Normal Effects of Bereavement & When to Get Help

There are many effects of bereavement that can strike while you are coping with grief. Many grief symptoms are very unnatural and scary, and can even be bizarre. But almost all of them are perfectly normal! No, you’re not losing your mind… just going through a normal and healthy grieving process.

Man sitting on grass, looking at a fiery sky

Below, we present the following effects of bereavement:

“I’m exhausted!” – the physical signs and symptoms of grief

“Are you sure I’m not going crazy?” – emotional and mental symptoms

“Where are all my friends?” – social changes

“So where was God during all of this?” – spiritual challenges

“Is this bizarre, or what?” – unusual experiences

“Do I need help?” – warning signs that professional help is needed

I’m exhausted! Physical signs & symptoms

These are some of the physical symptoms you may experience:

  • ENERGY – Exhaustion, muscle tightness or weakness, body pains, fidgety restlessness, lack of energy.
    NOTE: The work of grieving expends a tremendous amount of energy. Fatigue is usually self-limiting and will improve over time.
  • SLEEP – Insomnia, sleeping too much, disturbing dreams
    NOTE: Sleeping pills do not provide the level and quality of sleep your body needs right now. A very occasional pill will not hurt. Also effective are mildly sedating Valerian Root or Benadryl, also in moderation. Just don’t fall into the habit of popping a sleeper every night. This is never advisable, and especially unhealthy for “grief relief”.
  • DIGESTIVE UPSET – Loss of appetite, overeating, nausea, “hollow stomach”, indigestion, intestinal disorders like diarrhea, excessive weight gain or loss
    NOTE: Your stomach will settle down as you do.
  • PHYSICAL SIGNS OF ANXIETY – Headaches, short of breath, chest pressure, tightness or heaviness in the throat
    NOTE: If these symptoms are mild and improve, fine. But chest discomfort and or shortness of breath, accompanied by nausea or sweating can be signs of a heart attack. Call 911 for serious symptoms. Better safe than sorry.

Other thoughts about physical symptoms

If your loved one died because of an illness, it is not uncommon to harbor fears that you might get sick and die, too. You might even develop symptoms similar to those he had.

If any of your physical effects of bereavement don’t gradually improve over time, and you truly are worried that something might be wrong, see a doctor. You don’t need the added stress of fear about your own physical well-being right now. Get a checkup for the peace of mind.

Grief is hard! Comfort your body and soothe your soul in the comfort zone

Are you sure I’m not going crazy? Emotional effects of bereavement

The hallmark of emotions during grief is unpredictability… you’ll be up, down, all over the place! It feels crazy, but it’s normal. As long as your emotions are constantly changing, moving and evolving, you’re on the right track.

  • NUMBNESS – Most people struck by a great loss report an initial period of shock, numbness, or disbelief that the tragedy has even occurred. This is a normal defense mechanism of the mind to protect you from being overwhelmed. This allows you to absorb the loss as you are able to. When the  “shock” wears off, unfortunately, the grief strikes full-blown. At first, it may seem helpful to separate yourself from the pain, but that is not a good thing. You must go through it sooner or later in order to bring your grief to resolution.
  • SADNESS & YEARNING – Of course, you’ll feel overwhelming sadness, and miss the physical closeness of your lost loved one. You’ll shed many tears, and then be worried when you can’t cry anymore.
  • RELIEF & GUILT – It’s also common for you to feel at least some degree of relief, especially if the death followed a long illness, or it was a conflicted relationship. The feelings of relief will likely be followed by guilt. You may also feel some “survivor’s guilt” (“why her and not me?”). You may have many regrets: you may regret things left unsaid or dreams not yet realized. You may feel guilt and regret over the circumstances of the death (“why did I let her go to the party?”). Try to find comfort in the fact that most every bereaved person goes through such heavy-duty emotional turmoil. It’s one of the common effects of bereavement.
  • ANXIETY, WORRY & FEAR – And yes, even embarrassment. You may feel helpless and panic-stricken at times. A myriad of strong human emotions is part of the whole package known as bereavement. As time goes on, the emotions will soften and the intensity will lessen.
  • MENTAL TASKS – Trouble concentrating, finishing tasks, forgetfulness, inability to make decisions, “absent-mindedness”. It is sometimes said that you should avoid making any life-changing decisions for at least a year after the loss. This is a good idea; you are not in your “right mind” right now.
  • ANGER – Anger is a “biggie”, almost universally experienced by all who grieve. It is perfectly normal and understandable for you to feel white-hot rage at the horrible injustice that has befallen you. You may be mad at:
    ~Your lost loved one (for leaving you… especially in cases of suicide)
    ~The situation (such as a drunk driver)
    ~The doctors (for not saving her)
    ~God (for allowing this to happen)
    ~The whole world (’nuff said). Let the anger out. It’s all okay as long as you don’t hurt anyone: scream in the shower, talk about it with a trusted friend; write it all down in your journal; paint a picture of your anger. Acknowledge your anger. Don’t suppress it.
Girl journaling in bed

