What Does It Feel Like to Grieve? What Is Normal Grief?
The death of a loved one can cause many feelings and behavioral reactions. These may come and go throughout the grieving process. Many are natural, normal and even necessary. Everyone grieves in their own unique way; there is no “right way” to grieve. Grieving is not a sign of weakness or failure. It is not something to ignore or “get over.”
Some of the common reactions to the death of a loved one include:
- Being in shock or denial. Feeling numb or like you are “going through the motions”
- Feeling sad and crying a lot
- Telling the story of how they died again and again
- Not being able to talk about the person or the death
- Feeling helpless and powerless
- Having trouble sleeping; being scared to go to sleep; wanting to sleep a lot
- Having head or stomach aches
- Feeling guilty: “It was my fault,” “I could have prevented this.”
- Feeling angry, confused, frustrated, and/or quick to get into a fight
- Not wanting to stay home alone or feeling afraid to be alone
- Withdrawing from friends. Not wanting to go out as much.
- Dreaming about the death, having nightmares about the person and death details
- Wanting to be with the person who died
- Finding it difficult to concentrate on work or school
- Worrying about, “Who is going to die next?”
- Feeling confused at experiencing relief if the illness or circumstances surrounding the death were long or painful
- Feeling distressed that the pain, sadness and grief aren’t going away
Four Tasks of Mourning
In many ways we look and search for the person who died; to learn everything we can about him or her to understand that, indeed, he or she is really dead. It is often very painful and sad when we cannot just pick up a telephone or make a visit to our loved one to share the news of our lives.
Experiencing the Pain of Grief
We feel a great deal of pain during grief, both physical and emotional. We may be very depressed, sad, and prone to tears. It can be difficult to cope with everyday activities. We may want to keep busy constantly so that we don’t think of our loved one’s absence. We may feel angry or guilty. Often, during this time, we feel like we are going crazy.
Adjusting to An Environment in Which the Deceased Is Missing
We are not aware of all the roles played by the person who died until after his death occurs. Sometimes survivors experience difficulty and resentment about assuming new roles.
Find an Enduring Connection with the Deceased and Move on With Life
By developing a continuing bond with the deceased, we can find a new place in our life for the lost loved one — a place that will allow us to stay connected with our loved one while moving forward with life and forming new relationships. It is important to memorialize our departed loved ones–keeping them with us but still going on with life.
From Worden, J.W., Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, Fourth Edition, Spring Publishing Co., NY, 2008.
If you, your friends or family would like to talk to someone, please contact the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing at (202) 624-0010.
Different Ways to Grieve
Are you feeling?
- Like you have lost a sense of comfort or familiarity with your loved one, as if things have changed and will never again be the same, such as when a person develops Alzheimer’s disease, Dementia, or other illnesses?
- Like there is a sense of not knowing what is making you feel stuck and keeping you from grieving a loss, such as when a loved one’s body is never found or a person goes missing?
- Like there is a clear loss that has occurred, but that you do not know how to grieve or why you are feeling frozen or paralyzed, such as in the case of aging family members, infertility, or when a child goes away to college?
- Like your relationship(s) will be changed forever, such as in the case of divorce or when a relationship ends?
If so, you could be experiencing an ambiguous loss. An ambiguous loss is when a loss occurs in our lives, but there is something making us feel stuck or unable to move forward in the grieving process. It can occur when a person is physically present but psychologically not there or when a person is physically gone, but they remain present in our minds and hearts because we cannot be sure that there has been a death. Ambiguous loss can make us feel as though we will never have answers, there will always be something missing, and/or our lives and relationship with a loved one will be changed forever.
What can you do?
- Seek out support from others. Surrounding yourself with people who care about you and who understand what you are going through can help validate your feelings.
- Look for support groups that address the type of loss you are experiencing.
- Allow yourself to take time to feel and express whatever emotions come up for you. Ignoring your feelings can prolong your feeling of being stuck.
- Try to create a structure in aspects of your life that you can control, such as dinner and bedtime at the same time they usually occur, regular exercise, and family meetings as necessary.
