5 Reasons Grief Comes in Waves (And How to Deal with it)

Grieving is a lengthy process. In the beginning, it is all-encompassing. With time, it lessens and will come on in smaller bouts. It is very much like waves when it comes on, and you must ride that wave until the next break. Just know there will be a break.

Grief is different for everyone. It can be hard to predict how one will handle grief. One certain thing is that grief comes in waves. The first may be a huge wave that feels like it knocks you down and will never let you back up, but there will be a break in the waves. Slowly, you will find times where you can feel a little better and gain some strength for the next waves.

Why Grief Comes in Waves

Let’s take a deep dive into how and why grief comes in ways.

Grief is a lot to process.

Grief is a lot for our brains to process. After receiving the news, you may first be numb or in shock. Our minds can only handle so much and process what it can at the time. It can be tough to deal with an unexpected death or loss.

.Sometimes people have mental illnesses before a difficult event happens, or they may sink into mental illness when grief comes. Grief and depression may share some similarities, but they are different conditions. Depression can be brought on by grief. If you develop depression, then this is categorized as complicated grief.

.You should talk to professionals if you need help managing depression and dealing with your grief. Call your doctor and speak to a mental health professional to best assess your treatment options.

It takes time to accept a new reality.

For some time, it may still seem unreal. You may forget that person is no longer around and search or call out for them.

.As with most things in life, you can read as much about a topic or try to prepare yourself for situations in life, but until you are in it, you have no idea how you will genuinely respond and accept it.

.Here are some things other people wish they had known about before experiencing their own grief:

  • Talking about death and grief makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, so there will be some awkward interactions.
  • Take people up on their offers of support.
  • Death can bring out some weird family conflicts.
  • Grief makes you feel crazy.
  • It’s messy and complicated.
  • Everyone grieves differently, so don’t hold anyone to your expectations of grief, and they should avoid doing the same to you.
  • All the significant life events like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays will be hard in their own way
  • It is okay to cry.
  • It is okay NOT to cry.
  • Grief changes who you are.
  • You are never prepared.

Adjusting to a world without someone is difficult.

All the things you would normally do together will now be hard without them. Holidays, birthdays, or any significant event will remind you of the place left open by the death of your loved one.

.With a big loss, it is extremely common to experience anxiety when you are dealing with grief. Here are some ways that anxiety presents itself:

  1. Excessive Worry
  2. Racing Thoughts
  3. Muscle Tension
  4. Racing Heart
  5. Specific Phobias
  6. Fatigue

There are ways to self-manage these symptoms and alleviate your anxiety. If your anxiety begins to affect your daily life or lasts longer than you believe it should be sure to consult your doctor. You may need some additional help. This could be in the form of counseling or medication or a combination of the two. There is nothing wrong with needing some help during this challenging time, so don’t be afraid to ask for help should you need it.

Grief is messy.

Healing is not linear. You can go back and forth in your grief. Once you move through stages, you can still move back through them again.

.Some people may experience a debilitating type of grief. The grief doesn’t improve with time, or maybe they have developed depression or an anxiety disorder that has led to complicated grief.

.Most people will go through what most people would consider usual grief. This includes periods of numbness, great sorrow, guilt, and anger. It eventually lessens and begins to be possible to move forward after the loss. With usual grief, your daily life should not be significantly impacted. You are moving through your grief but also able to get back to some of your routine. This doesn’t mean that you won’t still experience waves of grief at periodic times, but instead means it is not overwhelming.

.In the initial stages of grief, many of the signs and symptoms of usual grief are the same as complicated grief; however, usual grief will slowly get better. Complicated grief gets worse or significantly impacts your daily life. Here are some symptoms associated with complicated grief:

  • Intense sadness or sorrow
  • Hard to focus on anything else
  • Problems accepting death
  • Numb or detached
  • Bitterness over the loss
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Inability to enjoy life
  • Can’t return to regular routines
  • Isolate and withdraw from support
  • Believing you did something wrong or could prevent the death
  • Feeling like you can’t go on
  • Wishing you had died too

.Seek help if you are dealing with complicated grief. Call your doctor and mental health professional, especially if you don’t see any improvement after a year.

