How to Understand Someone Who is Grieving

by Larry Barber

At many points after a loss, the mourning person can benefit from the support of others. Individual grief reactions can vary widely from person to person and also within the same person over time. Accordingly, friends need to be ready to accept and support the griever through a wide range of emotions.

Reactions to Loss

Mourning people will experience many reactions to their loss as they deal with grief:

  • At various times, but especially at first, the mourning person may experience intense and sometimes conflicting feelings or may deny that the loss has occurred.

  • Strong feelings such as sadness, helplessness, loneliness, guilt, or anger can emerge. Experiencing and accepting these feelings as natural represents an important part of the recovery process.

  • Ultimately, the mourning person reaches a point in the recovery process where the loss becomes integrated into his or her set of life experiences. He or she is now better able to carry out the task of daily living.

  • Throughout their grief journey, people who are mourning will experience many reactions. Some of the following reactions may be experienced many times.

  1. Denial, shock and numbness – Reactions which distance the mourning person from the loss, thereby protecting him/her from being overwhelmed by emotions.

  2. Emotional release – These reactions accompany realizations of different aspects of the loss; they frequently involve much crying and are important to the healing process.

  3. Depression – Natural feelings beyond sadness (e.g., feelings of loneliness, isolation, hopelessness, self-pity) which occur as the person more clearly recognizes the extent of the loss. For some people, reactive depression is part of the internal processing of the loss that the mourning person must go through before reorganizing his/her life.

  4. Panic – Feeling overwhelmed, confused, fearful, unable to cope, and even believing something is wrong with oneself.

  5. Remorse – Following a loss (whether through death, relationship break up, or disability) a mourning person sometimes becomes preoccupied with thoughts of what he/she might have done differently to have prevented the loss or to have made things better. This can be helpful as the person tries to make sense out of his or her situation, but can also lead to unrealistic feelings of remorse or guilt.

  6. Anger – This is a frequent response to a perception of injustice and powerlessness. A significant loss can threaten the mourning person’s basic beliefs about himself or herself or about life in general. As a result (often to the mourning person’s bewilderment), he or she can feel anger at a person perceived as responsible for the loss or at God or life in general for the injustice of the loss; and also, in cases of loss through death, at the deceased for dying.

  7. The Need to Talk – In order to recognize and come to terms with the impact of the loss, the mourning person may express feelings, tell stories, and share memories, sometimes over and over with many different people.

  8. Physical ailments – In response to the emotional stress of grief, the immune systems of many people become suppressed or depleted, which makes the body more vulnerable to a variety of physical ailments during the months following loss (e.g., colds, nausea, hypertension, etc.).

A good rule of thumb for those seeking to support the mourner: If at any time, the person’s grief starts to affect adversely their ability to function in a healthy way at home, work or in the community, then it is a good time to get professional help for the mourner.

Also whenever the person providing support to the mourner feels inadequate to fulfill his or her job as comforter, it is a good time to refer the mourner to professional help.

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