- Continue to strive to find meaning in your life that includes and acknowledges the loss you are experiencing.
- Seek professional help if you find that the loss controlling your thoughts and behaviors and/or causing marked distress for an extended period of time.
Are you feeling?
- Like you have been grieving for a long time, but you still are not able to find a “new normal” in your life to start feeling better?
- Like there are so many changes in your life since your loved one died that you will never be able to adjust?
- Like you no longer understand your role or identity?
- Like your future is completely different now and it is difficult to find hope?
- Like you already worked through the most difficult part of your grief months or years ago and suddenly you are finding yourself re-experiencing those feelings?
- Like other people do not understand why you are “still so sad” or why you are all of a sudden grieving again?
You may be experiencing secondary losses. Secondary losses are all the losses we experience as a result of a main loss or death. This could include the loss of the primary money earner in the family, the loss of a role or title, such as “parent” after your only child has died, the loss of your future plans or dreams, or the continued sense of loss that arises as various milestones come up. This could also include very concrete losses, such as the loss of a house after relocation, the loss of friends, or the loss of a job. These secondary losses are very real and can have a profound effect on our lives. They can show up unexpected and can invoke different reactions in us.
What can you do?
- Acknowledge the losses you are experiencing and will likely experience in the future.
- Do not try to address every loss at once, deal with them as they come up.
- Explain to others how you are feeling; they might be confused if they thought you were becoming your old self again and suddenly find you reacting similarly to when the death first occurred.
- Allow yourself to express whatever emotions come up for you and try to recognize that it is okay to grieve losses other than deaths.
- Remember the things that have stayed the same, and try to develop a routine or new sense of normalcy, even if for only one day each week.
- Find your own way to honor your loved one during milestones such as graduations, anniversaries, birthdays, and other important dates.
- Be gentle with yourself, and allow yourself the time you need to fully grieve all of the losses you are experiencing.
When to Seek Help
Will the Grief Go Away?
Immediately following a death, you might feel overwhelmed by your grief. Many of the thoughts and feelings you might experience are normal. [link to: What is “normal” grief]. At times, it might feel like too much to handle and as if your grief will never stop. Here are some things to know about how grief can be helpful:
- Grief serves a very important purpose for each of us in a different way
- Grief allow us to take in and acknowledge the person who has died
- At first, grief could take form as denial or a separation from the idea that a person is gone forever
- Over time, we may slowly begin to understand and accept the loss that we have experienced. This allows us to make sense of the loss on our own timeline and in our own way
Eventually, the goal can be to bring that person into your life in a new way and find a new normal that includes your loved one in a different way.
As you continue your life, you may notice that the feelings you had immediately following the death come back at different times. You might experience them when certain milestones, such as an anniversary, graduation, or wedding, approach. You could also experience these feelings spontaneously as you remember your loved one and what he or she meant to you.
There are many things you can do that may help you to begin to feel better. Remember that your grief has its own timetable and that everyone’s way of grieving is unique. A few helpful tips:
- Cry it out. Talk it out. Write it out.
- Talk with people who are supportive and give you the time and space to begin healing.
- Look at pictures of your loved one and remember your times together.
- Keep a journal of your feelings and thoughts.
- Ask for hugs. Be open to the love and support of those who care.
- Treat yourself in ways that make you feel cared for and that are distracting.
- Take care of your body/strength: Get plenty of rest. Eat well and regularly. Exercise. Have regular check-ups.
- Make healthy choices regarding alcohol and other drugs.
- Find ways to relax, such as with music, quiet time, watching TV or a movie.
- Try something new like a class or hobby.
- Join a grief support group.
- Do something that honors your loved one: planing a memorial tree, enlarging a photograph and framing it, giving back to your community.
It’s important to allow yourself the time you need to experience your grief. Sometimes it could take one or two years to start feeling like your self again. Often, it’s difficult to get through the first year and have to experience birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries without your loved one for the first time. Sometimes, grief can become complicated, and it can be difficult to find a new normal on your own. If you don’t feel better over time or you feel like your grief is getting worse, it might be important to seek professional help.
