Understanding Grief: Common Reactions

Hands holdingIf you have recently experienced the death of a loved one, you are facing one of life's most significant challenges. Grief is the word we use to describe a set of physical and emotional reactions that commonly occur in response to loss. It is a core human experience that has existed throughout history and is observed in every culture. Despite this universality, grief often is poorly understood in our modern society.

Grieving involves a complex web of interconnected biological, psychological, spiritual and social processes. So how you grieve is influenced by many factors. No two people grieve in the same way. Still, there are commonly occurring reactions to grief, and understanding these reactions can often help you make sense of your grieving and come to terms with it.

Which of the following common reactions to grief are you feeling?

When you are ready, click here to learn how to help yourself or someone you know who is grieving.

Shock or numbness

Whether it is expected or not, the death of a loved one typically triggers shock, a natural, instinctive process. You may feel numb, dazed, stunned, absorbed in your own thoughts, disoriented or detached from your surroundings. You may feel an urge to move and pace, or you may sit motionless for extended periods. Partial or complete amnesia may occur during this time. Shock naturally dissipates as time goes on.

Sadness and despair

The death of a loved one brings deep despair. As shock begins to fade, sadness and despair tend to increase. At a time when you may expect to feel better, you may actually feel worse, and the intensity of these feelings can be overwhelming. You may question your ability to cope. The body naturally responds to despair with tears. Many grieving people say tears and sadness come in waves, sometimes out of nowhere. Like shock, tears serve an important healing function, so it is healthy to allow yourself to cry. Avoiding or resisting tears can cause difficulty in other areas, so go ahead and give yourself a good cry.


Loneliness is a natural and unavoidable response to loss. When the person you shared your life with dies, of course you feel lonely. Loneliness can be difficult to cope with, especially if you have not experienced it in the past. Go easy on yourself. Allow yourself to be lonely. Engage in activities that are comforting and soothing. Know it is normal to feel this way. Let friends and family know it is OK for you to be lonely.



Isolating yourself from others is a common response to grief. Your world has indelibly changed and the rest of the world is moving like nothing happened. You feel a disparity between yourself and others in energy, interests and well-being. You may not want or be able to adjust to the pace and energy of others. You may not return phone calls and may avoid social activities. Know that this is a normal reaction to grief.

Difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness

Grief deactivates higher-level thinking. You may find it difficult to think, read, concentrate, learn, plan or organize. You may be forgetful and absentminded. Tasks you once handled with ease may now be difficult. This is a normal reaction. It's best to go easy on yourself right now. Pushing yourself too hard may make things worse. With time, your functioning will return to its usual levels. Respect your limits and ask for help when you need it.

Irritable and angry

Anger is a common, often unexpected, reaction to loss. Like tears, anger may come out of nowhere. You may feel angry at God, your loved one, medical personnel, yourself or family members. You may be short tempered and prone to angry outbursts.

Increased or decreased appetite

Change in appetite is common at this time. You may have no desire to eat, or you may find comfort in food. Eating is absolutely essential for your health, strength and survival, so you must eat several times a day whether you are hungry or not. If your appetite is poor, look for tasty foods that are easy to prepare. If you are providing support to someone who is grieving, encourage and assist them in eating.

Fatigue, sleeplessness and oversleeping

Grief is exhausting. You may feel tired, listless or apathetic. You will likely have an increased need for sleep, and at the same time you may find it difficult to sleep. Allow yourself to rest as needed. Sleep is the body's natural healing mechanism. There is no need for concern unless you are sleeping all day every day without eating, or you go several days without sleep. Should this occur, medical or counseling assistance is recommended as this is a treatable condition.

Physical discomfort

Physical responses to grief include tightness in the throat and chest, sensitivity to noise, shallow breathing, muscular weakness and fatigue. Eating, sleeping and maintaining proper medical care are essential for sustaining your physical health.


The death of a cherished love one is incomprehensible. Common statements include, "I can't believe this happened," or, "I feel like I am dreaming and can't wake up." You may experience episodes where you feel disconnected from yourself, your surroundings and what is happening.

Guilt and regrets

As you reflect on the events surrounding loss, you may regret not having understood or done something. As the philosopher Kierkegaard observed, "life is lived forward and understood backward." Reflecting on the past is normal, and it is important to remember that hindsight is 20/20. Try to remember that what you know today is not the same as what you knew yesterday. Allow yourself to reflect with gentle kindness and understanding.

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