The Acute Phase of Grief: What to Expect in Early Grief
7 min read

The Acute Phase of Grief: What to Expect in Early Grief

The Acute Phase of Grief: What to Expect in Early Grief
Photo by Jr Korpa / Unsplash

A map of the different ways grief affects the body, emotions, mind, and soul. You are not alone.

I remember getting the news over text.

“Mama is dead”.

Those three words refused to register in my jumbled mind.

You probably experienced something different from me, but one thing remains constant: it is as if that moment has been imprinted in your memory.

Grief is a maddening dance that refuses to be defined or qualified. Your grief will be as unique as the relationship you had with your loved one.

When you think of grief, you might think of it as an emotional experience, but in reality, it is a full-bodied experience that causes injury to the body, emotions, mind, and soul. It causes a disruption in your sense of identity and continuity and it tends to loosen your grip on the rational world.

Unfortunately, there is no way to predict how your grief will look and the range of normal is infinite.

As much as it is an individual journey, there are still some aspects of the journey that are universal and bind us all together in our humanity.

While the list here is not by any means exhaustive, after spending hundreds of hours researching other peoples' journeys as well as mine, knowing that some of the reactions you are experiencing are universal and normal will give a bottom to this chaotic experience, and allow you to feel more connected knowing that you are not alone.


Keep the Following in Mind

Before we go into the details, I just want to get this out of the way – grief makes us crazy.

At least to people who have not lost someone. But how can we not be when someone who was our secure base, who grounded your sense of self and identity is no longer here?

How do you begin to reconcile this?

You really can’t – at least not in the beginning.

Please remember that you are not just missing your loved one. Your body, brain, emotions, minds, and soul are missing them and responding in different ways. When we are able to look at grief from the perspective of the havoc it wreaks on our different bodies (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual), we can breathe a little easier knowing that these reactions are normal.

Grief and the Body – the news activates the fight/flight or fight response – the hypothalamus is activated and produces the different stress hormones that get pumped into your bloodstream. Everything in your body is out of homeostasis. Sleep, respiration, breathing, digestion.

Grief and the brain: Your brain is on overdrive. It is a jumbled mess, and all your resources are focused on processing grief. No resources are available to manage everyday life including attention are cognition.

Grief and the mind: When you hear the news there is a breakdown in memory consolidation and memories get repressed / dissociated which leads to flashbacks nightmares, intrusive thoughts, mental loops, and grief ambushes down the road.

Grief and Psychospiritual: The death of our loved one shatters your worldview, core beliefs and shakes the foundational structure of the self leaving you reeling, left with the ruins of who you thought you were and how life is supposed to work. Tedeschi and Calhoun use the metaphor of the seismic earthquake. You feel completely devastated because your loved one might have grounded your sense of identity and affirmed your value and worth.


Overall

When you just lose your loved one it is common to feel helpless, bewildered, powerless, and overwhelmed. If you experience any of the following things below, please know that it is normal, and you are not alone.

  • You feel extra lost, don’t know what you are supposed to be doing, and nothing seems to matter anymore.
  • At times, in these first days, you experience sadness that overwhelms you alternating with an odd euphoric feeling.
  • It is normal to forget to eat or drink water in the beginning and feel depleted and exhausted.
  • It is also normal to feel completely numb and go on as if nothing has happened.

Physically

When you hear the news, your body’s stress response is immediately activated, and your brain initiates the flight-or-fight response, and stress hormones are secreted into your bloodstream. Here are some of the physical reactions you might have:

  • You might feel jittery and physically ill. Your hands and body are shaking, you are nauseous and feel faint.
  • You might sweat excessively or feel chills and tremors.
  • There might be choking sensations and tightness in your throat.
  • You may have difficulty speaking - stuttering and jumbling your words
  • You might feel jumpy and agitated, shaken up and you cannot relax or sit still and just need to roam
  • You might feel exhausted but can’t sleep or eat much. It is as if you have been hit by a truck.
  • You might experience chest tightness, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath as though s an elephant is sitting on your chest.
  • You might hyperventilate and feel like you have been gutted in the stomach.
  • You might have a sudden tension headache including muscle, and joint aches.
  • You might have digestive issues like diarrhea and stomachache

Please remember that even if you experienced something which is not listed here, it is normal because you are experiencing it. Your body is grieving with you and at the same time trying to protect you. There is an explanation for everything that is happening. Your body will eventually come back into homeostasis.