Getting the Help You Need
There are many common reactions to learning that a loved one has died. These are normal, come at different times, and are different for each person.
Immediately following the death of a loved one, many people have feelings of disbelief and denial, and even be unable to acknowledge or accept the loss. Some people may want to immediately take action, which can show itself in planning funerals or memorial services, trying to seek justice, or trying to “solve” a case. Others may experience a numbness or desire to disconnect from any specific feeling or emotion. Most of these reactions are common and not concerning.
Grief and loss are natural parts of life, and we each have our own specific ways of coping with the news that a loved one has died. It is important to allow yourself to experience the death of a loved one in whatever way you naturally do without trying to force an action or emotion. Trying to change the way you naturally react to the news of a loved one’s death can take away from your ability to develop coping mechanisms and healthy resilience.
However, if you experience any symptoms that are intrusive, persistent, or highly concerning, including thoughts of hurting or killing yourself, thoughts of hurting or killing others, intrusive or disturbing thoughts surrounding the death, being afraid to leave the house or participate in daily activities, or any thoughts or feelings that persist for more than three months, it is advisable to talk to a mental health professional about what you are experiencing.
You may also want to speak with a trained mental health grief therapist if you have difficulty returning to work (or children to school), get easily angered and overwhelmed, feel confused about your relationship with the deceased and your feelings following their death, don’t know how to help your children and teens with their grief, have difficulty with your close relationships, feel as if no one understands and what they say or do is not helpful.
The Wendt Center’s counseling staff is uniquely trained and experience to help with the aftermath of grief. If you would like to explore counseling services, please call our Intake Coordinator, Alison Nicolosi, at 202-204-5021.
Explaining Death to A Child
Your child may have questions for you about what happened, what it means and what will happen to them. Try to reassure and answer each question as it is asked.
Explain death in basic terms. Be honest.
Remember a child’s attention span is short. He or she may be crying one moment and then running outside and playing the next. It is normal for children to play even when they have difficult emotions.
Like adults, children grieve differently. They often do not have the words to explain their feelings. Your child’s response to this death may depend upon their age. What small children need may be different than what an adolescent needs. But, all children need to be included, as much as they desire, in the family’s activities during the memorial or funeral services.
When talking to a young child we encourage you to explain death as honestly as possible to avoid future confusion and pain. Here are some ideas:
- Died means the person is not alive anymore. Their body has stopped working.
- Died means they cannot talk, breathe, walk, move, eat or do any of the things that they could when they were alive.
- Discuss your own beliefs and spirituality with the child. You can also share your beliefs in an afterlife — if you believe in one.
- Remembering is important for children. It may be helpful to share memories and talk about the person who died.
Finding Help and Resources to Cope in the Aftermath of a Tragedy
As an affiliate member of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the Wendt Center accesses additional information and resources and welcomes further inquiries.
Talking to children about the shooting
Helping young children heal after a shooting
Parents guidelines for helping teens after an attack
Psychological Information Sheets
Please click here for additional resources at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Loss of a Spouse
You may feel
- A deep, aching sense of loneliness, and a terrible fear of being alone
- Like your can still see, feel and hear your partner
- Like your security has vanished in an instant
- As if you have lost not only your partner but your best friend
- Haunted by relationship issues that were still unresolved at the time of death
- As if you have lost both your past and your future – your memories and your dreams
- Uncomfortable when spending time with “couple” friends – you feel like the fifth wheel
- Overwhelmed by the idea of spending the rest of your life alone – but scared of finding someone new
- Guilt over the thought of moving on
What you can do
- Try to resist the urge to hide your sadness in order to protect your children or other family members.
- Accept offers of help from family and friends with practical matters, so that you give yourself the psychological space to grieve.
- Remember that you have lost the person who was probably most attentive to your needs, so now you must be sure to take care of yourself.
- Talk about your partner and your memories
- Avoid making major decisions, such as moving, selling your home, or making any large purchases, until you have given yourself the space to grieve and truly consider what your new life will look like.
- Connect with others who can relate to losing a partner. Consider joining a local support group or online community.
