form of escapism is only a temporary tactic.
The Dual Process Model of Grief teaches us to move between focusing on the loss and focusing on repairing your broken heart.
In other words, using distraction to cope is okay, just don’t try to ignore or suppress your grief all the time. You also don’t need to stay immersed in the deep pain of your grief 24/7. Your grief does not connect you to your loved one who died: your memories do! Healthy grief requires attention, but in limited doses.
How to cope with an intense grief reaction
Physical relief: Focus on meeting your basic needs: sleep as much as possible without getting into a “on the couch all day” rut. When people offer to help, ask them to drop off healthy snacks so you won’t have to worry about cooking meals. Ease tension by stretching your muscles every day, then take a short walk. Even 5 minutes spent outdoors will help!
Mental relief: Give yourself a break from any work that requires focused concentration. If you absolutely must complete complicated paperwork, limit yourself to working in 15-20 minute increments, followed by a 5 minute break. Grief makes your brain exhausted, so don’t expect to do your taxes during this time.
Emotional relief: The best way to take the sting out of intense emotions is to stop trying to change them! Instead, remind yourself that you are on this roller coaster ride that you didn’t sign up for. Without any good/bad judgement, label each emotion as it arises: “right now I am noticing ... sadness, fear, guilt etc.” Emotions lose their power to control you when they are openly acknowledged. Remind yourself that each emotion is fleeting. You will not sink into despair forever, even on the days when the tears seem endless.
Spiritual relief: Ask yourself: what do you believe about the afterlife, where is your loved one now? Talk to them, not just in your imagination, but out loud or on paper. Accept that you don’t need to have all the answers.
Social relief: Do you have someone you trust that you can talk to about your grief? Maybe someone who has lived through a similar loss in the past? This person is typically not a family member. Your relatives might not feel comfortable discussing what happened, because they just want you to feel better. But it is essential that you spend time telling the story of your loved one: how they lived, how they died, and what their life means to you.
Don’t forget about the Dual Process Model of Grief: allow time for focusing on your grief, balanced with time centered on rebuilding your life.
Schedule time to talk to or about your loved one every day. Then schedule time to be distracted: watch a movie, play a video game, whatever helps you relax.
Take time (30-60 minutes) every day to reflect on your grief experience using a journal. Then watch funny videos on YouTube. It’s okay - beneficial even- to laugh when you are grieving!
Consider joining an online grief support group. Call a local grief therapist for guidance.
What if you can't relate to any of this?
Are you concerned because your grief response has you feeling … nothing? You are pushing through each day, going through the motions, and wondering why you are not crying, or having some sort of negative response. This numbness is another common early grief reaction. Stay tuned as I cover this topic in an upcoming blog.
Brought to you by:
Pam Kuras, MSW, LCSW, GC-C
Johnston Integrative Counseling, PLLC