Grief comes in many forms and in many sizes throughout our lives: when a family member (be they human or animal), friend, or community member passes away; when a significant relationship ends; when we smile at someone and they don’t smile back; when we lose or change our job; when the special evening we looked forward to was disappointing; when we relocate from one home to another; when our children leave the nest for college; when we realize a friendship isn’t growing the way we hoped; when we witness injustice; when we reflect back on how fast life has gone; and for many, right now, when a president leaves office. Essentially, whenever something comes to an end—whether it’s a result of our own choice or beyond our control—it’s a loss, and wherever there is loss, grief is likely to follow close behind.
All of these experiences of loss can have a significant impact on us for various reasons and in different ways. They may involve feeling one or more aspects of grief: crying, wailing, or screaming; talking to friends or counsel about our feelings; conjuring up memories of past experiences, both pleasant and painful; questioning God or the universe, asking, “Why now?” “Why me?” or “Why not me?”; pondering or agonizing over the meaning of life; thinking about our mortality or how we’ve lived our life; making art in response; and countless other profound reactions. All are real signs of grief and all deserve our utmost care and attention. Stephen Levine once said, “Grief can have a quality of profound healing because we are forced to a depth of feeling that is usually below the threshold of awareness.” I, too, believe that grief carries the often unintended benefit of connecting us deeply with our feeling life in ways that don’t typically get our time and attention. However, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate this while we are in the midst of the pain and heartache of grief.
WHAT IS DEEP GRIEF?
As common as grief is for all of us, I have experienced what I call deep grief only twice in my life thus far: when I lost my two beloved, long-time feline companions. My loss of them felt markedly different than the more familiar instances of grief I had experienced countless times before. This grief was more devastating, intense, and had a more lasting and significant effect on my life. For the remainder of this post, I’ll be focusing exclusively on the deep grief that may follow the death of a beloved being in your life.
What defines deep grief for me is not who it was that died or their particular relationship to me but rather the ensuing feelings and experiences that followed. As I wrote about in my previous post, The Diversity of Grief, “Experiences and expressions of grief and loss can be quite diverse and vary significantly from one individual to another.” For example, the death of a parent can feel profound and deep for one person, while another person may feel much-needed relief or perhaps nothing much at all. Thus, deep grief is not predicated solely on the fact that the person or being had a particular relationship with you or that the relationship lasted a certain number of years.
Deep grief is defined by one or more of the following:
the intensity of the emotional, spiritual, or physical connection you felt to that particular being
the magnitude of the sensation of loss
the volume, intensity, and variety of feelings the loss brings forth
the sustaining impact the loss has on you
Other special circumstances around the cause of death may be so traumatic that they alone can lead to an individual experiencing deep grief (e.g., drug overdose, sudden death such as a heart attack, euthanasia, accidental death, murder, suicide, death in combat). Of course, deep grief is a subjective experience, meaning the individual is the only one who can truly sense if what they are experiencing is deep grief. It’s a feeling thing.
DIFFICULT THOUGHTS, FEELINGS, AND EXPERIENCES IN DEEP GRIEF
I’ve compiled a list of thoughts, feelings, and experiences you may have had or are currently having in deep grief, and I offer them in the form of first-person statements. These are experiences that I’ve felt myself and/or have heard from my clients or others. You’ll notice that I focus on the thoughts and feelings that may be most difficult or taboo for people, rather than experiences people may be having that feel hopeful, joyous, freeing, or otherwise welcome and positive. You may be having lots of positive experiences at the beginning, middle, or end of your grieving time, however long that lasts. That is a blessing! I simply wish to speak to the more painful experiences as it is my hope to bear witness to, affirm, and validate the suffering in you that may be hidden and isolated.
You’ll notice that some of the statements below seem to be the direct opposite of a previous statement. That is because you may feel both experiences simultaneously, in conflict with one another, and that alone can be confusing and upsetting for a grieving person.
Some of these statements may resonate with you strongly, bringing you relief or tears, while others may not resonate at all. Take what feels right and disregard the rest. Lastly, you may find you wish to add other statements to this list that have been central to your experience. Use this in whatever way feels best for you.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF DEEP GRIEF
I feel as if the grief will never end.