- Acknowledge the pain of no longer being part of a couple and that no one will ever replace your spouse. At the same time, try to remember other people in your life who love you and who are worthy of your time, attention and love.
- Allow your family traditions to evolve in ways that both fit the new composition of the family and honor the memory of your partner.
- When you feel ready, consider renewing yourself – try new activities, make new friends and look for a new focus in your life.
Loss of a Child
You may feel
- As if the pain will last forever
- Anger and bitterness toward a world that would take your child away
- Overwhelming guilt, as if you should have done something more to protect your child
- As if the world has been turned upside down. Children are not supposed to die before their parents.
- Distanced from your spouse or partner
- Regret and self-blame about many aspects of your parenting, including those unrelated to the loss
- Increasingly protective of other loved ones – your surviving children, your spouse, your siblings
- Intense emotional reactions to even the smallest of triggers or reminders of your child
- Like you are living in two separate worlds – one where you are grieving the loss of your child, and one where you must go about the normal business of living, caring for other families members and fulfilling your responsibilities
What you can do
- Find a linking object or place that makes you feel connected to your child – perhaps a piece of clothing she often wore, or a tree he liked to climb. Allow yourself to make physical contact with your linking object as much as needed in the beginning.
- Establish your own unique rituals to memorialize your child
- Count on and confide in friends and family members who are able to listen, be present with you, and walk with you without criticism or pressure
- Allow yourself to feel angry, helpless and disoriented
- Look into joining a support group for bereaved parents
- Volunteer for an organization that provides support to bereaved parents
- Reassure yourself that you were – and still are – a loving parent
- When you are ready, give yourself permission to feel joy again and continue on with your life, knowing that it does not mean you love your child any less
- Release yourself from guilt and fear when the time is right
Homicide and Grief
You may feel
- Unable to understand or believe what happened to your loved one
- Intense rage toward the perpetrator(s)
- As if you somehow could have – or should have – protected your loved one from harm
- Haunted by intrusive visual images, nightmares and flashbacks of the murder (even if you did not physically witness it)
- Afraid of strangers and worried that the perpetrator, or any perpetrator, will strike again
- Preoccupied with your own personal safety
- Highly protective of other loved ones
- Distrustful of others and of the world around you
- Like the world is a cruel, unfair, and unsafe place
- Helpless and powerless over your surroundings
- A desire to avoid people and places that remind you of your loved one or of the homicide
- Blamed, isolated, exploited and/or stigmatized by law enforcement, health care providers, news media, and your own friends and family
- Anger and blame in many different directions – toward yourself, other family members, witnesses of the homicide, law enforcement, spiritual leaders, and even God.
What you can do. . .
- Visit our How to cope with grief page for general suggestions for the grieving.
- Set boundaries with law enforcement officials, news media and even friends and family, whose initial interest and involvement may be intense and overwhelming.
- Address your trauma-related reactions (nightmares, flashbacks, fear, avoiding people and places, among others) and slowly begin to rebuild a sense of safety, most likely with the help of a mental health professional.
- Stay connected with friends and family. Allow those who are also grieving to support you, just as you support them.
- Create a ritual, religious or non-religious, in which you can safely say goodbye to your loved one.
- Regain a sense of control over your life by maintaining basic structure and routine. Try to get enough rest, eat proper meals and exercise regularly.
- Write down your thoughts and feelings. Keep a journal, write a poem, or write a letter to your loved one.
- Find a safe way to release your anger, perhaps in grief counseling or with understanding friends and family.
- Seek out others who can relate to how you are feeling, through a support group, therapy group or online community, aimed specifically for those coming with the homicide death of a loved one.
- Grieve in your own way, at your own pace. Not all those affected by homicide are the same or react in the same way.
Suicide and Grief
The search for answers can be frustrating and painful, and survivors often feel alone – misunderstood, even judged by the people around them. Below you will find a collection of common experiences and emotional reactions for survivors of suicide, as well as some coping strategies you may find helpful on your path to healing.
