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When Someone You Know Dies

When you’ve lost someone through death, you may feel many emotions. With a death of a spouse, partner, family member or friend comes the loss of companionship, security, and shared experiences. It can take time for you to completely accept, adjust, and heal from such a loss.

What is Grief?

Grief is a physical and emotional reaction to the death of a person close to you. This person could be a spouse, partner, family member, long-time friend, or even acquaintance. The way you grieve is unique to you. Your connection to the person who has died, your heritage, your upbringing, and your life experiences all have an impact. When you grieve, you may have many different emotions. If this is the first time you’ve experienced a death of someone you know, you may be surprised by the way you feel. Many people feel more than one emotion at a time and some of these emotions can include:

  • Relief
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Regret
  • Shock
  • Stress 
  • Despair
  • Loneliness
  • Sadness
  • Denial
  • Sense of Unreality
  • Anxiety/Worry/Panic
  • Numbness
  • Feeling Your Loved One's Presence
  • Resentment
  • Fear

Some people never have any of these feelings, while others may find their feelings change moment to moment – for example, worry followed by anger or numbness followed by long periods of deep sadness. Often birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays are particularly difficult, as are some daily routines, like setting the table for one instead of two or sleeping alone after a partner dies.

What Physical Reactions to Loss Might I Experience?

The grieving process can be physically exhausting for some individuals. It can negatively affect your health, making it even harder for you to work or be a student through your grief. Usually the first year after suffering a loss is the most difficult, and many physical reactions may occur during that time. Tell your physician that you are grieving so that a proper exam and care can be given. Eating properly, getting enough sleep, and exercising will also help during this difficult time. Some common physical reactions to loss can include:

  • Fatigue/Exhaustion
  • Absent-Mindedness
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Over or Under Sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Worsening of Illnesses/Prior Conditions
  • Development of New Conditions
  • Over or Under Eating
  • Headaches
  • Dreaming of the Deceased
  • Intestinal Upset/Nausea
  • Loss of Energy
  • Racing Thoughts
  • Flashbacks
  • Tearfulness/Crying
  • Distorted Perceptions/Illusions

What Social/Behavioral Reactions to Loss Might I Experience?

Grief changes our lives. Although support from others can be very helpful, immediately following a loss it is not uncommon for us to pull away from others or feel different from our friends and family. For example, it may be hard to be around those who have living parents, especially if you lost a parent. It may be hard to hang out with your friends, especially if they are in relationships and you have recently lost a partner. It is not uncommon to experience some of the following social and behavioral responses to loss:

  • Feeling like the fifth wheel
  • Saying no to invitations from others
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Staying in bed
  • Loss of a familiar lifestyle
  • Feeling self-conscious
  • Avoiding people, place, things
  • Keeping busy
  • Struggling to care for yourself
  • Thoughts of death

What is a Heightened Sense of Awareness?

Grief can give us a “heightened sense of awareness”. This means that you may be more aware of your senses, particularly sights, sounds, tastes, scents, and touches. You may not have noticed these things prior to your loss. This heightened sense of awareness can facilitate the healing process, especially by incorporating as many of the above into daily activities that remind you of your loved one. For example, watching your loved ones favorite movie, baking their favorite dessert, going to their favorite place, or listening to their favorite music.

It is also possible that this heightened sense of awareness brings you greater appreciation for life as you reflect on your loss. It can make you uncomfortable whenever others around you don’t appreciate the relationships they have with family and friends. This can sometimes cause problems in relationships, as you might feel that others don’t truly understand what you are going through.

What Will My Grieving Process Be Like?

Grief is an individual experience. How the loss affects you, how long you grieve, and how it feels to grieve usually depends on the following:

Your emotional style

Think about how you tend to express yourself. Are you a more instrumental or intuitive person? Are you a thinker or a doer when it comes to coping with unexpected problems? Do you regularly share feelings and emotions or do you tend to be more private? Are you socially active or do you prefer more solitary activities? Are you a little bit of both? Expressing feelings and staying active can help make the grieving process more tolerable.

Whom you have lost

Was the loss a close family member, a childhood friend, a distant relative, a recent acquaintance? The closer your relationship with the deceased, the longer and more intense the grieving process may be for you. 

How much your daily life is affected by the death

Think about the amount and kind of contact you had with the person. How frequently did you see or talk with each other – everyday, once a week/month/year? Did you spend your time caring for them or did he/she/they assist you with your daily activities? 

The more involved they were in your life, the more difficult it may be to establish new routines. Sometimes the opposite can be true. Sometimes the less involved the deceased was in your life, the more difficult it can be to cope with the loss itself– for example, having little contact with the deceased in recent months or years can lead to mixed emotions. Grief can be complicated if there was past neglect, abuse, or addiction that made having a relationship with the deceased even more difficult.

How the death occurred

Reflect on the kind of death that occurred. Was the death sudden, such as a heart attack? Was it accidental, for example a car accident? Was it anticipated, such as a result of a prolonged chronic illness like cancer? Was it associated with a social stigma that is difficult to discuss publicly, like suicide or drug overdose? The circumstances surrounding the death can impact your feelings, physical reactions, and coping strategies.

How Can I Manage Day to Day and Get Through the First Year?

Grieving the loss of someone you have known can be painful, making it difficult to get through each day. Here are some ways to help you cope each day and begin to feel better:

  • Be patient with yourself
  • Do not compare yourself to others
  • Be realistic about the expectations you have for yourself
  • Go through the healing process at your own pace
  • Do what is best for you and your family
  • Keep things simple
  • Take each day in measurable steps
  • Seek out caring people
  • Join a support group
  • Seek accurate information about the grief process
  • Talk about your loved one with others, such as family or friends
  • Seek professional help
  • Admit and share your feelings
  • Take care of your body
  • Don't push yourself beyond your limits
  • Maintain a daily schedule
  • Cherish your memories
  • Maintain a normal routine
  • Avoid making major decisions
  • Eat healthy, regular meals
  • Ask for help
  • Say yes to help
  • Exercise regularly
  • Rest
  • Take care of something, such as a plant of a pet
  • Do something you enjoy
  • Plan for anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, weekends, and other triggers
  • Create memorials
  • Write in a journal
  • Be around others
  • Do not overdo it
  • Remember that a bad day doesn't mean that all is lost

Most people first begin to feel better in small ways, slowly regaining interest in friendships, responsibilities, and surroundings. However, these relationships and routines will not diminish or take away from the unique connection you had with the one who died. You will carry them in your heart and mind, always cherishing the qualities of that person that made him or her special. They are continually honored by being a part of who you are.

What to Do When Grief Becomes Too Much?

Some people, overwhelmed with the intensity of their feelings of loss, can begin to fall into a deep, dark hole. If you are having a hard time handling your emotions or if you have shut down in some way and feel numb much of the time, the best thing you can do is to ask for help. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others, if you are using alcohol and/or drugs more than usual, or if you are experiencing anything that you feel is not normal, please contact a professional.

Professionals like grief counselors, social workers, and psychologists are trained to assist people who feel the same way you do. It is also possible that a professional might advise you to consult with a physician who may suggest taking medications for a brief time to help make an overwhelming experience of grief manageable.

If you are experiencing an emergency, call 911 or see our Emergency Services

Community Groups for Loss