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John James, founder of The Grief Recovery Institute

John W. James

Founder of The Grief Recovery Institute®
Co-Author of The Grief Recovery
Handbook & When Children Grieve

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Normal and Natural reactions to the death of someone important to you.

Grief is the wide range of normal and natural reactions to the death of someone important to you. The seven most common reactions are:

  • Numbness
  • Reduced Ability to Concentrate or Focus
  • Crying or NOT Crying
  • Lowered State of Energy—Not To Be Confused With Clinical Depression
  • Disturbed Sleeping Patterns and Dreams and Nightmares
  • Irregular Eating Patterns
  • Roller-Coaster of Emotions
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that someone important to you has died and you’d like some guidance about the feelings and thoughts you’re experiencing. Or, you may be reading this because you are connected to and concerned about someone who’s just experienced a death, and you’d like to have more awareness about what they’re going through, and what you can say or do to be helpful to them.

Confusion About What Is Normal In An Unfamiliar Situation

While it’s true that grief is the normal and natural reaction to a death, fortunately most of us don’t have that experience very often, making it unfamiliar. Also, grief is not generally an open topic for conversation in our society, and a great deal of the information available to us about grief is not accurate or helpful.

With those ideas as a start point, grieving people are often confused by their reactions to a death. It’s helpful to be aware of the range of normal and natural responses so you’ll know that your reactions are not crazy or abnormal. For those of you who are concerned about someone else’s well-being, it’s equally valuable to know the range of normal reactions so you don’t accidentally plant false ideas that could misguide or even hurt the person you care about.

Here are some helpful explanations about the seven most common reactions to the death of someone important to you.

Numbness: A sense of numbness is the most common reaction you’re likely to experience in the days and weeks immediately following the death of someone meaningful in your life. It’s the body’s way of protecting you from the amount and intensity of feeling caused by the death. Please understand that numbness is a normal—and even healthy—protection from the sometimes overwhelming impact of a death. We often refer to the numbness as “emotional Novocain.” Even though numbness is a normal and typical reaction, not knowing that’s true sometimes causes grievers to think there’s something wrong with them, or that they are crazy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Numbness For the Griever Tends To Occur Whether The Death Was Sudden Or Was The Result Of A Long-Term Illness

A Few Words About “Shock”

In extremely rare situations, people go into a full-fledged medical reaction known as shock. Shock can be a major medical emergency: “A generally temporary massive physiological reaction to severe physical or emotional trauma, usually characterized by marked loss of blood pressure and depression of vital processes.”

Shock generally only happens when there’s been a sudden, and/or violent death. As the definition explains, shock is usually a temporary condition, and is quite different from the numbness described above, which can last for weeks, or months, or even more.

It’s also important to note that receiving the shocking news of a sudden, unexpected death, doesn’t typically thrust someone into a medical state of shock. Shock is one of the words that is sometimes misused and creates confusion between the general sense of being caught totally off-guard by the news of a death, and the serious medical condition called shock

Reduced Ability to Concentrate or Focus: After the initial numbness wears off, most people continue to experience difficulty concentrating or focusing even on the simplest of tasks. Of all the normal reactions, this is the most universal one and affects the largest amount of grieving people. It’s very common for grievers to be in one room, decide to go into another to do something, and when they get there not have a clue what they’re doing there. Please don’t be surprised when and if that happens. It is totally normal in the circumstances.

The length of time the difficulty concentrating lasts is different for everyone so we can’t give you an exact time frame. For some people it’s days or weeks, for others, months. We can tell you that the length of time the reduced inability to concentrate persists relates to many factors. One is the individual personality of the griever. Another is the degree to which a grieving person is able to discover and complete what was left emotionally unfinished by the death.

The actions of Grief Recovery can help you distinguish between the “raw grief” that is your normal and natural reaction to the death, and the equally normal “unresolved grief” that relates to the unfinished emotions that are part of the physical ending of all relationships. One last note about Concentration: You may notice that reading is difficult. You might find yourself reading the same paragraph over and over. If that happens, please know it’s well within the range of normal and natural, and that it’s okay to put the book down for a while.

