What to Expect After a Loved One Dies

What to Expect After a Loved One Dies: Forms of Grief

The Main Categories of Grief

  • Avoidance. "I felt numb. I was in a daze. People were leading me around. I could not speak," recalls Dan of the day his son died. Feelings of shock and disbelief are typical of the early days after death; usually, they give way to a cascade of other reactions — anger, sadness, fear, worry and despair.
  • Confrontation. This is the most acute, emotionally charged phase of grief, writes Rando. The shock has worn off, but you repeatedly review the fact that your loved one is dead. You have a painful yearning for the person who died and the unique relationship you two shared. You may feel an aching emptiness and be fearful that your suffering will never subside.
  • Accommodation. Acute grief has declined and you start to pick up your routine. You are still mourning what you have lost, not just the person's physical presence but all of the hopes, dreams, wishes, goals, fantasies and feelings you had for and with that person. But you know you will survive.

Physical Symptoms of Grief

During the phases of grief, people often have physical reactions, including insomnia, weight gain or weight loss, fatigue, poor digestion, irritability and inability to concentrate.

Linda reports being unable to sleep during the first six months after her husband died, and she found herself taking half-hour baths each night, though she had always preferred showers before her husband's death. Her therapist told her the baths symbolized her need for physical comfort.

Disrupted sleep is common, says Golden. "Before sleep, your body and mind are relaxed, which is precisely the state you need to be in for deep emotions to surface," he explains. Working through grief during the day can help take the edge off sleep problems.

Learning to Live With Loss

To adapt to living without your loved one, Rando says the following tasks must be accomplished.

  • The reality and reasons for death must be acknowledged, put in context and accepted. This is why humans spend so much time, effort and money to recover bodies after catastrophes, she points out. We need evidence of death before we can grieve it.
  • The pain of separation must be felt over and over again for the emotional charge to be diffused. It is often said that the only way to heal from pain is to lean into it. Many people find that writing, music and art help them to process the pain, especially if they can't talk about it.
  • New roles and skills must be assumed to compensate for what you have lost. For Linda, this meant becoming a hockey mom and familiar with just about everything involved in maintaining a home.
  • Finally, the emotional energy you invested in the relationship with the deceased needs to be channeled elsewhere so it can once again bring you satisfaction. Rando notes that the energy does not need to be reinvested in a person; it can be placed in objects, activities, hopes or causes.

Four years after the sudden death of her husband, Linda is working, mothering and even dating. There is little evidence of her tragedy on her face, in her talk or behavior. She will never stop grieving for her "best friend," but she has learned that grieving can coexist with a normal life.

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