.There isn’t a definitive answer to what causes complicated grief. It is multifactorial. A variety of scenarios can make someone more prone to developing complicated grief. Here are some scenarios that may increase the likelihood of complicated grief:

  • If the death was unexpected or violent
  • Death of a Child
  • Close or dependent relationship with the deceased
  • Lack of a support system
  • History of depression, anxiety disorder, or PTSD
  • Traumatic Childhood
  • Compounding life stressors

Grief triggers are everywhere.

The smallest thing can trigger waves of grief. Seeing their stuff around or walking by a place full of memories can both trigger sadness, anxiety, or even a panic attack. It is important to know that this is normal, and triggers may be accompanied by other behaviors.

.There is a multitude of common grieving behaviors. You may experience some of these or all of them. We are all different and experience grief in different ways and for varying lengths of time. Here are some common grieving behaviors:

  • Sleep disturbances – This can be trouble getting to sleep or waking up frequently.
  • Appetite disturbances – It can present itself as overeating or undereating.
  • Absentmindedness – You are feeling a bit more spacey or forgetful.
  • Withdrawing socially – This should be short-lived. Wanting to be alone because you can only hear “I’m sorry for your loss” so many times before you can’t listen anymore.
  • Dreaming about the deceased – This can be good or bad dreams of the person you’ve lost.
  • Searching for them – This might mean you forget that they are no longer here. Maybe you look for them in the house or even call out to them.
  • Restless hyperactivity -This is the inability to sit still. You might feel like you have to always be busy.
  • Crying – This relieves emotional stress.
  • Carrying around reminders of the deceased – These could be important items of theirs you carry around.
  • Visiting places that remind you of the deceased – This could be some of the places you guys frequented together, or maybe just somewhere they loved to go.

When Will the Next Waves Hit?

It could come on at any time. Grief takes so much time. You can’t accomplish your grieving all in one go. There will be waves. You may see something that reminds you of your loss or have visited a place that holds many memories. This could lead to another wave of grief. Over time though, the waves will get smaller and farther apart.

How to Self-Treat a Panic Attack

Panic attacks can be terrifying. They seem to come out of nowhere and fill your body full of adrenaline. One second you are fine; the next, you can’t catch your breath. Your heart is racing, and you feel like you may pass out or die from a heart attack.

If you feel short of breath, dizzy, nauseous, chest tightness or pain, or fear of dying, these are symptoms of a panic attack and should be discussed with your doctor.

While panic attacks are incredibly frightening, remember that they cannot hurt you. They last anywhere between 5 to 30 minutes.

Here are some ways to cope during a panic attack:

  1. Deep breathing techniques – breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, and breathe out through your mouth for a count of 8. This will help slow your heart and relax your body. There are many different variations of deep breathing. It also serves to keep your mind busy.
  2. STOP protocol – tell your brain to stop and reframe your thinking. If you feel like your heart is beating hard and scares you, say stop and tell yourself that your heart is healthy and made to work for your body. Redirect your racing thoughts.
  3. Meditation – Guided meditation is extremely effective. It serves as a helpful distraction but also calms your mind and body
  4. Don’t avoid the feelings – experience them and talk yourself through them. Assure yourself that you are safe and that these feelings will pass.

Ways to Prevent a Panic Attack

You may be unable to avoid having a panic attack altogether, but some things may help prevent them. Here are some things to try as preventative measures:

  1. Avoid coffee, alcohol, and smoking
  2. Exercise regularly – this reduces stress and can also help you during times of panic. Even just a short walk can be useful.
  3. Cognitive Behavior Therapy – can give you tools to help through a panic attack and work on any negative mindset behaviors.
  4. Eat regularly to maintain stable blood sugar levels.

How to Deal with Waves of Grief

The waves will come, but there are some things that you can implement to get you through it. It is essential that you take care of yourself.

