Grief and Loss: What Helps When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable

By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph. D.

I looked at my watch: 8:17 P. M.
“He really should be back,” I thought. “I know it’s harder to jog here than back home. But, even so, he’s had enough time to finish his run by now.” Work had gone well today, and after supper Greg had said, “Want to join me for a six-mile run?”
“No, sir, offer declined,” I said. “I’ll do the two-mile route and see you back here when you’re finished.”
So I had run to the Possum Creek bridge and back, and it was now time — past time — for Greg to be home. Minutes passed. “I bet these hills did get to him,” I said to myself. “He’s probably walking the last miles. I’ll take the car and go pick him up; he’ll appreciate a ride back home.”
When I got to the curve above Possum Creek, a large crowd was there. So was the black-and-white car that belonged to the sheriff’s patrol. And so was the orange-and-white ambulance….
I got out of the car. One man stood on my right side and one on my left. We began to walk, not touching, toward the ambulance. Greg, my husband, was dead.
(Excerpt from Seven Choices by Elizabeth Harper Neeld)

What happens to us when we get this kind of terrible news? Perhaps the news comes in the form of a telephone call. Or a doctor’s announcement. Or the arrival of someone at our front door. Whatever the source of the information, we experience the impact immediately, and we do respond. We may go numb. We may be swept by emotion. We may have a physical response that feels as if someone has punched us in the stomach.

How can we understand what is happening to our bodies when we get this terrible news? One of the uses of our emotions is that they regulate our lives, give us a sense of coherence in our lives. So the minute that we get news that makes our life seem incoherent, that makes it seem not to make any sense anymore, the emotions are triggered.

Scientists tell us that our emotions can be triggered faster than one beat of a hummingbird’s wing. They can be triggered faster than one blink of the eye.

When the emotions are triggered by the terrible news, that causes a body response. Perhaps the CRH hormone is increased. This CRH hormone actually produces anxiety. Or the central nervous system can be stimulated. Chemicals might be released throughout the body. The heart may beat faster, the muscles contract, the T-cells leave what they usually do and take on another role. Our blood vessels may constrict and sometimes even reroute the blood. Neurohormones may (at least temporarily) close down a part of our awareness so that we don’t fully realize what is happening. No matter their form, the body responses are varied and profound when our emotions are triggered.

What’s Normal When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable?

  • Presence of strong emotion
  • Absence of emotion and feeling
  • Need to roam; inability to sit still
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Yearning and longing
  • Being dominated by memories
  • Body biorhythms disturbed (sleep, eating, etc.)
  • Plagued by anger, blame, guilt
  • Experiencing fear, disorientation, confusion


What Can We Do?

First of all, we need to give ourselves permission to feel any way we feel and to express those feelings in any way that is appropriate for us. We need to know that there is no right way to respond, no right way to grieve. And we need to know that it is dangerous not to choose to express grief fully. Studies show that those who suppress their emotions have more physical and psychological ailments during the first month, remain disturbed much longer, and, even as long as thirteen months after the loss, are still displaying more marked disturbances than people who were willing to express fully their feelings following the loss. So expressing our emotions — in whatever form is right for each individual — is a healthy and normal response to experiencing a loss.

What Helps When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable?

  • Stay close to people who love you.
  • Talk to the lost person as if she or he were actually present.
  • Ask for anything you need.
  • Spend as much time as you can with someone who encourages you to grieve in any way you want to.
  • Slow down.
  • Take care of yourself.
  • Talk to a professional. There are wonderful counselors, care professionals, social workers, and therapists who can be a guide in this painful grieving process.


Related articles:
Loss of Our Assumptive World
Sudden Death
The Grief Experience

Also by Elizabeth Harper Neeld:
The Physical Stress of Grieving
What About This Thing Called "Acceptance"?
But I Feel So Guilty

Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, advisor, and author of more than twenty books - including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World - she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.

