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When working with those dealing with loss, we tend to see certain commonalities in the emotions of those with whom we work.  The following is one grief counselor’s list of 10.  As he indicates in his introduction, this is not to suggest that we can ever pigeon hole anyone into these categories.  Additionally, I would add my common challenge to all counselors, chaplains, pastoral care providers, etc, that it is our responsibility to always remember that even when we think we have seen a pattern we must still work with the person as if this is the first person dealing with these issues.

10 Common Emotional Experiences in Grief

Although every grief is unique and unpredictable, there are many common emotional experiences that can happen in any grief due to the death of a loved one or significant person in your life.  Some of them are:
  • A state of shock:
    When sorrow and the pain of loss come flooding in initially, we instinctually shut down our emotions in order to anesthetize ourselves from the grim reality we face in grief.  This initial phase of grief protects us from going into emotional overload – experiencing the full impact of the loss before we can completely accept what has happened to our loved one and to us.
  • Overwhelming pain & emotions:
    When the shock phase begins to fade, the reality of the loss hits us.  The result is overwhelming pain and emotional turmoil.  As we realize how dreadful the loss is, emotional release begins to be expressed, often without warning.  The grief emotions inside turn into observable mourning.  (Remember mourning is simply grief gone public).
    Immense sadness and loss usually is expressed in uncontrollable and unexpected crying.  Our first instinct may be to stifle tears because we feel out of control or embarrassed.  The truth is though that crying opens the way for us to acknowledge and express all grief emotions helping us to progress through grief and toward healing.
  • Depression & loneliness:
    Feelings of utter depression and isolation are common.  Grief causes us to question our deepest held beliefs – especially our beliefs about God and how He works in the world.  It might seem as if God is no longer in control in His heaven – almost as if God does not care and is not present in their lives.  Such depression and feelings of being all alone are normal, healthy grief responses.  These feelings and thoughts will pass as we refuse to be overwhelmed by our feelings or thoughts and progress through grief.
  • Physical symptoms of emotional distress:
    The continued emotional stress of grief can manifest itself in all sorts of physical maladies—real and/or imagined.
  • Experiencing panic/fear:
    The emotional turmoil of grief can be overwhelming to us.  Because the emotional experience is often greater than anything else we have ever endured, a sense of fear and panic is common.  We begin to question our sanity and if we are doing grief “right.”   An overwhelming sense of deep despair causes us to also question if we will be able to endure what lies ahead and if we will ever experience joy and happiness again.
  • Experiencing guilt about the loss:
    We can feel real or imagined guilt for what we did or did not do for the person when he/she was alive.  Guilt can develop into neurotic guilt which is all out of proportion to the reality of the involvement and control we had in the happenings surrounding the loss.  Acknowledging and expressing this guilt, voicing regrets and “asking” forgiveness for perceived wrongdoings can move us toward healing from these grief wounds.  We must also work toward forgiving ourselves for what we did or did not do.
  • Feeling anger & resentment:
    These “negative” emotions are normal.  However, we must admit to ourselves to acknowledge anger without giving into destructive behaviors.
  • Resisting a return to life:
    Something inside keeps us from going back to usual activities.  Perhaps it is the desire to keep the memory of the tragedy alive as a way to honor the life of the loved one lost.  We fear that smiling, laughing, and experiencing joy or pleasure somehow signifies that the life of the deceased is not being honored or remembered.  Since the pain of grief is a reminder of the emotional tie we have to the deceased, we become comfortable in grieving and fearful that everyone has forgotten our pain.  This causes us to become stuck in our grief—failing to move on toward healing.
  • Realizing hope
    One day “the clouds part and the sun shines in” for us.  It becomes possible for us to experience joy and pleasure once again.  There is a realization that there are moments when grief does not dominate our thinking.  There are still bad moments, bad days and bad weeks, but they happen less and less often.  There is an overwhelming feeling of “I can make it after all.”
  • Struggling to affirm reality
    As we move through grief, we realize that we have been changed by the experience.  The deceased’s influence in our life changed us, making us better people.  The loss of the person has also changed us—making us either healthier and stronger in spirit or sicker.

Compiled by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise”  and the Spanish version “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and http://grief-works.org/book.php . Also available for Kindle and Nook. Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX http://grief-works.org.