Grave tympanum, Plymouth Colony, 1600s

The Most Important Thing I Learned About Grief

If I had only one thing to pass on to people who have recently lost someone, it would be this: Grief is not “just feelings.”

Grief is emotional, but it’s also cognitive and physical.

Feelings that don’t seem ‘normal’ – feelings other than sadness – are actually very common. It’s common to feel like other bad things might happen, or a complete lack of fear because ‘the worst has already happened.’ Some people feel relief. If you suddenly feel really bad about yourself, there’s a word for that: it’s survivor’s guilt, and it’s also really common.

But grief also has cognitive and physical components. Like many other bereaved people, I had difficulty focusing and concentrating. After running through a red light, I took a couple of weeks off driving because I realized my lack of focus made me more accident-prone. Tasks that may seem normal or even automatic may be difficult. It’s okay to let other people do them or not do them yourself if you think you might need a break from them.

Many people also experience physical symptoms after the death of someone close to them. It may be a good idea to visit a doctor. This is particularly true for older adults or people with conditions that may make them more medically fragile, but a quick trip to the doctor to get checked out may make sense even for people without other health problems if they don’t feel well physically after someone close to them dies. Physical symptoms that arise in bereaved people are common enough that they too have a name: “heartbreak syndrome.” People report heart palpitations, headaches, difficulty sleeping, and upset stomach. Plenty of rest, very gentle exercise if possible, simple foods, and limiting caffeine and alcohol are all good ideas.

The Second Most Important Thing I Learned About Grief

Because I was dissatisfied with a lot of the writing I encountered on grief, I actually read a lot of academic literature and studies on the subject. One thing that really stuck with me: how well a person is doing five years after a major loss has almost nothing to do with the scale of the primary loss (who died and how close that person or people were). How well they are doing five years later has much more to do with secondary losses. An example of a secondary loss: a woman’s husband dies (primary loss) and, unable to make the mortgage payments, she loses the house they lived in (secondary loss).

I now believe the job of people around grieving people is to do whatever they can to prevent secondary losses – from accidents and illnesses that may be more likely due to the stress of a loss, to financial losses that happen because a person has a hard time keeping up with bills or organizing taxes.

This is complicated by the fact that some bereaved people may feel a strong urge to change their lives after someone dies. That’s not always a bad thing – but it’s worth running those changes by a trusted friend or two to limit the negative impact of impulsive decisions.

The Third Most Important Thing I Learned About Grief

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. People may try to ‘police’ your grieving, maybe judging you for not being sad enough, or telling you you should be over it by X time, or trying to enforce a narrative “they’re in a better place/they’re not suffering.” These people aren’t trying to harm you, but they may be really uncomfortable with the feelings around death themselves. They’re uncomfortable with witnessing your suffering and they want to “fix” it. If this is you? Stop. Your grieving friends don’t want you to fix them. They want you to listen to them.

You and your friends and family may also deeply embedded in a cultural narrative we have in the US around death. The fact that we do bereavement different ways in different countries is proof that there’s more than one way to do it. After my father died, I watched every Dirty Harry film in a back room while I wrapped presents. After my partner died, instead of ignoring the holiday, my family changed it, using blue lights on our Christmas tree and changing our Christmas playlists.

Another Important Thing I Learned About Grief That May Or May Not Be Relevant To You

Who you are matters, and how they died matters, and your relationship to them matters. It also determines how other people respond to your grief, and that means you need to protect yourself.

Much bereavement advice is aimed at “normal” people and “normal” deaths. By that, I mean bereaved people who are straight, white, married or living in a nuclear family context. By “normal deaths” I mean the kind of deaths that happen at the end of a normal lifespan, often after an illness.

That advice will tell you to “reach out,” to talk to other people about your experience.

Consider carefully whether it is safe for you to do so first. If the person close to you died suddenly, unexpectedly; if they died as a result of violence or suicide; if you were in a relationship with them but you weren’t married; if you’re gay, if you’re trans…the responses you get from other people might be kind and loving. They might also be degrading, hostile, dehumanizing or even violent. Take care of yourself first.

A Curated Reading List on Death, Grief And Bereavement

I’ve put together a curated reading list of books, websites, and other resources on this topic.