You may feel
- Like nothing makes sense anymore, because you cannot understand why your loved one would take his or her life
- As if you somehow could have – or should have – prevented the suicide Haunted by visual images, nightmares and flashbacks, even though you did not witness the suicide
- Like you have no control over your own life
- As if your love wasn’t enough to keep your loved one here
- A sense of shame that makes you wish you could hide from the world
- Like no one understands and that friends and family members are treating you awkwardly
- A desire to hide the cause of death from others and provide an alternate explanation
- A desire to avoid places and people who remind you of your loved one
- Afraid that you will lose other friends and loved ones to suicide
- Anger and blame in many different directions – toward yourself, other family members, doctors, therapists, religious figures, or even God
- Angry with your deceased loved one for abandoning you and causing you pain
- Relieved that your loved one is no longer in pain and that you and your family are no longer burdened with worry
- Guilty for feeling anger or relief
What you can do
- Visit our How to cope with grief page for general suggestions for the grieving.
- Allow yourself to process your feelings of anger and relief, remembering that these are normal and common reactions to a suicide.
- Stay connected with friends and family despite the inclination to isolate yourself.
- Remember that you still have the right to plan a meaningful funeral, ritual or memorial ceremony for your loved one, even though he or she took his own life.
- Consider some lessons your loved one may have taught you that you can apply to your own life. With the help of a mental health care provider, explore different reasons why your loved one may have made this decision.
- Seek out others who can relate to how you are feeling, through a support group, therapy group or online community, aimed specifically at survivors of homicide. (See Our Services and Community Resources)
- Grieve in your own way, at your own pace. Not all survivors of suicide are the same.
- Consider active ways to remember and honor your loved one. Perhaps you would like to become an advocate for other suicide survivors, or engage with your loved one’s favorite charity or cause (e.g., fundraising through a walk or run).
Helping Others Grieve
- Listen to the person when he or she wants to talk and let them know you are there to hear whatever feelings, memories, fears, or concerns come up.
- It may feel like the person’s grief is taking a long time to heal, but it is important to allow that person to talk about their loved one as frequently as they need to. It could take a while for the person to begin to recover from the loss.
- You will probably wish there is something you can say to make the person feel better, but try to remember that it is important for them to feel whatever emotions come up, including unpleasant ones, and don’t try to say things just to fill the silence.
- Avoid saying things like: “He/She is in a better place now.” “He/She is with God.” “It was for the best.” “You can always remarry/have another child.” “At least he/she did not suffer.” or “You’ll get over it in time.”
- Do reference the person who has died by name and express your condolences. Let the person know you are there to listen and sit with their pain and discomfort.
- Rather than asking the person if there is anything you can do, think of specific things you can do that will be helpful, such as laundry, watching the kids for a while, walking the dogs, cooking dinner, or running errands.
- Encourage the person to seek professional help if you don’t think he/she is healing over time or if the death was too difficult for the person to handle alone.
Overall, keep in mind that it is not your responsibility to take away your loved one’s pain or grief. It is important that they do the work on their own and find meaning in the loss in their own time and way.
No one is born with a biological blueprint of how to mourn or grieve. We learn how to do this from our families, who are usually following cultural teachings. Most religious belief systems have long-held traditions on how to memorialize the dead, including rituals, songs, dances, special tools, works of art, articles of clothing and periods of mourning. Many families find great comfort and meaning in following their own faith or cultural traditions. Others may feel stifled or stymied by them, and may benefit from coming up with their own unique ways of remembering. Nonetheless, each of us will be influenced by our cultural background as we move through the grieving process. The following provides a summary of some of the major cultural traditions surrounding death and mourning in the United States.
- Buddhism is practiced in many Asian communities in the United States and there are many different sects of schools of thought within this religion.
- Many practicing Buddhists are seeking increase awareness in their lives, with the ultimate goal of reaching true enlightenment, or Nirvana.
- Tibetan Buddhists in particular emphasize rebirth.
- There are special meditations that Buddhists often use at the time of death. They may ask to limit sedation of their dying loved one so that he or she can maintain consciousness for the meditation.
- The memorial ritual is usually officiated by a family member.
- Cremation is typical.
