Loss and Grief - Grief Comes With Many Emotions

Family Caregiving September 23, 2015 Print Friendly and PDF

There aren’t any “shoulds” with respect with how grief is felt or expressed. It's common for people who have lost a spouse or someone close to feel sad, angry, helpless, guilty, anxious, lonely and frightened. It is also common to experience a sense of shock or numbness, especially if the death was sudden and unexpected. All of these feelings are normal, though not pleasant; they are all part of the process of grief. The key is to accept your feelings, whatever they may be, and not deny them or push them away. This may be very difficult, since it can be quite painful to allow yourself to experience grief.

Generally speaking, common emotions of grief are:

  • Shock. At first, it may be difficult to accept that your loved one has died. Some survivors cry, but others are too numb. They’re in shock. Shock acts as a defense against the painful feelings associated with loss. Shock is nature’s way of helping us through what otherwise seems unbearable.
  • Disorganization. As shock lessens, feelings of uncertainty, confusion or disorganization often set in. All of the activities associated with everyday life may seem unimportant given the major loss you’ve experienced. A person’s normal routine is now forever changed. Given this, it is sometimes helpful for the grieving person to plan each day. It may be important not to over plan, however, so that you will still have time for to be alone and reflect, and time to talk to loved ones about your feelings.
  • Volatile emotions. Anger, bitterness, hostility and resentment are common emotions experienced by a grieving person. These feelings may come on suddenly and without explanation, or may emerge gradually. These types of feelings, while uncomfortable, are no cause for shame. It’s best just to accept your emotions and express them in healthy ways.
  • Guilt. Feelings of guilt and anger may occur at the same time. Some people may feel guilty because of their angry feelings. Others feel guilty about something that was said or done that is now regretted. Still others may experience guilt if they believe they could have done something to prevent the deceased person’s illness or death. Such nagging thoughts often begin with “if only” or “what if.” If only we had called the doctor sooner. What if we had recognized the symptoms earlier? It is important to try to counteract these thoughts by acknowledging positive actions such as "I went out of my way to make dad comfortable," or "We had some good laughs talking about our memories." When working through your feeling of guilt be open to confiding these thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend or relative. If individuals find themselves feeling guilty and angry for long periods and can’t seem to move on, it’s important to consult with a professional.
  • Loss and loneliness. This is often the most painful of emotions and involves acknowledging the significance of the loss. Many people will feel depressed and will withdraw from activities they previously enjoyed. They may feel a sense of emptiness and lack of purpose. They may notice constant reminders of their loss--an empty chair, a photograph, a piece of mail addressed to the deceased, etc. It is important to keep in contact with friends and relatives you can lean on and confide in. Some people find it useful to seek the help of a professional counselor or a support group to help them through this difficult time.
  • Relief and recovery. Feelings of relief and a sense that the worst is over come with the realization that life will go on and that you’ll be alright. It is important to realize that feeling relief in no way diminishes the loss you have experienced. It simply marks the beginning of recovery.

For more information see:

  • On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss (2005) by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler
  • Caregiving and Loss (2001) edited by Kenneth J. Doka and Joyce D. Davidson
  • Surviving the Loss of a Spouse (2006) edited by Sheryl Garrett

Adapted with permission from GriefWorks, Sam Quick, Professor Emeritus, Human Development and Family Relations Specialist, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service.



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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.