Recognizing Grief: Our Natural Response to Loss

Grief follows loss. Regardless of whether it’s the loss of a person, a job, a home, a relationship, a pet or our physical abilities, grief is a normal and natural response, no matter how hard we may try to fight or avoid it.

Many of my clients dealing with grief are often surprised at the complexity and immensity of symptoms that our body, mind and spirit create to help us adjust to that certain loss.

To help you better understand the dynamics of grief – and the physical, emotional, relational and behavioral grief reactions that are often overlooked – here are a few signs to watch for:

Grief’s Physical Toll

After a loss, our body is going through a huge transition. Our brain has to adjust to an entirely different reality and it is slow in creating a new map for the journey ahead. Some symptoms that show us that life has changed dramatically are:

  • Headaches and nausea
  • Tightness in throat
  • Appetite disturbance
  • Overall heaviness in body
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • Muscle tension
  • Impaired concentration and memory

Emotional & Psychological Expression of Grief

Along with the many intense physical reactions to loss, our emotional world is often up-ended as well. We feel like we are on a roller-coaster that just won’t stop, displaying psychological symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety and panic
  • Sadness, sorrow and anguish
  • Yearning and longing for the person, situation or object lost
  • Fear of going crazy
  • Unpredictable changes in emotions
  • Relief
  • Disbelief or feelings of unreality
  • Shock
  • Numbness
  • Search for meaning resulting in an increase or decrease in spirituality
  • Jealousy of others who aren’t experiencing a loss

Grief and Our Behavior: What We Do Says Everything

After a loss, most people don’t just bounce back into what they were doing the day before, and that’s okay. We are changed by loss and our behavior expresses this in different ways:

  • Restless activity
  • Disorganized and absent-minded behavior
  • Crying and tearfulness
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Acting out and impulsive behavior
  • Increased or decreased sexual activity
  • Grief “spurts” – sudden waves of emotion centered around the loss
  • Decreased effectiveness and productivity
  • Decreased interest and motivation

How We See the World Through the Lens of Grief

In addition to changing our inner physical and emotional world, our outer world of family, friends, work and social life is impacted by loss. Some common changes are:

  • Lack of interest in others and usual activities
  • Dependency on others, clinginess
  • Feeling alienated and detached
  • Exhibiting critical, angry, and irritated behavior toward others
  • Feeling like I don’t fit in

The Key Message: Grief is a Normal and Natural Function

All of these grief responses have a purpose and are normal after a loss. It is our body’s way of helping us adjust to a new reality physiologically, emotionally, spiritually, and behaviorally. Grief is not a mental disorder nor is it pathological, it just feels like it is. I tell my clients, “The body knows how to grieve, we just have to let it do it.”

The adjustment to a loss is predictable, identifiable, and necessary. If we don’t allow the grief process to happen within us, then it will sit in us until we recognize the loss that has happened and readjust our lives to a new reality. When I work with clients who come for help after a loss, we focus on the changes that have been created by the loss itself, and also consider the changes that can be considered in the future, or even immediately, in order to continue on this life’s journey.

A grief process after a loss is not fast – it can take months, and maybe years depending on the complexity of the loss – but we all have an innate ability to grieve and readjust to a new reality. “The body knows how to grieve, we just have to let it do it.”

Are you struggling with loss or may need support? We are here to listen and help.

Ann LaRocque is a licensed mental health counselor for Catholic Charities New Hampshire’s Mental Health Counseling Services. She provides psychotherapy for adults who are struggling with grief and loss, current and past trauma, anxiety, depression, and life transitions. She works in the Lebanon, NH office.

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