(Author photo by Joey Bieber)


Photo by MR+G/Flickr Creative Commons

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Comment by Deborah Rizzo on March 25, 2010 at 8:51am
Comment by Deborah Rizzo 1 minute ago
Delete Comment To all of you who lost your loved ones quickly - we had nearly 6 years with Tina after her accident. Somedays that is good, somedays that is too hard.
Below is a link to a movie of her early days, middle and ending of her life. This song is "Sissy's song and the movie is not too long!
If my link does not work - right click your mouse - hit Copy- go to your Browser bar and click on that - it will hi-light get on the hi-lite and hit your right mouse key and PASTE- Then hit Enter - it will start right away.

http://www.slide.com/r/meS_D22s5D8cZ8VaBN1BGnBsZ0BozTLV?previous_view=lt_embedded_url

May Peace be with you all and also with us! Deborah Rizzo
Comment by Georgia on March 23, 2010 at 9:42pm
I know the terrible pain of grief. My heart goes out to each of you. I'm on this site this evening because my grief has been so hard today and I can't think of a way to make it go away. Today, I couldn't cry, if I can cry it helps. But, today was a not tear day, but the pain in my heart heart so very much and I can't make it go away. I to wonder if it worth the pain to stay breathing on this earth. Yesterday, was two years since the life of my youngest daughter was taken from her, by her x-boy friend. Her daughter of 10 1/2 years was at a birthday party over night. He broke in through a window and beat her and stabbed her to death. I have two other daughters but she was 10 years younger that the other next to oldest. My poor granddaughter doesn't have her Father in her life, it was she and her Mother. They were so very close. My pain is not only for me but for her also. She lives with her Aunt, I amd 69 in June. I lost my husband, the love of my life 9 month earlier. If I'm not crying for my beautiful daughter then I'm crying for the loss of my wonderful husband. Sometimes the pain just seems to great to carry on. I know that feeling. I live on an old ranch, no one to talk to. I do talk to my dogs and a cat. There are two big dogs one was my husbands and the other was my daughters. So, I do talk to them for what it's worth................I leave the TV's on all day usually just for noise. My husband would come home and as he opened the door he would say, you hu, I'm home. I miss hearing his voice and being able to talk to him so very much. He use to play the guitar and sing and I have his songs on cd, but when I listen to them it creates a lonelyness undescribable. I have made a Memorial out of my house and my other daughters say not to do that. I don't know what is right any more. Sometimes I do get some relief when I go to the cemetery and Pray and talk. Our situtation is so hard but I have a friend in a wheelchair who lost his wife two weeks after I lost my husband. She was also in a wheelchair. They helped each other. I though why didn't God take me instead of his Wife, who he needed so very much. I'm so very sorry for everyone who goes through this awful grief pain. Be strong, I'm sure that is what God wants us to do. Jesus
suffered for us, I know we will see our loved ones again.
Comment by Najla on February 20, 2010 at 10:10am
My husband went out for a drive on a Sun afternoon and never came back. I answered the door to find a trauma counsellor and security guard. I knew something terrible has happened. The first question I had, "is it very bad?". The nod told me it was. My second question, "was anyone else involved in the accident?", a shake of the head gave me somehow a bit of relief momentarily; only one family traumatized would be enough. The realization of what happened took me to rational thinking asking for what I needed to know for a few minutes before my 7-year old daughter came asking what was wrong. I had to tell her that a terrible accident took her pappa's life away and it was tough tough tough heart breaking heart breaking... I grieved and still grieving what he must have gone through those terrible minutes, whether his soul has left in peace, the sins (if any) for which he has not had time to ask for forgiveness, the great sadness and feeling of loss of our two daugthers 4 and 7 years old. It is so unfair and terrible.
All this was almost one year ago. It will be one year on 8th March 2010... God Bless all who had had a trauma and severe sudden loss in their lives. LOVE ALWAYS