- Mourners take comfort in the idea that their loved one has ascended to the Kingdom of Heaven, to be reunited with other deceased loves ones and to be with God.
- Living Christians aspire to reach the afterlife through their good faith.
- There is typically a period between the death and the funeral service in which mourners pay their respects to the deceased and show support for the family. Often the body is viewed during this time.
- Burial is typical, and mourners often accompany the family to the burial site. The casket is typically lowered after the mourners leave.
- Dark clothing is traditionally worn at the funeral service.
- There is a wide variety of Protestantism in the United States, and each denomination has its own funeral traditions.
- Confession and prayer at the time of death is usually made directly to God.
- There is a strong belief in eternal life, and people will faith will have life after death.
- Funerals and memorials often stress that the deceased is in a “better place”.
- It is very important for many Catholics to have the last rites administered by a priest to a loved one who is dying. This provides the dying person with an opportunity to make a confession to the priest and also serves as a comfort to the family.
- A priest officiates at the funeral and burial.
- In traditional cultures, the year following the death is considered an extended period of mourning, and in some cases, older grievers may choose to wear black clothing.
- Hinduism today is comprised of many sects that have their own traditions surrounding death. Hindus typically believe in eternal life through reincarnation, and that their fate in the next life depends on their virtue in the present life.
- Cremation typically takes place on the day of death. The family washes the body in a special ritual to prepare it for cremation.
- A Hindu priest officiates at the funeral ritual. White is traditionally worn.
- There are 13 days of official mourning, in which friends and family visit to offer support and condolences.
This is an ethical belief system that stresses decency in relationships with others.
Memorial services typically celebrate life and acknowledge loss without religious ritual, according to the specific wishes of the loved one’s family. Services may be held in any location that feels appropriate.
- Jewish funerals and burials typically take place within a day or two of death. Cremation is usually not practiced among Conservative or Orthodox Jews.
- A rabbi or cantor officiates at the burial service. Families shovel symbolic soil onto the casket as it is lowered.
A seven-day period of mourning calling “sitting Shiva” is often practiced in which prayers are offered and the family talks about the deceased.
- Friends and family visit and bring meals during this period. Sympathy cards and charitable donations are typically offered in lieu of flowers.
- Though the Jewish faith does teach the existence of life after death, it is not usually the focus of mourning rituals.
- Forgiveness is an important part of the grieving process.
- In the Muslim faith, death is seen as the return to the Creator, Allah, who will judge the soul based on how the life was lived.
- Burial is the custom. Cremation is forbidden. Muslims believe that the body is returned to the Earth, where it originated.
- In order to prepare the body for burial, family and friends engage in ritual washing. Women wash other women’s bodies, and men wash other men’s bodies, with the exception of spouses, who may wash one another’s bodies. The body is then wrapped in a clean white cloth.
- The burial ritual takes place within 24 hours of death or as soon as possible. Only men participate in the burial. Young children are typically not present.
- An Imam or Holy Man officiates at both the funeral and burial service.
- The mourning period lasts for three days for most and 40 days for a surviving spouse.
- There are many different nations that all have their own death traditions.
- Some nations do not have contact with the dying or advocate a very positive outlook in the presence of the dying. Grieving is done privately.
- Death is a journey to another world, but American Indian beliefs do not include dualities like heaven and hell and supernatural and earthling. The Creator is in the Earth.
- Certain spots in nature are important for sacred ceremonies, including burial. Personal items are often placed into the casket.
- Some groups incorporate Christian beliefs into their practices.
- Give yourself permission to feel your feelings.
- Communicate. Let your needs be known. Tell your family and friends about how much you feel you can handle during the season.
- Remember that this holiday will be different. Give yourself permission to let go of some of the traditions you may have shared with your loved one in the past.
- Plan ahead. Knowing in advance what’s suppose to happen helps to ease the feelings of stress and gives you a sense of control.
- Think about starting a new tradition in honor of your loved one who has died: Start a collection of angels or bells or light a special candle.
- Offer a toast at the traditional holiday meal, or share stories and remembrances about the person who died.
- Try to be gentle with yourself. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to experience your special loss during the holidays.