What To Expect When You’re Grieving


Dear friends recently lost their dad. I remember being surprised after my dad died at how bone tired I was. As one acquainted with grief, I offer this short primer, not as a scientific study, but as an anecdotal narrative of what I’ve experienced, what I’ve observed and what you may expect.

1. Exhaustion   
Emotional work is physically exhausting. You will wake up tired, your sleep patterns will be disrupted, a deep weariness settles in. Make allowances for being tired; avoid extra responsibilities if you can. Take a nap without apologizing for it.

2. Disorientation    
Your brain is overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings. It is hard to focus. You repeat yourself in conversations. You begin a sentence, but can’t finish it. Fog is everywhere. Your ability to think sequentially is diminished. Basic decisions—where to eat, what to do next—are challenging.

3. Absorption
When someone you love dies, you look for clues, for signs, for anything that can help you make sense of his/her life. Or make sense of his/her death. You examine the relationship you shared, reviewing communications, reminding yourself of what is true. The more contradictions there are, the more you ponder. We want to understand, but the understanding doesn’t always come.  

4. Apathy
You couldn’t care less.  You stop eating. Or you can’t stop eating. Personal hygiene slips. You are tempted to veg-out with TV, computer games, mindless occupations. Habits help. Brush your teeth, take a walk. 

5. Isolation
Grief is a lonely thing. After the outpouring of your friends’ comfort and compassion, life for them returns to normal. But your life is unalterably changed. Grief makes people uncomfortable, unsure of their response, so they may avoid you in an effort to protect themselves. You may be reluctant to articulate your grief to yourself, let alone to others. Living in community can propel you into social situations that insulate you from isolation. 


There is no getting around the fact that grief is painful. We don’t like pain, so we search for shortcuts that will make the pain go away. I’ve seen folks allot 4-7 days to grieve and then pack up their grief and put it into storage. But grief too quickly stowed will return, ringing the doorbell, insisting on being present. 

How long will this last? Ecclesiastes 3 gives a clue: To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven. (emphasis mine) Three months is a normal time to experience the deep initial wave of grief. The loss will be with you until the end of your days; you will never be “over it.”

And then there will be the realization that—for a moment—you had forgotten how sad you were. It feels like betrayal to experience a slice of joy.

Another time will come when you feel like you should be sad, but the emotion is just not there. Then you make a decision to either manufacture the sadness or to let that moment pass. There is a ditch on both sides of the road: the ditch of denying grief, pretending you are fine; and the ditch of gripping grief with clenched hands that won’t release it.  When the tears come, let them. But don’t force them.

The summer after my mom died, I remember a scene of social awkwardness and resulting tears at a summer camp. Some girl impatiently demanded to know why I was crying. I was too embarrassed to articulate my awkwardness, so I played my trump card: “Well, wouldn’t you cry if your mom had died?” It was patently dishonest, and my ten-year-old self recognized—and regretted—the manipulation the moment those words left my mouth.

Underneath all of these thoughts is my faith that God is sovereign, that He knows my tears, and that I can trust Him. He doesn’t erase the pain as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but He does promise to comfort us. And that is enough.


3 thoughts on “What To Expect When You’re Grieving

  1. Beautiful, Carol. It’s been a year since my dad died, and I don’t think I fully finished grieving until after our move to Murfreesboro when I finally had time to do so. The fatigue surprised me because I knew it was more than our move. The grief was short and blessedly not too deep, but I am glad to have passed through it and on to the stage of simply missing him when I think of things here he would have liked.I think I used grief over my mother’s death as an insincere and manipulative cover-up/reason for all kinds of emotions over a span of ten or fifteen years. :(Thanks for sharing and have a blessed Thanksgiving!Sandy

  2. I think the thing that surprised me the most was HOW tired I was each time I experienced loss…but even more surprising was the apathy (perfect word choice!)  Routines are a lifeline.  I totally agree.  And as a non-routine person, that almost killed me.  It’s hard to establish routines in the midst, but I always seem to be in that place (-:Beautifully expressed, Carol.  So thankful you are writing.Love,Di

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