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Suffering a terrible loss, such as the death of a beloved family member or close friend, is something all of us will likely experience during our lifetimes. How we respond to that loss is varied, though there are some commonly shared experiences. The symptoms of grief can manifest mentally, emotionally, and even physiologically. Here are a few of the ones you're most likely to experience after a loss.
The "Stages" of Grief
You're likely familiar with the notion of stages of grief. While many of these "stages" are common, not everyone experiences them to the same extent, and not necessarily in a specific order. However, it does serve as a good place to begin the process of explaining the symptoms of grief, especially the emotional manifestations.
- Denial: Symptoms of shock after the death of a loved one, or numbness in the face of grief, are very common. People who are grieving may think that the loss couldn't possibly have happened. Your brain uses denial as a defense mechanism to soften the immediate impact of learning of a tragic death, giving you time to prepare yourself more fully for what's to come.
- Anger: Anger is considered the "second" stage of grief, even if it doesn't always come in exactly an order directly behind denial. It's common to have feelings of helplessness and frustration at not being able to change what happened, and this often manifests as anger. This anger is natural, though it's not necessarily healthy to use that anger against people who bear no responsibility for your loss - and that includes yourself.
- Bargaining: This stage often manifests as second-guessing your own behavior, perhaps feeling that if you had only done something - or not done something - your loved one may not have died. Many religious and spiritual people turn to a higher power at this point, extolling them in prayer to strike a bargain, no matter how unrealistic this may be.
- Depression: Another stage that can set in any time during the grieving process, and one that often comes and goes without warning, is depression. This is more than just sadness and crying; there are feelings of regret, loneliness, and being overwhelmed. There are also physiological issues such as decreased appetite and insomnia.
- Acceptance: Long considered the "final" stage of grief, acceptance comes when you accept the reality of the situation. In other words, the symptoms of shock after the death of a loved one subside. You come to terms with the fact that your loss occurred, there's likely nothing you could have done that could have made a difference, and that you can't change the past but instead have to go on living. It may take years to reach acceptance; again, everyone processes their grief differently and on different timelines.
Physical Symptoms of Grief
The mental and emotional toll that the loss of a loved one can have on us is already more than many of us can deal with without help. Yet the physical symptoms of grief can be just as devastating - and in some instances, even worse. Intense grief can have a negative physical impact on your health as your body is flooded with stress hormones like cortisol. Researchers have found that the physiological symptoms of grief can include:
- A reduction in the effectiveness of your immune system
- Increased perception of physical pain
- Raised blood pressure and an increased likelihood of blood clots
- Appetite loss
- Interference in the ability to sleep
In extreme cases, intense physical symptoms of grief can be deadly. The risk of heart attack or stroke in people who lost a loved one, such as a spouse or a child, was found to increase as much as 21 times in the 24 hours following that death. Other research shows that a similarly elevated risk of death can persist for as much as a month after the death of someone close to you. There's a reason the phenomenon is sometimes referred to as "broken heart syndrome."
There's No Cure for Grief, But There Is Help
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Sadly, there's no magic cure you can take that can make your grief disappear overnight. Anyone who is suffering from grief after the loss of a loved one often feels alone, adrift in strange seas with no land in sight, which can make trying to process your grief seem an impossible task. What's important to remember is that you're not alone, even if you feel that way. It's natural to feel helpless, angry, depressed, frustrated, or even guilty when it comes to grief. Remember that you're not the first person to have these grief symptoms.
This is important to emphasize: those experiencing grief often feel like they are the only person to have ever felt this particular form of mental, emotional, or physical pain. They are not. While everyone's grief is certainly different, you are not alone in feeling the way you feel.
And while there's no way that your grief can be taken away from you, expressing how you feel can help. Consider reaching out to these resources for support:
- Trusted friend
- Spiritual leaders
- Medical professionals
- Grief-related support groups
It's okay to admit that you're not okay, that grief is banging down your door, and that some days it feels like you can't function. We are social creatures, and we need community in times like these so that we can rely on the support of others, just as you will, in turn, be there for those others when they need it. Conversely, if you feel like the last thing you want to do is attend a support group or talk to others, that's fine too. Only you know how you feel.
You can also reference these other grief support services: