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“Is this normal?”: Understanding grief behaviours

Posted by AK Lander | On September 4, 2018 17:54

Is there a right and wrong way to grieve? We look at some typical grief behaviours and how to understand our own.

Whether it’s your first time dealing with grief or your third, one thing is for sure: people experience grief differently, and each encounter with grief can be different from the last. But that doesn’t stop us from questioning our behaviours or comparing ourselves to others when we’re bereaved,

“Some of these emotions and behaviours can feel alarming,” says Sharecare. “Are they normal feelings when it comes to grief, or are they emotionally unhealthy reactions?”

A lot of grief behaviours, however ‘un-normal’ they can feel, are actually extremely normal and just your mind and body adapting through the motions of grief. Here are some of the typically ‘normal’ behaviours according to Sharecare:

Physical Reactions

  • Crying spells
  • Lack of energy and feeling physically drained
  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • General feelings of malaise

Emotional Reactions

  • Numbness
  • Sadness
  • Anger, general irritability
  • Guilt
  • Fear or anxiety

Behavioural Reactions

  • Withdrawn/less productive
  • Unable to sit still
  • Lacking attention or concentration
  • Struggling to think clearly or remember things
  • Seeing or hearing the voice of the deceased

“Over time, you should feel a gradual reduction in the above symptoms as you begin to accept the loss and adjust to a new sense of normalcy,” says Sharecare. “However, when you are in the midst of such reactions, be extra cautious about your health choices. Studies suggest added stress can limit your ability to control unwanted behaviours, leading you to make poor dietary choices, forget exercise, and indulge more in overeating, smoking, and caffeine consumption.”

In terms of ‘un-normal’ behaviours, this is often called ‘complicated grief’ and can be recognised as:

Physical Reactions

  • Continued sleep disturbances from frequent nightmares and intrusive memories
  • Physical symptoms or psychosomatics related to the loss
  • Significant weight loss or gain

Emotional Reactions

  • Inhibited or absent grief
  • Prolonged hostility and aggression
  • Panic attacks, phobias, or irrational fears
  • Constant yearning for what was lost

Behavioural Reactions

  • Progressive isolation and withdrawal from social contact
  • Self-destructive behaviour
  • Prolonged avoidance of tasks reminiscent of what was lost
  • Continued loss of interest in activities

It’s important to be aware that experiencing ‘complicated grief’ symptoms for a short time is perfectly normal. This is particularly true if the loss you’ve suffered is highly traumatic and sudden, if multiple people were lost, you have a limited support network or you had an intense or complicated relationship with the deceased. You also need to consider the duration, intensity and the number of symptoms first.

“Your grief – your response to loss – can give rise to all sorts of emotional, physical, spiritual and social changes, particularly for the first few months after a death.” Says Joan Hitchens, life coach, author and founder of Navigating Grief. “These symptoms and changes can wax and wane over time. You may have some but not others. They can creep up on you or overwhelm you. Why “normal” is so difficult to figure out is because we are all different with many variables of life and death circumstances.”

“Having any, none or all of these symptoms after a loss does not make you normal or not normal! Some organic illnesses may have the same physical symptoms. Some behaviours may be healthy remembrance activities. You may choose social behaviours as more in keeping with your current lifestyle. Grief is a changing process across time, not an overnight or single day snapshot of life.”

Grief is a natural part of life, but it’s so easy to question our reactions to loss. “Why am I not over this yet?”; “Why am I more upset than that person?”; 'Is this normal?” are just some of the questions we ask ourselves when faced with the loss of a loved one. But rather than asking yourself whether your grief is normal, What’s Your Grief? suggests asking yourself “How’s that working out for me?” when trying to work out whether your behaviours are doing you good or not.

“I think this question is especially relevant where grief is concerned because things that look like an expression of pain, erraticism, or impulsivity to the outside observer – like minor acts of avoidance, holding onto items, sudden shifts in perspective, making major life decisions, and continuing to mourn for years into the future – may actually be positive, comforting, and adaptive to the individual.”

If you feel the behaviour has been beneficial to you then it shouldn’t be cause for alarm, even if it feels particularly unusual for you. However if your answer to “How’s that working out for me?” is “Not well” then it might be time for change. But that doesn’t mean you need professional advice and help, you may just need to try something new, such as taking up a new hobby or talking about it with a close friend.

“Is my grief normal?” is a question that “often just means we need reassurance that we can get through this time of loss, there is hope and that someone, somewhere understands. And that is very normal,” says Joan. Without comparing, sometimes, it can be beneficial to connect with and understand the way others grieve. “Not every member of your family has the same experience and not every friend even has experienced a similar loss, so reaching out through support groups and internet resources can be very reassuring and extremely helpful. As you travel the road with others, you’ll discover the parameters of what is similar or different about your own grief.”

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