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What to Expect When You’re Grieving

What to Expect When You’re Grieving

By Rev. Patricia Gulino Lansky
What to expect when you are grieving, coping with grief, symptoms of grief, tools for grief

The emotional experience of loss is a spiritual process that will transform you

After experiencing a loved one’s dying process and death, our emotions can be raw and fragile. As we face the loss of a significant person, feelings can be confused and heartbreaking as we deal not only with their loss but with our own mortality.

We might prefer to escape into a cave and wait out the storm. But we can’t.

What if we could discover instead that our emotions are our friends, that they are the language of the heart

Our feelings are our heart’s internal wisdom speaking to us. Emotions help us by giving voice to what we need and giving us strength and resolve to take appropriate action through this morass of illness, decision-making, and loss.

Many of us question the way we feel at this time. Be assured there is no one right way to grieve. Each person and each relationship is unique. Grief could never be formulaic, as there is no time limit on grieving.

Grief is a normal and natural reaction to a significant loss. Grief is the way we deal with and move into recovery. It is a period of healing.

The Physical and Mental Symptoms of Grief

We grieve because we have loved, but levels of intensity vary with each individual. Crying is not required. Some may not have tears, while others might think they will never stop crying. Most important is to be honest and authentic with whatever you are feeling.

Each person experiences grief differently, yet there are some common responses.

One jarring response to witnessing or learning of a loved one’s death is losing focus. We may feel a physical reaction to loss by losing concentration and feeling numb. A typical situation is finding yourself unable to remember what you were looking for when you came into the room. This is normal as your mind is consumed with the loss of someone you love.

Other physical and mental responses may occur such as numbness, forgetfulness, and agitation. After a shocking loss, my friend couldn’t remember how to behave—to walk or stand or sit. Eventually, she was able to shift from this frozen state by calling a friend to help her navigate what to do next. Asking for help can make all the difference in moving through grief.

Sleeping and eating patterns can swing between extremes. For weeks after my mother’s death, her final breath revisited me in my memory. I’d lie down to sleep and I’d hear her exhale and then I’d wait—wait for the inhale that never came.

In grief there is often a roller coaster of physical and emotional energy. It is usual to have intense sorrow, be distracted and forgetful, and even experience physical pains in the chest or have trouble breathing.

You may not want to be with other people, or you might be frightened to be alone.

You may be confused to discover that you are angry. It’s possible to be angry with someone for dying, and you can certainly feel angry at the circumstance—being abandoned, witnessing their suffering, and other situations.

Your emotional process has its own logic and individual time frame.

When a beloved one dies, other losses that have not healed may also rise to the surface. That’s why our grief can often feel bigger than the present loss. Grief says, “Okay, now that I have your attention, now that your heart is broken open, let’s address the unfinished business of healing your whole heart.”

Grief needs time to unfold and bring its healing to you.

The Spiritual Gifts of Grief

Those who understand the spiritual potential of healing through grief may echo Jacob’s words in Genesis 32:24-31, when he wrestled all night with an angel and said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

We will want to delve deeply into processing and resolving our grief to discover how suffering will become a blessing. It might teach us compassion, trust, joy, and how ultimately through death we can learn to treasure life. We will come to know that who we are at the core of our being is so much greater than any circumstance we may face.

We will learn that all honest expressions help shift the psyche into balance and wholeness. Welcome them all—these emotions, these friends, these extensions of your soul. Let them come to feel at home in your expanding heart. As uncomfortable as these expressions can be, they invite you to be on good terms with them.

Continue to surround yourself with life, to cultivate life, to express whatever emerges in you.

No emotion will erase the love that you shared. Love is eternal.

Your emotions are part of you and can bring great blessings. Wrestle with your angel until you are blessed and transformed.


Rev. Patricia Gulino Lansky is the co-minister of Unity of Charlottesville and a licensed clinical social worker with more than 35 years in practice. She is the author of Accepting Death, Embracing Life: How Death Teaches Us to Live.

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