Comment by li41 on February 8, 2010 at 11:45am
Who Needs Codehttp://www.intel-family.com/core-family/share.php?core=201002051834353399259
Comment by Priceless on January 29, 2010 at 1:09pm
I really like the part of "■Spend as much time as you can with someone who encourages you to grieve in any way you want to." Today's society seems to not always allow this or people think crying too much in the beginning after a week or two is too much; not appropriate. And this may qualify and someone the grieving person should NOT be around. However, sometimes in society we do not have a choice but to be around people like this. As much as a person tries to keep the grieve personal and not tell, there is always the person who does tell - thinking they are doing good by sticking their nose in other people's business and ending up causing more grief. There is a song called "You do not Understand" something like that anyway, I believe it is very fitting for our society today, where people make judgments on people's lives when they have no idea what the person is going through. God Bless.
Comment by Elaine Banks Phillips on June 24, 2009 at 5:21pm
Hi Steve,my name is Elaine and I know for show that you come to the right place. We all on this site tries to comfort each other. Not saying that we have a cure for losing our love ones,because we are all still going through a tough and rough time our selves,well I know I am. Its been three years for me. I lost my son Kris who was a New Orleans FireFighter one year after we lost everything to hurricane Katrina. When I say everyhting,I mean everything. Than April 9th 2006 Kris was on his way back home from Ga. to Baton Rouge,La. was in a fatal car accident and killed instantly. He had a Firemens job set up in Ga. but had to become a EMT to be a FireFighter in Cobb County. Two weeks before graduation from Madix school the fatal car accident. Steve its been so hard for me,I still have two other kids,a son and a daughter. It still hurts,the pain is so undiscrible. If you never lost a child before than it hurts,so you know about your soul mate. Someone you love so dearly. Well its going to be a tough and rugged road,but God will take care of you. He will put no more on you than you can bare. Look at me,I had a brain aneurysum after Kris death. But I am still here and I had no affects after the aneurysum,maybe just a little memory change,no major change. Just keep doing what you decided to do and stay on this site. On this site you will find many of encouraging friends and words. Some might even tell you to move on with your life,but its OK. I was told the same thing to. Some are not able to move on,like me,some are able to put one foot forward,some praying and asking God for the extra strength that I need. Some still yet crying for years,so don't worry about the length of time you grieve. Each and eveyone grieves differently. Some time I go to Kris Memorial site and cry,some times I laugh,sometimes it may be tears of joy,just looking at maybe an old picture of Kris or just remembering how Kris use to give me this big bear hug to kiss me. Well I do wish for one now and I know this is imposible"smile" You see I do smile sometimes. So Steve I invite you to view Kris Memorial Website And try to create one for your wife in memory of her. Elaine write anytime(http ://memorialwebsites.legacy.com/wemissyoukrisJP/homepageaspx)
Comment by Steve Cain on June 24, 2009 at 5:48am
I am so glad that I found this site at this second. The profile picture is of myself and my beloved wife from our honeymoon at Niagara Falls last August. She died suddenly on Sunday night. I am working through a LOT of what I have been reading in several of the pages since I got up at around 4:30 when I could no longer sleep. I hope as the days, weeks and months come and go, I find more things on here to help me understand and cope with what I will be going through.
Comment by richard mom on June 1, 2009 at 2:17pm
THE BEST THING I DID FOR MYSELF,AFTER I COULD THINK AGAIN WAS TO WRITE EVERY THOUGHT,EVERY WISH,EVERY QUESTION,IT HELPED TO STOP IT FROM GOING AROUND AND AROUND IN MY HEAD.SURE SOME OF IT COMES BACK.UNDERSTANDING IS EXCEPTING AND HOW DO YOU DO THAT WITH DEATH EXCEPT WITH TIME. YOU CAN ONLY HOPE.YOU HAVE TO DO WHATS RIGHT FOR YOU.NO ONE KNOWS YOU INSIDE BUT YOU.LISTEN TO EVERY ONE BUT TAKE WHAT YOU NEED AND LEAVE THE REST.

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