5 Emotions You Didn’t Know Were Part of Grief

Disillusionment during the grief process.

Key points

  • Our understanding of grief fails to include many common emotional experiences.
  • Grief can include guilt, numbness, disillusionment, relief, and gratitude.
  • Naming our experiences as part of grief helps us grieve better.

Many people’s frame of reference for grief comes from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief. In her analysis, a grieving person will move through denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. And while all of these may be part of the grief experience, the simplified description of these phrases fails to chart the wide emotional range of experiences a grieving person may experience. Here are some other emotional experiences a grieving person may encounter.

1. Guilt

Many struggle with guilt in the aftermath of a loss. Some feel guilty that their loved one died while they survived; others grapple with things said in anger or left unsaid. They may fixate on their most unflattering moments with the person lost rather than thinking about the relationship as a whole. When a person dies, sometimes a person will brush over a nuanced relationship with broad strokes, creating a distorted picture of reality. In addition to death, when grieving a lost job, opportunity, or relationship, a person may feel guilty for things said, unsaid, done, not done, done poorly, or done well but not soon enough to prevent the loss. Guilt after a death or other loss can lead to rumination at what could have or should have been,

2. Numbness

While not an emotion per se, numbness describes the lack of feeling that may come over a person in grief. That absence may feel alarming, but numbness is the mind’s way of protecting a person from feeling overloaded. We simply cannot sit in a constant state of overwhelming pain and so the mind responds with periods of numbness. Kubler Ross may aptly file this under the heading of denial, but the details are worth describing. Some may worry that numbness means something about their feelings about their loved one’s death. Not so. While less intense grief may speak to feeling ok with the loss, numbness can be a feature of profound sadness.

 Alex Green
Source: Pexels: Alex Green

3. Disillusionment

When a person suffers a loss, they may become profoundly disillusioned with the world around them. Most commonly discussed is the loss of faith in God in the face of a loved one’s suffering, but it may take other forms. A person may feel disillusioned by the medical establishment after a difficult hospital experience. They may feel disillusioned by their family or community if they felt unsupported or abandoned during their time of need. Disillusionment can set a person emotionally adrift, feeling unable to count on the institutions and people that helped them feel grounded.

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4. Relief

After a loss, a mourner may sigh in relief that the ordeal is over. Whether that ordeal is a death after a long illness, the end of tumultuous relationship, or a lost friendship, the lead up to the ending can be profoundly depleting. Many begin mourning before the loss even occurs (a phenomenon called anticipatory grief). When all is said and done, when money is drained, energy expended, and hope depleted, the person may feel glad that the loss has finally occurred and the process of healing and moving forward can finally commence.

5. Gratitude

As we make sense of the loss, some find gratitude in their grief. They may feel grateful for the time with the person lost, grateful for an opportunity they received, or grateful for what that lost thing gave them. Gratitude while grieving can occur fleetingly, intermittently, or in a sustained way. A person may feel resentment and anger one moment and gratitude the next. The key with gratitude is to accept it when it comes without forcing its hand, as sometimes happens with well-meaning loved ones in times of suffering.

Grief is a complicated, nuanced emotional experience that fluctuates, ebbs, and flows. The more nuance we can infuse into our collective understanding of grief by naming its component parts, the better we can honor our own experience and support loved ones going through it.