Sadness is the most common feeling found in the bereaved and really needs little comment. This feeling is not necessarily manifested by crying behaviour, but it often is. Crying is a signal that evokes a sympathetic and protective reaction from others and establishes a social situation in which the normal laws of competitive behaviour are suspended.
Anger is frequently experienced after a loss. It could be one of the most confusing feelings for the bereaved, and as such is at the root of many problems in the grieving process. A woman whose husband died of cancer said to me “How can I be angry? He did not want to die”. The truth is that she was angry at him for dying and leaving her. If the anger is not adequately acknowledged it can lead to a complicated mourning. This anger comes from two sources: (1) from a sense of frustration that there was nothing one could do to prevent the tragic event, and (2) from a kind of regressive (disabling/helpless) experience that occurs after the loss of someone close. The bereaved might have had this type of regressive experience when he/she was a very young child on a shopping trip with his/her mother. The child suddenly looked up to find that the mother has disappeared somewhere. The child felt panic and anxiety until the mother returned, whereupon, rather than express a loving reaction, the child hauled off and kicked her in the shins. This behaviour is, according to researchers, a part of our genetic heritage, which symbolises the message “Don’t leave me again!”
In the loss of any important person there is a tendency to regress, to feel helpless, to feel unable to exist without a person, and then to experience the anger that goes along with these feelings of anxiety. The anger that the bereaved person experiences needs to be identified and appropriately targeted towards the person that is gone to bring it to a healthy conclusion. However, it often is handled in other less effective ways, one of which is displacement, or directing the anger towards some other person and then often blaming them for the tragic event. The line of reasoning is that if someone can be blamed, then he is responsible, and hence, the loss could have been prevented.
One of the most risky maladaptation of anger is the posture of turning the anger inward against the self. In a severe case of retroflection, an angry person, who is also down on himself might develop suicidal behaviour.
Feelings; Guilt and Self-reproach
Guilt and self-reproach are common experiences of the bereaved; guilt over not being kind enough, over not doing certain things in the past, etc. Usually the guilt is manifested over something that happened or something that was neglected around the time of the death. Most often the guilt is irrational and will mitigate through reality testing.
Feelings; Anxiety (fear)
Anxiety of the bereaved can range from a light sense of insecurity to a strong panic attack. The more intense and persistent the anxiety, the more it suggests the pathological grief reaction. Anxiety comes primarily from two sources, first, the fear of bereaved that he/she won’t be able to take care of themselves on their own. People who experience this type of anxiety often say something like that “I will not be able to survive without her”. Second source of anxiety relates to heightened sense of personal death awareness; the awareness of one’s own mortality heightened by the loss of a loved one (this could refer to some profound sense of inner change, being a different person for the rest of their life like a victim of trauma, a survivor of a very rough patch of life journey). Carried to extremes, this anxiety can develop into a full-blown phobia (also phobia of relationships). Well known author C.S. Lewis knew this anxiety and said after losing his wife: “no one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawing. I keep on swallowing”.
Feelings; Loneliness (a form of sadness)
Loneliness is a feeling frequently expressed by the bereaved, particularly those who have lost a spouse and who were used to a close day-by-day relationship. Even though very lonely, many bereaved will not go out because they feel safer in their homes. They often say “I feel so all alone now” especially after losing their spouse after 50-something years of married life together; “It has been like the world has ended”
Feelings; Fatigue (a form of sadness)
We see this feeling of fatigue frequently in bereaved individuals. It may sometimes be experienced as apathy or listlessness. This high level of fatigue can be both surprising and distressing to the person who is usually very active.
Feelings; Helplessness (a form of sadness)
One factor that makes the event of a loss so stressful is the sense of helplessness it can engender. This close correlate of anxiety is frequently present in the early stage of a loss. Females (or very feminine, caring males) often feel extremely helpless. One woman left with a young child said “my family came and lived with me for the first five months- I was afraid I would freak out and not be able to care for my child”
Feelings; Shock (a form of surprise)
Shock occurs mostly in the case of a sudden, unexpected loss.
Feelings; Yearning (a form of sadness)
Yearning for the lost person is common experience of the bereaved, particularly among females (or very feminine, caring males). Yearning is normal response to loss. When it diminishes, it may be sign that mourning is coming to an end.
Feelings; Emancipation (a state of inner peace)
Emancipation can be a positive state after a loss. A good example here could be a young woman whose father was an unbending dictator over her existence. After losing him, she went through the normal grief process, but she also experienced a state of emancipation, because she no longer had to leave under his tyranny. At first she was uncomfortable with this feeling but later was able to accept it as the normal response to her changed status.
Feelings: Relief (a state of inner peace)
Many people feel relief after the loss of a loved one, particularly if the loved one suffered a painful illness. However, a sense of guilt often accompanies this sense of relief.
Feelings; Numbness (a state of inner emptiness)
Some people report a lack of feelings. After a loss, they feel numb. Again, this numbness is often experienced early in the grieving process, usually right after learning of the tragic event. It probably occurs because there are so many feelings to deal with that to allow them all into consciousness would be overwhelming. So the person experiences numbness as a protection from this flood of feelings. In commenting on numbness, researchers say “we found no evidence that it is an unhealthy reaction. Blocking of sensation as a defense against what would otherwise be overwhelming pain would seem to be extremely normal”
As you review this list of feelings, remember that all the items represent normal grief feelings and there is nothing pathological about any of them. However, feelings that exist for abnormally long periods of time and at excessive intensity may portend a complicated grief reaction.
Fragments from the old book considered to be the must-read regarding grief and grieving: “Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy” by J. W. Worden (1991), p.22-25