Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph. D.
I looked at my watch: 8:17
“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
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
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
What’s Normal When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable?
What Can We Do?
- 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
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
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
- 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.
Loss of Our Assumptive World
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 -
Tough Transitions and
Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your
- she is committed to work that helps lift the human
(Author photo by Joey Bieber)
Photo by MR+G/Flickr Creative Commons