Woman thinking about grief

Understanding grief behaviours and the symptoms of grief

Posted by AK Lander | On September 7, 2020 00:00

Learn more about the emotional, physical and behavioural reactions to grief and loss, as well as whether grief can change and complicated grief.

Whether it's a person's first time dealing with grief or their third, it never gets easier. And not only can grief manifest differently for different people, each personal encounter with grief can be different from the last. With a complex realm of emotions and questions, the behavioural reactions to grief and loss can be hard to navigate, and it can leave us cross-examining our psyche.

Coping with grief can often mean not only coping with the loss of a person but also coping with the intense emotions we feel in their absence. People grieve for many reasons though, so it may not only be triggered by death but by other kinds of loss like the loss of a job, the break-up of a major relationship or the loss of a beloved pet.

In this article, we explore some of the common symptoms of grief across the three main areas: emotional, physical and behavioural. We also explore whether grief can change and discuss complicated grief.

Emotional symptoms of grief

When we first consider the grieving process, it's often the emotional symptoms we think of. Especially in the instance when we pre-empt our own grief, for example when a loved one is experiencing health issues, we can envision our emotional symptoms and prepare for them.

Some of the emotional reactions to grief and loss are:

  • Sadness or numbness to emotion
  • Anger or irritability
  • Fear or anxiety
  • Guilt

Physical symptoms of grief

As well as the emotional symptoms we experience, grief can also come with physical symptoms. As well as how we mentally react to grief, our bodies react also and in ways that can make us feel as though we are unwell.

Some of the physical reactions to grief and loss are:

  • Feeling physically or emotionally drained
  • Feeling sick or unwell
  • Feeling aches or pains
  • Over-sensitivity to stimuli like noise

Behavioural symptoms of grief

Some of the most unsettling symptoms of grief can be the behavioural changes that we experience. It's often easy to explain away emotional symptoms and physical symptoms, but behavioural symptoms can be much harder to recognise and understand.

Some of the behavioural reactions to grief and loss are:

  • Withdrawing from others or the outside world
  • Struggling with concentration or productivity
  • Restlessness or an inability to relax
  • Loss of appetite or comfort eating
  • Disturbed sleep or nightmares, flashbacks and visions

It is important to remember these are only some of the symptoms of grief, and many more things can be triggered by grief. So, you may feel a selection of those mentioned above, or you may feel symptoms more unique to your own situation.

Equally, the knock-on effects of grief can also cause some of the above symptoms. Sharecare explains that: "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." These can all further the symptoms of grief to make them more noticeable.

If you find that you are struggling after grief and aren't able to distinguish between your symptoms and health problems, there are plenty of support groups on offer that can aid you, and there are also some wonderful online counselling options.

If you are wondering whether your grief is manageable for you, 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 a change.

Can the symptoms of grieving change?

Absolutely, the symptoms of your grieving can change not only from one encounter with grief to the next but also during one period of grief. Many people have heard of the stages of grief, and these describe the various states we go through when grieving, which can explain a change in symptoms.

Equally, how grief affects our lives can change depending on the circumstances around us and this can change our symptoms. For example, parental grief may be hard whilst going through a big life event like a marriage or giving birth to a child, events for which many people envision their parents will be present.

“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.”

Eventually, grief becomes something we learn to live with. Although it never truly goes away, by accepting the loss we introduce grief into our lives and learn to carry on with it. This doesn't mean we might not still feel some of the symptoms years into the future, but it does mean that those symptoms are not unmanageable.

What is complicated grief?

Complicated grief can present itself as more intense emotions following grief, or some more unique symptoms that are not as common with grief. It can be triggered by many things but is more likely to occur if you've suffered a highly traumatic or sudden loss, the loss of multiple people, you have a limited support network or you had an intense or complicated relationship with the deceased.

It’s important to be aware that experiencing ‘complicated grief’ symptoms for a short time is perfectly normal. However, it's when those symptoms continue for a long time that it becomes complicated grief.

The Mayo Clinic lists some of the common signs and symptoms of complicated grief as:

  • Intense sorrow, pain and rumination over the loss of your loved one
  • Focus on little else but your loved one's death
  • Extreme focus on reminders of the loved one or excessive avoidance of reminders
  • Intense and persistent longing or pining for the deceased
  • Problems accepting the death
  • Numbness or detachment
  • Bitterness about your loss
  • Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Inability to enjoy life or think back on positive experiences with your loved one

It can be hard to diagnose complicated grief, however, there is help out there if you feel you may be experiencing grief symptoms in line with the above, or you know someone who is. In the instance of elongated, complicated grief (the Mayo Clinic advise that this should be grief that has lasted a year since the triggering incident or death), then you should reach out for a doctor.

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