Emotional stages of loss
For a short time after your loss you can expect to be in shock. This is your body’s way of protecting you as you initially try to cope. You may feel emotionally numb and experience physical symptoms such as sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, sickness, restlessness or confusion.
You may find it difficult to think clearly so it is best to try to avoid making any major decisions or changes for a while. Wherever possible allow family and friends to make the minor decisions for you. Asking for their assistance is a courageous thing to do and will help them as well as you.
Disbelief and denial
You may find it hard to believe what has happened to you. You may deny the event has happened and believe the loved one has just gone away somewhere and will return shortly. If you’ve lost a loved one you may still feel their presence or think you hear their voice. You may find this comforting or you may find it makes you feel more alone. Feeling disbelief and hurt is a normal response to an experience of loss.
As you begin to come to terms with your loss you may be overwhelmed by intense feelings of anxiety, grief and yearning. This can be distressing and bewildering because you cannot get back what you have lost.
A memory, a photo or waking up alone in a home which was once shared, may cause you to pine for the loved one and feel acute pangs of loss. Remembering and reliving your memories is an important part of grief. It is painful because it can bring back sad memories and reawaken former losses and unhappiness. However, it can also bring back happy memories which give great comfort.
The most natural way to relieve the tension of grief is crying. Don’t try to postpone, deny or run away from your pain: it is healthiest to bear with it. Accept these feelings and let them wash over you like waves on a beach. They will lessen over time.
Anger and guilt
As the initial shock wears off you may start to feel anger: at the injustice of what has happened. You might look to blame someone, whether it is society, friends, family or God. Many of us blame ourselves because we wish we’d done things differently to postpone or prevent the loss. You may feel helpless because there is now no chance to put things right. You may also feel angry at the lost one for abandoning you and may find yourself projecting this anger onto the people around you.
Bottling up anger can lead to physical problems later on and prevent you accepting your loss. It is best to express and work through your feelings by talking to someone who is not emotionally involved in your loss. This could be a friend or neighbour or one of the organisations listed at the end of this fact sheet. The intensity of these feelings will subside as you heal.
Depression and lack of direction
Acute anxiety, guilt and anger may give way to feelings of depression and lack of direction. When someone or something has been an important part of your life it takes time to adjust to being without them. Loneliness is part of grieving. You may find you lose interest in things, have less confidence or self esteem. You may find yourself succumbing to illnesses. Again it is helpful to have someone nearby who can talk to and who can offer you support and encouragement.
Understanding and acceptance
Healing is not the smooth process that you might imagine. You may find yourself seesawing between stages, going through bouts of unhappiness again just when you thought you were recovering. The pain will ease with time, although it’s hard to believe at the beginning.
By working through the grief stages, and acknowledging the difficult emotions that arise, you will come to a point where you accept and understand your situation. You will find you can comfortably and realistically remember and think about both the good and not-so-good times with your loved one.
Although you will not forget your loss, you will learn to live with the sadness. As you establish clear and satisfactory memories of the past, it is hoped that you will begin to realise fully that although your loved one will not come back, they are, in a special and different way, still part of your life.
At this stage you will find your thinking clears, your judgement becomes more reliable, your concentration improves, your feelings become more alive and your view of the world is less self-preoccupied.
Change is an inevitable part of the process. As you stop grieving you will start to build a new identity. As well as returning to some of your old activities, it is time to develop some new interests. As you start to move back into the world again you will be stronger.
The final stage of grieving is sometimes the hardest. You will need to let go of your grief and release the lost person or object and the emotional ties with them so that life, activities, relationships and interests can go on. There is no need to feel guilty about doing this. They would not have wanted you to stop enjoying life just because they are no longer with you.
Accepting your loss and saying goodbye does not mean you have stopped loving or remembering. Rebuilding one’s life after loss is inevitable and takes time. It is a part of the necessary healing stage of letting go and moving on.