My loved one is in hospice, and their time is limited. After they pass, what can I expect? What does grief look like?

Salus bereavement counselors are often asked this question. Assisting someone who is crossing over is often sad and beautiful, but it’s common to wonder what comes next and how you will feel after they’re gone. The truth is, there’s no simple answer, but there are some aspects of the grieving process that most people will share. Understanding them can help you to feel better prepared for your path ahead and more at peace with what the experience might feel like.

Stages of Grief

When bereavement counselors speak with family members after a loved one passes, one of the first resources they turn to is Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying. This book was published in 1969 and introduces the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While these stages are common and most people will experience them, it’s a bit misleading to consider them as “stages” because that word makes it seem as if there’s an orderly process to this experience, and once one “stage” is over, a person moves on to the next and then the next. The truth is, there’s no straight path to the grieving process. Grief is unpredictable and unique. Every person will experience good days and bad and move through these “stages” in different ways.

Symptoms of Grief

To truly understand the grieving process, it’s often more helpful to look at symptoms as opposed to stages. These are the actual physical, emotional, spiritual and mental reactions that you might have after a loved one passes away. You can experience one today, have it fade tomorrow and then return a week later. Some people even begin to experience the symptoms of grief while their loved one is alive and in hospice care. Remember, this is normal, and if your experience and symptoms differ from those of a close friend or another family member, that’s normal too.

Common Experiences for Mourners

Common feelings for mourners include shock, sadness, anger, disbelief, fear, loneliness, relief, thankfulness, strength, apathy and confusion.

Common mental reactions to grief include loss of focus, increased or decreased dreams, difficulty making decisions, beliefs that you could have changed something or “saved” your loved one and low self-esteem.

Common physical reactions to grief include insomnia, weight loss or weight gain, muscle tension, pounding heart, complete exhaustion, sudden bursts of energy, a desire to constantly stay busy, or headaches, stomach aches and increased susceptibility to colds and other viruses.

Common spiritual reactions to grief include anger at God, increased feelings of closeness to a higher power, questions or indecisiveness about spiritual or religious beliefs, feeling lost or empty, or finding hope in prayer, meditation or reflection.

When you consider these symptoms of grief and how much they vary from person to person, it’s easier to understand why so many people feel alone through this process. Even when surrounded by friends and family, it’s easy to feel awkward, out of place or different because they way in which you’re coping with the death is so different from the way in which a sibling or spouse is coping with it.

The important thing is to recognize that this is all normal. Just acknowledge what you’re experiencing and ensure that you’re taking care of yourself. If your thoughts ever turn to self-destruction or dangerous bursts of anger or aggression toward others, it’s time to seek additional help. Even if your experience never becomes dangerous in that way, some form of grief counseling is beneficial. This will give you the time to think through your experience, process your emotions and find your path forward.