by Lisa Appelo
Write something on how to grieve well, the editor suggested. I’m pretty sure I knew what she meant, but it unearthed questions I’d had in the months and years after becoming a sudden widow. Am I grieving the right way? I’d wonder.
Because I didn’t feel like I was doing this grief thing well. It felt like survival. I was doing the next thing that needed done, taking care of my kids and clinging to hope though my emotions screamed different.
I was unprepared and it was unfamiliar.
Even if I didn’t feel good, I at least wanted to know my feelings were normal. There’s comfort in knowing we’re not alone in how we experience grief; that our emotions and reactions are common to others walking through grief.
While grief will look different for each of us, there are commonalities. Let’s look at 12 ways people often experience grief.
1. Non-linear grief
Let’s dispel the myth that grief happens in five tidy, organized stages. Grief is a messy mix of emotions. It’s not shock then sadness then despair, like ticking down a list. It’s all the emotions, all at once, more than once, recurring long after you thought you’d put them to rest.
Grief is not linear. Just when you think you’ve moved through its deepest pit, you find yourself pulled back in. But what feels like a constant cycle of one step forward, one step back is moving forward in grief.
2. Grief fog
The fog of grief, or grief brain, is a forgetfulness, distraction and inability to concentrate. Grief sends our minds on overdrive with emotions, questions and changes leaving little room for details and focus. My mind felt shrouded in a bubble of memories, regrets, missing, coping and worry that kept me detached from current events and friends whose lives kept going while mine had imploded.
One of my children, who’d had top college entrance exam scores the year before, scored much lower after my husband died. While outside, this child did well with classes and extracurriculars, it was a reminder of the deep grief happening inside.
3. Sleep changes
Grief affects us physiologically. Nights are often hardest for those grieving, leading to sleep disruptions and insomnia. Sleep troubles, in turn, lead to more difficulty in grieving, so it’s important to find a healthy sleep routine. Eliminating stimulants, exercise, turning off lights and even natural sleep supplements like lavender and herbal sleep teas can help you sleep better in grief.
4. Eating changes
Grief can also lead to changes in eating. There’s a reason we call certain foods “comfort foods.” Those grieving can also use food or overeating to mask pain. On the other hand, some find themselves under eating, because they feel sick or because they have no desire to cook or eat. Healthy eating habits can help proactively manage the stress and hard emotions of grief.
Grief taxes us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. It’s waking to a battle every day to regain your footing, cling to hope and fight to smile again. Loss triggers enormous changes in routine and relationships that we have to learn to navigate.
The top five life stressors all involve grief: death of a loved one, divorce, moving, major illness or injury and job loss. These losses trigger our fight-or-flight stress hormones, only meant for emergencies, and deplete the body of energy. Giving ourselves grace to rest and pull back on activities can help us manage grief fatigue.
6. Hard Emotions
This one almost goes without saying and yet, the mix of emotions and their intensity often surprises us. Grief often involves these emotions: sadness, despair, shock, denial, anger, pain, regret, guilt, anxiety, frustration, overwhelm, loneliness, stress, heartbreak, longing.
You may deal with envy as others have what you lost. You may feel resentment if someone or something caused your loss. These negative emotions wreak havoc on hope. Here’s how I learned to process hard emotions of grief with hope.
C.S Lewis famously wrote, “No one told me grief felt so much like fear.” Loss shakes our world as we know it, ushering in change and a host of unknowns. Loss leaves us vulnerable and uncertain. When the unthinkable happens, it opens the door what-if’s and what might be’s.
Fear paralyzes us. It steals our joy and lies about the future God has for us. It can lead to a constant low-level anxiety unless we tackle it head-on. God lays out three steps in scripture to fight fear.
It happened in the grocery store, passing the San Pellegrino® waters I used to splurge on for my husband. Familiar pain rose in my chest, another stark reminder of deep missing and life changed.
Triggers happen months and years after a loss. A smell, special memento or a place can bring grief back to the surface. Important dates like birthdays, anniversaries, heavenaversaries or seeing others celebrate milestones you hoped for can trigger a fresh wave of grief. While triggered grief can be disconcerting, these triggers can help us process our loss.
Deep grief sparks big questions. Loss can shake us to the core, causing us to question our assumptions, values, relationships and priorities. It’s natural to have spiritual questions about suffering and sovereignty, expectations and reality, the enemy and God, the nature of life here and the hope of heaven.
God is not daunted by our hard questions. Job asked God hard questions. So did King David, the Psalmist and prophets like Habakkuk. Questions can help us eliminate idols and errant theology, bringing a deeper and more authentic relationship with God. While God answers some questions through His Word, we have to leave others with Him in trust.
10. Loss of interests
In the months following Dan’s death, I lost all interest in passions that once captivated me. I’d homeschooled my children for 20 years, pouring over curriculum catalogs, starting clubs and classes and teaching at a local co-op. When Dan died, my heartbeat for all things homeschooling seemed to die with him.
Losing interest in hobbies and passions is natural. They may not hold meaning as we refocus on what matters and what doesn’t. Plus, grief usurps our mental, emotional and physical energy, with little leftover. Interests may become painful reminders of what’s lost. And grief ushers in changes redirecting how we can spend our time. Interests may come back or God may ignite new passions in you.
11. Being with others
Grief can make us pull inward or seek time with others. You may have both times when being with others is comforting and times when being alone is needed. There’s no right or wrong here. I liked getting the invitation while being able to say no if I didn’t feel up to it.
Introverts and extraverts grieve differently. Introverts often need more space and alone time to reflect. They may find journaling, nature and quiet routine helpful. Extraverts often want activity with people in grief. They may find resuming work and church activities, joining gym classes and evenings out with friends comforting.
12. The grief timeline
I naively thought if I could just make it through that first year of grief, I’d be okay. Then the second year happened and I discovered it hurt worse than the first. There is no timeline for grief.
We don’t get over the death of a loved one. Grief is learning to live with the love and without your loved one and those who put a timeline on grief have never suffered life-altering loss.
Getting through active, raw grief may take longer than you or those around you expect. Or you may find yourself ready to move forward before your community thinks you should.
Processing deep loss takes as long as it takes. May you give yourself grace to grieve without a timeline and without comparing your timeline to someone else’s.
Lisa Appelo is a published author, speaker, advocate and former litigating attorney inspiring women to cultivate faith in life’s storms. She’s a widow and single mom to seven children in Florida. Her second book Life Can Be Good Again: Putting Your World Back Together After It All Falls Apart releases April, 2022. LisaAppelo.com IG@lisaappelo.