Emotionally

  • You might be an emotional wreck, screaming and crying uncontrollably, and might feel as though your heart has been torn from your chest.
  • On the other hand, you might feel totally numb, dead inside like a zombie walking around with an abyss of emptiness and hopelessness, and nothing will seem to matter to you anymore.
  • Intense emotions might attack you at any moment and you might ping pong from rage to guilt, depression, overwhelming fear, and anxiety.

Remember the following:

  • You will probably feel emotions or reactions you don’t normally experience or at least not as intensely. Just know that it is circumstantial, and you will not always feel this way.
  • Offer yourself grace if you lash out at people.
  • Whatever emotion you are feeling is ok because you are feeling it.

Mentally

When you first hear the news, it does not sink in mentally and you might experience some of the things below.

  • Disbelief: You might be stuck in disbelief. How could this have happened? Perhaps you just spoke to them.  It feels unreal, and you expect them to call you or walk through the door at any moment.
  • Dissociation: You may feel a disconnection from what is happening as though you are watching a movie unfold or are watching someone else’s life. There might be the overwhelming feeling that you are awake but dreaming and nothing feels real.
  • Intrusive Thoughts:  You might be bombarded with flashbacks, the look on their face, the coldness of their skin. Unwanted thoughts and images will intrude on your mindscape in bizarre ways. Everything will feel like a potential landmine.
  • Difficulty Concentration: You might be forgetful, cannot concentrate on anything, and just feel confused and disoriented.
  • Mental Loops: Your mind might be spinning as you replay the last 24 hours of their life in a never-ending loop. The questions will start pouring and the if only scenarios start materializing. You wonder if you could have prevented their death.

Again, please remember that these are all normal reactions and will ease with time and as you tend to your grief.


Behaviorally

  • You will not feel like your normal self and it is ok. Many activities that once gave you meaning may now feel empty.
  • There will be changes to your sleeping and eating patterns.
  • You might also experience anxiety attacks and panic attacks and might not want to go out or be around people

Socially

  • You will probably have to repeat and explain your story over and over and everyone will react differently
  • You might be overwhelmed with flowers, cards, and food. Please don’t feel pressure to respond to all of them immediately. You can set them aside and attend to them when you feel ready.
  • There might be a lot of people around you and they will try to comfort you. Some might say the right thing and others might say stupid and hurtful things without even realizing it.
  • Deep loneliness may set in especially if the person who passed was a constant in your life.
  • Your relationships might change. There will be the before people and the after people.
  • Some friends may avoid you because they don’t know what to say or how to help you.
  • You might also feel pressure to be strong for family or friends
  • At this time, very few things will console you, and most of the things people say will grate on your nerves.
  • Some people around you would want you to go on as though nothing happened.
  • You might find out that you get closer to your family members or the death exposes secrets and conflicts.

In general, people will respond in many ways and I want you to remember that it is not personal. Most people are not able to be in the presence of death, and it is this fear that may cause them to react in a way that might not be loving.


Spiritually

  • You might have a crisis of identity as you confront the ways in which your sense of self was tied to the relationship with the person who died.
  • You might experience a loss of faith, anger at God and life, and a withdrawal from religion or spiritual beliefs.
  • Your beliefs may be challenged, and you may struggle to have faith in the things that you once believed in like God.
  • You might feel lost and empty and question the reason to go on living.
  • You will be full of existential questions about mortality, good and evil, justice, vengeance, forgiveness, and what happens after death.
  • You may find hope and solace in prayer and your spiritual beliefs.
  • You may experience a spiritual awakening that might trigger a search for meaning and purpose.

Conclusion

Please remember that you are going through a very difficult time and the death of your loved one will feel like an open wound – raw and gaping.

When you are in the throes of acute grief, you may feel as though the pain will never end, but please know that it will subside with time. You will not always feel this way.

Grief is different for all of us but what I can say from my personal experience and the other people I have interacted with is that the sharp edges of your grief soften and dull as you begin to process and integrate the loss into your life.

You will ping pong between good days and bad days, and eventually, you will find yourself mostly having good days.

Given time and space, grief matures into an old comfortable friend. You begin to find other positive ways of remaining connected to your loved one.

There is hope at the end of this dark tunnel if you stay the course.

From my experience and the experience of others, death is the end of a life, but not the end of a relationship. It is an invitation to a new type of relationship.

And there is hope.