Crying or NOT Crying: Crying is obviously a normal reactions to the death of someone important to you. But even though you may find yourself crying a lot, you may also notice there are times that your tears have dried up and that you don’t seem to feel much at all. If and when that happens, please don’t be alarmed. Some people think if they stop crying, even for a short time, it somehow means they didn’t love the person who died. That’s not true. Emotions are exhausting, and sometimes your heart and your body need to take a break.

Some people don’t cry at all and become very concerned that there’s something wrong with them because they haven’t cried—as if they somehow didn’t love or care about the person who died. That’s not true either. It’s usually an aspect of numbness. It is also the possible by-product of a life-long habit of pushing sad feelings down or away because of the fear of being judged for crying.

Lowered State of Energy—Not To Be Confused With Clinical Depression: The largest problem facing grievers is the incorrect use of the word “depressed” or “depression,” to explain how they feel. The problem is that in clinical terms, depression means something different than it does in relation to grief.

The best way to understand the difference is to use the most practical definition of depress, which is to push down, like “depress the gas pedal.” The fact is that grief is a pushing down of energy, both emotional and physical. Grief can be all-consuming and robs energy. Describing how you feel as a lowered state of energy, instead of depression, helps remove the incorrect idea that you are clinically depressed when it is grief that is dominating your heart, mind, and body. [Caution: If you think you might be outside the range of normal grief, please contact a psychiatrist or therapist in your community.]

Disturbed Sleeping Patterns: Many people report major upheavals in their sleeping habits and patterns following the death of someone important to them. Obviously, those who lived with the person who died are most affected since the other person was a constant part of their daily life. That’s not to say you might not be so affected if you lived far away from someone you loved. We know we repeat these words a lot, but it’s “normal and natural” for many of your routines to be disrupted, and sleep is probably the most common one. When the activities of the day have ended and it’s quiet—and often you’re alone—sleep doesn’t always come easily. And when it does come, it isn’t always restful.

Dreams and Nightmares: Some people report an abundance of dreams, while others are concerned that they’re not remembering any, because they usually do. Even others tell us of nightmares involving the person who died. Although they can be frightening and uncomfortable, they nevertheless are well within the range of normal. Some people cannot seem to sleep at all, while others can’t seem to get out of bed. And some find themselves going back and forth between those extremes. Yes, it is uncomfortable, and even a bit scary, but for most people, as they adapt to the absence of the other person, their sleeping habits return to their personal norms.

Irregular Eating Patterns: To repeat, grief brings a disruption in many of our normal routines. As with the extremes in sleep, some people just aren’t interested in food at all, while others can’t stop eating. And many go back and forth between the two. Even though it’s normal and natural, it can really be confusing. Again, for most people, as they adapt to the absence of the other person, their eating patterns will return to their personal norms. With both sleeping and eating, you need to be patient with yourself and not try to hurry yourself back to your old routines. Just be careful with both issues from a health point of view, and if things get out of hand for an extended period of time, see a doctor or a mental health professional.

Roller Coaster of Emotions: In the days, weeks, and months following the death of someone important, grievers often find themselves on an emotional roller coaster ride like no other experience they’ve ever had. A constant review of the relationship with the person who died is playing 24/7 in their minds and hearts. They may or may not be consciously aware of it, but it is happening. In fact, it is one of the reasons that concentration and focus are so difficult for grieving people.

Since the review accesses all aspects of the relationship, the good, and the not-so-good, and in some cases the really bad, every possible emotion is triggered. Grievers can go from inconsolably sad with the awareness that their loved one is gone, to fond memories of happy times that bring smiles to their faces. This too is well within the range of normal and natural reactions.

As with the other things we’ve listed here, if or when you notice any of them happening, please be gentle with yourself. And if something seems troubling to you or beyond what you believe may be normal, please contact a mental health professional in your community.

And finally: Each of us is unique and every relationship is unique. Each of us experiences the upheaval of grief individually, including the degree to which we are affected by some or all of the common reactions outlined above.

Don’t let anyone define your grief for you. There are no stages of grief and there are no time lines that can accurately define all grievers. Please come back to this site and read the new articles that will be posted regularly.

From our hearts to yours,

Russell Friedman & John W. James

© 2022 John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute®. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at info@griefrecoverymethod.com or by phone, 800-334-7606.

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