Where are all my friends? Social changes

After sustaining a big loss like this, you will be a changed person. You’ll survive grief, but life, and you, will never be the same again. And this will impact your social life in some way. You may well lose, and/or gain, some friends over this.

Woman comforting her friend

Social support may be abundant soon after the loss. Friends and family will gather to provide support for you in the traditional mourning rituals. After a while, though, the cards and flowers will stop coming, and relatives will go back home. Your “support system” will get back to their lives, and seem to “abandon” you.

Six months later, when you are truly realizing all that you have lost, when you are achingly lonely, that is the time that you probably need support the most. Unfortunately, most everyone is gone by then, and those who are present may be urging you to “get over it” and move on with your life.

Sadly, some of your friends will not be calling anymore, and may even be avoiding you. Why? It was easy for them to give you hugs and shed tears with you at the funeral but now is the difficult part. It is hard and awkward for them. They don’t know what to say to you, or how to help you anymore. So they stay away. One of the unexpected effects of bereavement.

Other social effects of bereavement

You might want to withdraw socially, voluntarily isolate yourself from others. You may feel detached, disinterested in your usual activities and interests. You may feel suspicious, irritable and even hostile.

Part of these feelings is due to a feeling that “they just don’t understand what I’m going through”, and your impatience with their lack of understanding. You know what? It’s probably justified.

Your social life will normalize somewhat as you progress through your grief and slowly rejoin the land of the living. But some of your prior relationships will be forever altered. Just so you know.

So, where was God in all of this? Spiritual challenges

Crushing grief may well force you into a spiritual crisis. You may challenge or question your faith or religious beliefs.

Empty church pews

You may be angry at your God, or feel that life is empty and has no meaning.

  • Why did this happen?
  • Was there some purpose for it?
  • Was this a part of God’s plan?
  • What reason could He have to allow a senseless death or suffering?

We don’t really have an answer for you on this one. Spirituality is such a private, individual thing. You may find comfort from your religious rituals.

Try to include prayer in your “grief arsenal” as you feel the need and desire for it. In the depths of your despair, it may help you to “let go and let God“. Sometimes faith provides support and survival for you when everything else seems to have failed.

Try not to despair or worry too much about your spiritual doubts… they are likely to change over time, just as your grief will.

There are some very good books that address the crisis of faith that may occur with a grievous loss. You may find some direction and comfort from these grief and loss books. They may help you understand better the effects of bereavement and how to survive it.

Is this bizarre, or what? Weird & unusual grief experiences

You’ve gone through the “numb” stage. You’re all done with “denial”. You’ve accepted the reality of your loss, and the finality of it all.

And yet, one evening you’re in the kitchen making dinner, and you turn around, fully expecting “him” to come walking through the front door. I mean, a very real sensation! Weird, and normal (if you’re grieving).

Young woman slicing a cucumber

Below are some rather unusual or bizarre things you may experience that are all perfectly normal and very common occurrences during the grief process. Don’t let them frighten you!