The pain, emptiness, and longing are so unbearable that sometimes I don’t want to go on living.
I would do anything to get them back. I feel so desperate.
I worry that I’ll never stop crying.
I don’t want to ever stop crying. It is the only thing that feels real.
Life feels completely meaningless. I don’t see the point of life or living.
My days feel surreal, as if this is not really happening, and I will wake up from this bad dream.
I feel like life has stopped and I don’t know when it will begin again.
I don’t want normal life to start again. I need to be in this place for a long time.
I feel a hole, an emptiness, a hollowness in my chest.
I feel nauseous a lot of the time.
I have headaches from crying so hard and for so long.
I’m physically and/or emotionally exhausted.
I feel tightness in my chest and throat.
I feel as if my heart is being ripped out of my chest.
I feel spacey, foggy, slow, or in shock.
I don’t want to do anything—not eat, work, cook, shower, watch TV, etc.
I just want to be in bed or unconscious.
I don’t care about my appearance like I normally do.
I have so many feelings that come and go so quickly that I don’t really know what I’m feeling.
I try to keep busy just to keep my mind off of my experience.
I want to feel everything I’m feeling because it’s all I have left of the one I lost.
Feeling the loss of them is all-consuming. I can’t pay attention to anyone or anything else around me.
It hurts to be in the outer world. I need to be inside myself, in my feelings, and in my non-verbal experiences.
I sometimes have disturbing dreams or nightmares about the being I lost since their death.
I long to touch them again and feel them touch me. This loss of touch is agonizing.
My home feels so empty without them in it.
Sometimes, for a split second, I think I see them or hear them.
I feel a million little habitual behaviors I did with them arise in me, only to realize, yet again, that they are gone (e.g., calling them on the phone, looking for them, talking with them, cuddling or touching them, laughing with them, going to bed with them by my side, looking after their needs, etc.).
My entire relationship with them feels like a dream, like it was not real, and my memories of them are getting further and further out of my grasp.
I fear I’ll forget what they look like and feel like and what it was like to be with them.
I fear they will forget me in the afterlife.
I feel that with every passing minute, hour, day I get further and further away from them. This makes me very anxious, scared, and desperate.
I wonder or worry that they don't know how much I loved them.
I wonder how much they truly loved me.
I regret not having said or done certain things with them.
I feel enormous guilt for things I did or said to them and for ways I was not there for them.
I can’t forgive them for ways they treated me and never apologized for or resolved.
I get periods of relief, and then out of the blue I feel overwhelmed with grief again—days, weeks, months, or even years later.
I feel numbness or blankness, as if my feelings for them are gone, and that worries me that our connection is gone.
I feel self-critical, ashamed, or embarrassed about my lack of feelings about their death.
I feel angry sometimes that they left me here alone, without them.
I feel scared or worried that they might not transition successfully in the afterlife, that they will get “stuck” in a difficult realm and their suffering will continue.
I feel hurt that they left so suddenly and feel so far away from me now. Did they not care for me?
Sometimes I worry that we won’t be reunited in the afterlife.
I feel so alone. No one is really there for me. No one really understands what I’m going through.
I feel fake when I interact with people. I don’t want to show them my true feelings or it doesn’t feel safe or I don’t think people really want to know.
I am angry that people haven’t checked in on me like I thought they would.
When my grief starts to lighten/lessen, I fear that I’m forgetting them and I want the grief back. It feels like the last emotional connection I have to them.
I am questioning everything in my life: why I’m here, what my purpose is, why people die, why I should continue to live, who and what is most important to me.
Deep grief is full of a zillion feelings that can be overwhelming when you try to go through them alone. When witnessed, held, and unfolded with compassion, grief can also hold profound insights that can direct our lives in new, exciting ways. If you find yourself needing support for your unique grieving process, I encourage you to reach out to friends, family, or professionals. Give yourself the companionship and special attention you deserve. And give your grief what it needs to heal.