After Margaret lost her husband to cancer, she found herself on a roller coaster.
The shock of his loss came first, even though she had been steeling herself for his death. Then came the unbearable sadness, punctuated by bouts of sobbing that left her unable to move. A self-styled foodie, she found no joy in the tempting meals prepared by friends. The dark nights after his death became even longer as Margaret found herself unable to sleep more than a few hours at a time.
Heather O’Brien says that Margaret’s reactions are all normal – and healthy – in the face of such a life-changing loss.
“Grief is a word we use to describe the physical and emotional reactions that commonly occur in response to loss,” explains O’Brien, director of bereavement services for Emmanuel Hospice. “It’s a core human experience that has existed throughout history and is observed in every culture.
“Everyone’s journey through grief is unique, and everyone’s timetable will be distinct. We all take different routes that bend and curve in singular ways, sometimes circling back on themselves. Sometimes we are moving slowly while other times it feels like we are not moving forward at all.”
O’Brien said that a death, even when it might be expected, first triggers a shock for us. The shock is followed by numbness or a dazed feeling, where we just don’t know what to do with ourselves, she explains. As those feelings fade, O’Brien notes that feelings of sadness and despair can increase. Just as we may start to be feeling a bit better, we may actually start feeling worse.
“Our body naturally responds to despair with tears,” O’Brien observes. “Tears are an important healing function; avoiding or resisting them can cause difficulty. So I tell people, go ahead and give yourself a good cry – it’s an important emotional and physical release.”
She notes that grief manifests itself in numerous other ways, including:
- Loneliness and isolation, which O’Brien points out are not synonymous. When we are lonely, she says, we have a hard time engaging in activities that are typically comforting and soothing. It’s okay to be lonely – and okay to be isolated, where we withdraw from a world that has changed, opt not to return phone calls or connect with others to conserve strength.
- Forgetfulness and lack of concentration. O’Brien explains that grief disconnects higher-level thinking, interfering with our ability to think, read, plan or organize. Putting keys in the refrigerator might come across as absentminded, but it’s really grief – and it is very normal.
- Irritability and anger. Tears and anger are very close together for some of the people O’Brien counsels at Emmanuel Hospice. She has seen anger at self, family members, God, medical personnel and others. It’s important to be patient with ourselves and realize that we might be short-tempered or prone to outbursts for a bit.
- Appetite and sleep. These are two of the big things that grief interrupts, O’Brien says, tipping the scales heavily on one side – overeating and oversleeping – or the other – failing to do both. Through your grief, it’s important to keep our body healthy and nourished during this time, even when you don’t feel like eating and sleeping are options.
“To heal, you have to acknowledge that pain,” she cautions. “If you try and avoid grieving, it can often prolong the process for you and lead to other complications, such as depression, anxiety and health problems.
“The two things that will help people the most is getting support from others who will help you heal and taking care of yourself. Grief can feel pretty lonely. This is the time to lean on people who care about you, even if you tend to be pretty self-sufficient.
“It’s a time when you can draw comfort from your faith, whether that is through prayer, meditation or going to church. Sharing your sadness and sorrow with others who understand and have experience loss can help.”