The Unexpected Symptoms of Grief

Ann’s teenage son died in a freak skiing accident. The family went through an intense period of shock, unable to find out exactly what happened that led to the death of their strong and healthy son. Their devastation and sadness came with a mix of anger and confusion, which allowed them to make phone calls and demand more information in an effort to get answers. After a few weeks of getting nowhere, their shock turned to despair and fear. Ann in particular lived in constant fear and shame—Will I ever know what really happened? What do we tell people about his death? Was I a bad mother for not being there? What if something happens to one of our other children?

Ann started having shortness of breath and tightness in her chest. She had digestive issues and started losing weight. In the first 6 months after her son’s death, she caught one cold after another. Ann got lost driving home from running errands on several occasions and worried about her health—she wondered if she had cancer or early dementia.

As much as Ann’s friends reached out to help, Ann pushed back saying, no one could understand and she just had to handle this on her own. Ann and her husband, Tim, grew distant—she felt like he was willing to give up on finding the truth of their son’s death. Tim seemed fine with putting this in the past and trying to move on with his life. Ann felt betrayed even by her faith, which usually gave her strength, and stopped attending services at the church. How could God let this happen?

Getting to Know Grief

Grief affects every single aspect of life. We tend to think of grief as sadness, forgetting that the mind and body are one system—everything affects everything. In addition to the emotional impact, grief has physical and cognitive symptoms, and can influence our social behaviors and spiritual beliefs.

Practices and Tools: Yoga for Grief with Michelle Marlahan

Understanding the breadth of possible symptoms of grief can keep us out of self-judgment and increase our self-compassion as we fumble through this challenging terrain.

Emotional Symptoms

When we think about grief, most of us think about the emotional states based around sadness such as sorrow and heartache. Yet the emotional landscape of grief is surprisingly vast and can also include emotions like rage, anger, jealousy, fear, insecurity, and even relief. There are no “correct” grieving emotions.

Let’s look at the possible emotional range of grief, starting with what we tend to call "negative" emotions.

Common “negative” emotions:
  • Sadness, sorrow
  • Yearning, pining
  • Anger, rage, resentfulness, bitterness
  • Fear, phobias, anxiety, insecurity
  • Jealousy, envy
  • Shock, denial, disbelief
  • Numbness, despair, emptiness, hopelessness
  • Loneliness, meaninglessness
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Agitation, irritation, overwhelm
  • Feeling lost, disoriented

Not only is the range of difficult emotions more broad than just sadness, many people experience what we might call "positive" emotions in their grief as well. It’s important to know that it’s not inappropriate or wrong to have feelings of being OK or even positive emotions after loss.

Common "positive" emotions:
  • Relief, peace, contentment
  • Strengthened sense of self-esteem and self-acceptance
  • Gratitude, generosity and desire to give back
  • Personal or spiritual connection, love
  • Meaning and sense of purpose
  • Strength, perseverance, resilience
  • Clarity in life, clear focus
  • Courage, pride
  • Laughter, humor

Keep in mind that grief is usually not a continual state of unrelenting sadness (or any one emotion). Rather, our emotions come in waves and might flow through moments of deep sadness to feelings of being OK, then into a time of intense anger. Ideally, we experience so-called "positive," "negative," and neutral emotions in this fluid, oscillating way that makes grief more bearable.

Physical Symptoms

As you learned above, it’s common for fear to be heightened after loss. We can become more conscious of mortality, concerned about our safety and the safety of our loved ones, and fearful that another bad thing is going to happen.

Because our nervous systems respond to our sense of safety, our fight-or-flight response can be activated, causing an experience of grief that is incredibly physical.

As we saw in Ann’s story, when our systems get stuck in the stress response, a whole host of chemical changes in the body can create uncomfortable physical symptoms.

Common physical symptoms:
  • Changes in blood pressure and heart rate
  • Chemical and hormonal shifts that lower immunity
  • Short or shallow breathing, tight chest
  • Aching or stiff muscles
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues, diarrhea, stomachache, nausea, vomiting, ulcers
  • Loss or increase of appetite
  • Lethargy, exhaustion
  • Restlessness, manic energy
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Changes in posture and activity levels

People report all kinds of physical ailments and symptoms that seem to come solely from grief.

Cognitive Symptoms

For the first year after I lost a baby mid-term, I would say over and over, “I feel crazy, I feel like I’m a crazy person.” This is a common statement among grievers. And in a way, it’s true—you kind of are crazy, and you’re supposed to be. Your brain is using so much energy just to cope with what’s happened, that there’s not much left to manage the matters of life. You’ll put the box of crackers in the refrigerator and the juice in the laundry room. You’ll lose things. This is all normal ... and it will pass.

Common cognitive symptoms:
  • Forgetfulness, memory loss, absentmindedness
  • Confusion, disorientation, brain fog
  • Lack of comprehension, mental exhaustion
  • Lack of focus, distractedness
  • Impaired judgment
  • Mental spiral and rumination; what if’s and why’s
  • Visions, dreams, and nightmares

The brain is working hard to make sense of this new reality. Many people struggle at work or find they don’t love activities they used to, like reading or knitting. Over time, the brain will recalibrate and your focus will return.

Social and Behavioral Symptoms

Like Ann in the opening story, it’s common to push people away and isolate ourselves in times of grief. It’s just as common to dive into work or on the other side of the spectrum, want to tell our story to anyone who will listen. Like in all other aspects of grief, our responses do not have to fit in the box of what’s expected, and what we need or are able to do will change over time.

Common social/behavioral symptoms:
  • The desire to isolate, avoiding friends
  • A desire for community or support system
  • Pushing people away yet feeling abandoned
  • Fearful of new activities, places, or people
  • A dare-devil kind of attitude, attracted to risk
  • Diving into work or a project
  • Wanting to re-tell the story of loss again and again

Spiritual Symptoms

Loss can break our world apart, shattering our beliefs and faith. This can cause us to question everything from our spiritual or religious ideologies to our relationships and work. The world doesn’t make sense anymore, so suddenly all parts of life are under the microscope.

Common spiritual symptoms:
  • Questioning everything—your purpose, lifestyle, relationships, work
  • Asking larger, existential questions about the purpose of life
  • Seeking meaning, wanting to make a difference
  • Spiritual crisis or change of faith
  • Anger at God or higher power
  • A deepening of faith
  • A desire for a pilgrimage or quest

Although you may experience a host of surprising symptoms of grief, you are not broken or weak or flawed. You don’t need to be fixed. You are in a time of re-learning and adapting, because loss rearranges everything. Gradually, this loss will be integrated into your life and your body-mind will adjust to new circumstances.

Just remember that all of these symptoms are made harder when we don’t take care of ourselves in basic ways: stay hydrated, eat good food, get enough rest, and spend time with people who support you in the ways you need. Although this type of daily care can be challenging, especially in the beginning, these are simple things that can make a difference in your physical and emotional well-being. The grief is still there, you are just able to weather it with a little more steadiness.

What Is Grief?

Michelle Marlahan
About the Author

Michelle Marlahan

Michelle is a yoga teacher based in Sacramento. You can practice with her on Yoga Anytime in Yoga for Grief.


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