We know death, like taxes, is a certainty in life. There is no way to escape it. And yet, we are usually not prepared for the emotions and pain that follow when a loved one dies. We are also not prepared for the ways our closest loved ones deal with the loss, especially if their grief looks different than ours. On an intellectual level we know that everyone mourns differently. We understand that’s okay. But how we feel in the moment, while we’re actually mourning, can be a very different story. One that doesn’t always respond to logic.
Healthy grief reactions
Bereavement and grieving can lead to:
- intense periods of sadness.
- rumination about the loss.
But grief is more than just sadness over a loss.
Grief can grow into immense emotional and physical suffering. For some, it morphs into:
- extreme fatigue.
- excessive crying.
- troubling dreams or nightmares.
For some, anger is easier to manage than sadness. Angry questions posed to those we’ve lost might include:
- “How could you leave me?”
- “Why did you do this to me?”
- “Why were you so selfish?”
- “How could you be so reckless?”
- “Why didn’t you love me enough to stay?”
When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal or serious illness, anticipating their death or a change in one’s situation often brings anticipatory grief. It helps to prepare us emotionally before a loss occurs.
This isn’t always awful. The period before an expected death is also a time for meaningful amends, forgiving others or telling people they are loved. But it can also lead to immense sadness and depressive symptoms.
When a loved one’s death is sudden, unexpected and/or violent, people often experience traumatic grief. This is extremely painful and can be long-lasting with people suffering from an inability to let go, near-constant triggering, painful memories and flashbacks causing a re-experience. This prevents true healing.
There is also a deep fear associated with traumatic grief. This fear involves an anxiety that we may one day forget the deceased and we therefore cling to memories and sadness. It becomes a part of someone’s daily experience. This makes carrying on with the business of living quite difficult.
Grief pangs and yearning
Grief pangs are short periods of intense pain. This is experienced as a yearning for the deceased loved one and can evolve into longer periods of existential despair.
When a relationship feels disrupted, as it does when one has died, this is a very real loss. It includes emotional as well as financial disorganization. People question identity, faith and meaning. These losses combine actual and symbolic attachments that are now broken, and the feel of permanent pain is overwhelming.
Persistent complex bereavement disorder
Grief and sadness may never completely go away. But when it starts to affect our daily life, mourning keeps us from fully functioning as human beings. Sometimes, the negative emotions originating from loss and grief are directed inward. Introjection is crippling for those who feel trapped and can’t get out of it on their own.
These reactions can be so severe that they lead to major depressive disorders, anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorders.
Different ways of mourning is okay
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone deals with loss in their own way. This is true in families and friend groups. Some experience loss in a way that brings them closer to others, while some find peace in solitude. One person may throw themselves into work while another might stay in bed and cry. Some find it comforting to talk about the person who has died, while others want to keep their thoughts to themselves. Each person responds to loss based on temperament, personality and experiences.
It’s hard to resist the urge to compare ourselves with others going through similar experiences. This is especially true in moments of loss and pain.
However, grief is based on emotions and personal relationships. Since everyone, and every relationship, is different – the way we react will be different as well.
Again, it’s sometimes easier to deal with anger than sadness. That’s why anger is something of a “default emotion.” When people feel frustrated, surprised, sad or worried – it can manifest as anger or rage.
Comparing ourselves to others, especially when it comes to pain and grief, leads to trouble. Fights, arguments and accusations over who loved who the most can tear families apart. To avoid this, each mourner must understand and accept that everyone hurts and copes in their own special way.
Some ways to move toward acceptance
If you’re finding it hard to be around people who are mourning in a way that’s different from you, the best first step is to recognize it. When you understand what you’re feeling, you’re better able to observe what happens inside yourself when this is triggered. Intellectually you may know what you’re feeling and can better avoid those triggers before they happen.
Finding a grief counselor or community support group allows you to talk without judgment or criticism. This can help you process what you’re feeling without hurting anyone else. You might also find the Ring Theory helpful.
Family counseling can help loved ones find a way to grief separately, but together. A licensed therapist helps mourners express emotions and pain in way that isn’t threatening to anyone. With an effective counselor, loved ones can better understand each other and grow closer as a result.
There are many different healthy and productive ways to come to terms with a loss. Whether one family member finds peace in meditating, for example, while another seeks solace in a house of worship, while still another goes into counseling. All of that is immaterial. What matters is that we remember everyone mourns differently. Even when the loss is shared.