  1. Give yourself a lot of grace
  2. Take care of yourself. Be sure to eat regularly and get plenty of rest.
  3. Lean on your support system.
  4. Don’t be afraid to feel your feelings.
  5. Turn to your spirituality.
  6. Read about other’s experiences.

It can be challenging to navigate how to cope with your grief. It may take several different approaches to find things that help you through it. You will have a lot of trial and error. What works for one person may not work for another person. This is such an individual experience. Even people experiencing the loss of the same person will deal with that death in very different ways.

Here are some more things to try:

  • Talk through it – either with friends, family, or a professional.
  • Write down or journal your thoughts – this is cathartic and allows you to think through and process your feelings.
  • Give yourself grace – don’t rush your grieving process. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
  • Turn to your spirituality – your beliefs will be able to guide you through this process and connect you to others who share those beliefs.
  • Books – this is an added way to connect with other people’s stories. This can help with some of the isolating feelings brought on by grief. Knowing that someone else has been in your position and made it to the other side is very powerful and can give you hope when you’re feeling hopeless.
  • Get help if you need it – This step can be crucial. Don’t be afraid to ask for help because we can all need a little help sometimes. It doesn’t mean you are weak. If anything, asking for help takes a great deal of strength. Grief can turn into depression or anxiety that can complicate your grief.

The Task of Mourning

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief are well known, but another very useful model that should be discussed is William Worden’s Tasks of Mourning. These are laid out more like steps to work through and to see what there is to work towards in your healing. These are the tasks of mourning:

  1. Accept the reality of the loss. Rituals like funerals help with this process.
  2. Process the pain of grief.
  3. Adjust to the world without the deceased.
  4. Find an enduring connection with the dead while embarking on a new life.

Worden also introduces what he has termed the seven mediators of grief. These mediators of mourning are the different variables that affect how one mourns. The mediators are as follows:

  1. The relationship to the deceased – Who died? Was it a mother/father? Brother/sister? Friend?
  2. The strength of the relationship – how long someone knew the deceased and how strong the bond was.
  3. How someone died – if it was unexpected or if it was expected.
  4. Historical antecedents – has this person experienced grief before and how did they handle it?
  5. Personality Variables – everyone grieves differently. Some may grieve briefly, and some may feel like theirs is endless.
  6. Social Variables – how much support does someone have when grieving? There may be more support earlier in the grieving period and not as much further into the process.
  7. Concurrent Stresses – What other stressful things are someone dealing with in conjunction with this loss? Are they going through a divorce? Did they also lose a job? Compounded losses can affect the length of someone’s grieving period.

Physical Symptoms Associated with Grief

We often think of the feelings or emotions associated with grief, but there can also be some physical feelings. Here are some physical symptoms you could experience:

  • A hollow pit in the stomach
  • Chest Tightness
  • Tightness in the throat
  • Sensitive to Noises
  • Depersonalization or unreality
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle weakness
  • Lack of energy
  • Dry mouth

The Waves of Grief Will Subside

Keep the hope alive and take great care of yourself. This will be the most important thing for your healing. You have to go through the pain to get to the other side. If you delay your grief, it will just be that…delayed. You will still have to experience it to work through the pain. It will hit you out of nowhere at some point.

If you feel like you may be experiencing complicated grief, and it may be turning into depression or anxiety, please seek additional help. Rely heavily on your support system and talk to professionals if you need additional tools to work through your grief.

When experiencing a panic attack or anxiety, be sure to utilize deep breathing, staying present in the moment, and letting your body experience the feelings. Don’t let it scare you into retreating from what you are doing.

Grief is messy. Don’t expect it to be a short one time feeling of sadness. Try not to have any set expectations. Be patient with yourself. Spend time with your feelings, talk them out with people, and write them out to help you through the process. Read about other’s experiences and don’t lose hope.

Written by Kasia Ciszewski, LPC on

Kasia is a licensed counselor servicing the Charleston & Mount Pleasant area. She helps individuals heal, better understand their emotions, energize & become more aware of their inner strength. She specializes in helping teens, adults, and seniors and has been able to regularly achieve impressive results for her clients throughout South Carolina. Instagram - Facebook - Twitter - Linkedin

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