Why Does Grief Come in Waves? 6 Reasons
Handling grief is one of the most challenging tasks of the human condition. When a loved one passes away, life as we know it is turned upside down. Whether it was expected or sudden, it’s impossible to understand how grief will affect us until we face it. One thing is certain: Our lives will never be the same. Even if you’ve encountered loss and grief before, it’s different each time because the loss and circumstances are different. The bond you share with your departed loved one is unique. For those touched by the same loss, the grief journey will vary. It may be surprising, but in many instances, grief can come in waves. The following are six reasons that may help explain the “grief wave” phenomenon.
In our American culture, grief is underserved and undervalued. As much as we may like to believe that mental health is a priority in our society, it simply isn’t. Our collective understanding of grief is limited. Grief is often viewed as a temporary inconvenience—much like the common cold. Grief has no timeline. Many people are taught to ignore and suppress their grief because it’s erroneously seen as a sign of weakness. By ignoring grief, then it can’t exist, right? Wrong. Greater issues can develop when denying grief. As grief is continually suppressed, pressure intensifies. At some point, it will need to be released. When it does, it may come forth in cascading waves.
The grief process is different for each person. Once we experience grief, it stays with us forever. You never really get over a loss. Rather, you either suppress it and remain in an endless cycle of suffering, or you learn to process the loss healthily, allowing you to live a vibrant and fulfilling life. Managing grief takes time; the grief process has to be honored. While some people may find acceptance quickly, others may take a long time. Neither way is right or wrong; it all depends on the person and how they face their grief.
When we first receive the news of a loss, the brain can be overwhelmed. As our main piece of hardware, the brain can only take so much stimulation. Synapses are firing all over the brain. Like a traffic jam, there simply isn’t a way for the brain to keep up. So, it starts shutting down signals until it can get a grip. The brain denies the loss as a coping mechanism. As the grief process continues, surges of emotions may spring up at unpredictable times. “Grief brain” is when the brain experiences momentary lapses in everyday tasks because of the sensory overload it endures. It’s all perfectly natural. Our hardware can only take so much at any given time.
When grief comes to mind, many people think about the immediate aftermath of a loss as if that’s the only time grief rears its head. Grief does not follow a linear progression. While time does help assuage the pain of grief, feelings of loss can be more severe much later. For many, shock and denial keep grief temporarily at bay. There can be a lot of activity directly after the loss of a loved one that requires immediate attention, such as funeral or service arrangements, communicating with several other family members, and settling the estate. There’s no room in the brain to process grief. Once the activity has quieted and supporters have begun to fade back into their everyday lives, the sense of loss begins to come into focus. Life without a loved one begins to really hit home, which could bring forth waves of grief.
Over time, grief may dissipate as the bereaved get used to the new normal without a loved one. However, several things can trigger an overwhelming sense of loss at any time. It can be a scent in the air, such as perfume or cologne, that reminds you of your loved one. Doing an activity alone for the first time could also be a trigger. There can be several unforeseeable triggers for those who used to spend their everyday lives with a loved one who is now gone. When this happens, the pangs of grief may hit them in waves.
Managing grief can be an endless process for some. Even for those who have found acceptance and peace with a loss, milestones can bring forth momentary waves of grief. Everything from birthdays, holidays, and other special dates can elicit an overwhelming sense of loss. Milestones are unavoidable year after year. It’s perfectly natural to experience several conflicting feelings in these moments.
Being told it’s okay to have feelings can be a big concept for some people. It can go against the grain of what they were taught growing up. In many conversations, people shrug off the “How are you feeling?” question with a simple reply of “fine” or “good,” ending the potential for a deeper conversation. We often box people’s feelings into one label or another as if they can only be one thing: happy, sad, tired, depressed, excited, and so on. What if people were permitted to feel more than one thing at once? After all, people can be multiple things at any given time. We’re complex human beings, and we should take a moment to acknowledge that. Experiencing waves of grief is a natural part of the grief process, and it’s okay to “feel the feels.” Whatever they might be.
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