Effects of bereavement …

  • Thinking you see, hear, smell or feel them. (No, you’re not crazy. It’s just harmless memories).
  • Can’t remember anything bad (or good) about them (You will be left with a more realistic memory of them later on).
  • Can’t remember what they looked or sounded like (again, the grieving mind playing tricks on you).
  • Being afraid you’ll forget them. (You won’t).
  • Preoccupied or “obsessed” with thoughts of the loved one.
  • Carrying or treasuring belongings or objects representing him or her (And why not?)
  • Vivid dreams of the loved one (disturbing but normal).
  • Develop his or her mannerisms or behaviors ( an attempt by the mind to “hold on” to them).

Do I need help? Serious warning signs

As we stated before, the strange and intense emotions and symptoms you experience after a loss may cause you to question your sanity. We have provided above an extensive list of normal symptoms and behaviors to try to set your mind at ease. The vast majority of bereaved individuals, although they must go through an exhausting and painful process, emerge with their sanity and emotional health intact.

But in some rare cases, and especially so with complicated mourning, outside help may be needed.

How do you know when to get help?

One authority describes it this way: As long as your grief is moving, changing and “fluid”, it is okay. As long as your emotions are constantly changing, and you’re exhausted at the end of the day, you’re on track.

It’s only when grief stagnates, traps you in an unchanging phase or cycle, that grief has gone wrong. You will probably need a therapist for chronic grief that is excessive and prevents you from functioning and fails to resolve. You will feel “unfinished” and know that you need help to complete your grief.

Exaggerated grief is when the grief response is excessive, disabling, crippling; when psychotic, antisocial or suicidal behavior has surfaced. Find a psychotherapist who specializes in grief to help you. They fully understand the effects of bereavement.

Warning signs: get help if this describes you!

  1. SUICIDAL IDEATION – You may feel sometimes feel like you don’t want to go on, or “wish you were dead”. It is perfectly normal in serious grief to have fleeting thoughts of killing yourself. The key here is that these thoughts are brief in duration and they go away. It’s only if you start being obsessed with such thoughts and formulate real plans of how you would carry it out that you need to seek immediate professional help. Tell someone and get help!
  2. HIGH ANXIETY – Intense grief can bring on some really disturbing sensations, as described above. We assure you, they are normal and common. But if you just feel too scared or stressed out by what you are feeling, or are having serious anxiety/panic attacks, go on and see a counselor. Just a few visits with a mental health professional might be just the ticket to calm you down and get you back on track.
  3. DEPRESSION – Many normal grief behaviors may mimic or look like clinical depression. And grief may lead to or aggravate a pre-existing depression. There is a fundamental difference, though, between grief and depression. Grief: is not a disease or mental disorder. It is a normal emotional response to a significant loss. Sadness is expected. There is no clinical treatment. It must run its course. Depression: is a clinical disorder, a physiological chemical imbalance in the brain. It is often treated with medication, and sometimes psychotherapy is needed.

Silhoutette of a depressed woman
A word of caution here:

Don’t fall into the trap of using anti-anxiety medication (or excessive alcohol) to get you through your grief. It won’t work. No short cuts, remember? Anti-anxiety meds are among the most highly addictive medicines out there. You don’t need that!

The difference between normal grief & clinical depression

  • With grief, there is no major or long-term loss of self-esteem; grief feels like a normal, expected response.
  • With depression, there is a prolonged negative sense of self.
  • Or as Freud put it: “In grief, the world looks poor and empty. In depression, the person feels poor and empty”.
  • The important message here: Don’t treat uncomplicated grief with anti-depressant medication. But if your physician diagnoses an underlying true depression or anxiety disorder, medication may be indicated.

Where to go get help

There are basically 3 types of outside help available if you ultimately need help with your grieving process:

  1. Online support groups and forums (might be all the extra support you need). You may find some very unexpected but welcome support and great coping advice by joining The Grief Club.
  2. Local support groups – especially useful for those who have lost a child, or with grief from suicide
  3. Psychotherapy — a must for the grief that won’t resolve or serious suicidal intent

*For more information and a list of resources available, take a look at these outside resources. 

Normal effects of bereavement

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