Coping with the Conflicting Emotions of Grief

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

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How are you feeling today?

Yes, you.

It's a simple question. You're asked a version of it every day. You know how to respond. Keep it simple. Choose a one- to three- word answer. Bonus points if you choose something neutral-to-positive that doesn't require a follow-up question. Don't say anything awkward or concerning (unless you're certain the person you're talking to genuinely cares).

The 'how are you' exchange isn't intended to be complicated, which is kind of weird when you consider how convoluted a person's state-of-mind is at any given moment. Scientists don't really know how many thoughts we have per minute. But according to a little Google research, estimates range from between 50,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day. Our emotions, which are very closely tied to our thoughts, also tend to vacillate and shift through the day.

People rarely feel just one thing at a time or one way towards a given person, place, event, or thing... So, although you may make a habit of saying 'fine' or 'good' when someone asks you how you're doing, the answer is probably a little more complex. But I don't need to tell those of you who are grieving this because grief, well, it makes you feel things! So many different things that life after the death of a loved often comes to feel like one big emotional mash-up.

the typical "how are you feeling" exchange

One emotional experience that many grieving people find particularly vexing is the realization that their thoughts, emotions, and needs occasionally seem to conflict with one another. A very common example of this is the feeling of simultaneously being happy but also sad. This is something grieving people eventually learn to live with because, after the death of a loved one, this bittersweet reality is just unavoidable. But the first time a person experiences happiness or laughter after the death of a loved one they may feel guilty. They may say to themselves:

"If I feel happy, then I can't be sad, right?"

Wrong! This way of thinking goes back to the false belief that a person can only feel one way at a time when, in reality, people can feel many things at a time. One emotion doesn't replace or cancel the other out. So, in the example above, happiness doesn't replace sadness, it exists alongside it.

The fact that thoughts and emotions are not either/or is important to remember because it will come up (if it hasn't already). Grief is full of puzzling paradoxes! You may have your own examples, but here are a few:

A wife loves her deceased husband, AND also needs the companionship and affection of a partner. Her connection with a new partner does not diminish her love for her deceased husband.

A woman has struggled with infertility in the past and her grief over this loss makes her feel a little jealous when her friends become pregnant, even though she is truly very happy for them.

A brother feels that grieving his sister's death has made him stronger and has given him a greater appreciation for life, AND he still wishes the death had never happened.

A daughter feels hopeful for the future, AND scared that moving forward will mean having to leave her deceased mother behind.

A husband feel happy at his son's graduation, AND also sad that his late wife couldn't be there to witness their son's special day.

Grief is hard work for so many different reasons, but one of those reasons is because it forces you to stretch your heart and mind to create enough space for all your thoughts, emotions, and desires to exist alongside one another. This, in turn, requires you to be flexible enough in your thinking to accept that it's okay to feel two seemingly opposite things at the exact same time.

Grief opens your eyes to a world in which the sun and rain can exist in the same moment. This reality can be a bit disorienting at first, but in many ways, it is a good thing. It means that you don't have to choose between grieving the past and living in the present. It means that the pain of loss can exist right alongside things like pleasure, happiness, and hope. And, above all else, it means that you never have to leave your loved one behind as you move forward in the present.


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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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17 Comments on "Coping with the Conflicting Emotions of Grief"

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  1. Dawn Wardyga  June 10, 2019 at 4:39 pm Reply

    Hello. My son, Jason, was the second born of twins. He died at the age of 19 months due to complications of the brain injury he had suffered during birth. It will take me the rest of my days learning to live with that loss. Fast forward – his brother, my healthy twin, is 33-years-old and is getting married at the end of July this year. I am back to being a mess. While I want Jeff to be happy, this is yet another significant reminder of what will never be for Jason. I am angry, sad and longing all over again. While I am doing my very best to be joyful for Jeff, I am once again, consumed with grief. It doesn’t help that Jeff’s fiancé of about a year is not at all warm and fuzzy and seems to resent the closeness of our family. We also have four daughters and have worked very had to raise all of our children to be kind, thoughtful and empathetic adults. Jeff’s fiance’ is none of those. I am torn between my lifelong grief and wanting Jeff to be truly happy. It feels as if we may lose Jeff too due to his marriage to this young woman who seems to want nothing to do with our family. I don’t know where to turn or how to deal with these feelings. I would greatly appreciate any advice that you might be able to provide or places to go for guidance. Thank you.

  2. June B  March 22, 2019 at 9:35 pm Reply

    Thank you for sharing – I lost my husband suddenly and this is exactly how I feel – contradicting emotions – Grief certainly makes you feel things. I like the thought “You never have to leave your loved one behind as you move forward in the present”.

  3. Cynthia Borkowski  July 5, 2018 at 6:43 pm Reply

    So how does one grieve for an only child. 43 year old daughter with a 13 year old son. My grandson. When 10 years ago my husband of 30 years completed suicide. .its very complicated as she was still married and living with a boyfriend. 17 years her senior. She was his breadwinner. Do I sound bitter. Sorry. My grandsons dad lives with his girlfriend and her husband. Different relationship. To say the least. That’s where my 13 yr old grandson is living now. His dad took him once a week for a few hours. Oh and the boyfriend gets her insurance money although he doesn’t have cause of death certificate. It gets better. minor child gets 15%. When hes 18. Meanwhile the husband gets very little. Small 401k. I say this bc dad doesn’t even have an apartment. He took over her car. Thank God. Grief. ANGER.cause I know that emotion. My husband left me 5 houses in 2008 not paid for. I told and told my daughter. She never listened. Now my grandson has a wrath to grieve. The boyfriend is already putting her down. It was cardiac arrest. Autopsy showed nothing. We wait now for tox results. In the meantime she’s still on the coroners office
    People please think. How can I grieve. It’s always complicated. The boyfriend was controlling. I read her texts. I didn’t know. I knew some but she was 43. Whete do I go from here
    Idk how to live without her really. Only child. Cancer survivor at 2. Retionalblastoma. He will get 91k. Her minor child 15k. No funeral. Not my choice. I’m not next of kin. Grief. Yes this is complicated grief
    Any help would be appreciated. Idk what to do. I have comforted my grandson . Me
    I’m shell shocked. We were close very close before the boyfriend. The husband. Hes a good man. Just not prepared or mature. I’m not feeling mature lately. I will have a small service when I sort this out if possible. I don’t trust anything now
    Anyone. People ask to any questions. So nosey. Help

  4. D  March 9, 2018 at 10:28 am Reply

    Such difficult topics confronted head-on, so very helpful, thank-you! It’s comforting knowing that I am not alone on this grieving journey. This season has been unusually long & cold, even by Canada’s standards. Thankfully your posts have offered me comfort and peace, making winter-weary me feel so much better. With gratitude from Alberta.

  5. D  March 9, 2018 at 10:28 am Reply

    Such difficult topics confronted head-on, so very helpful, thank-you! It’s comforting knowing that I am not alone on this grieving journey. This season has been unusually long & cold, even by Canada’s standards. Thankfully your posts have offered me comfort and peace, making winter-weary me feel so much better. With gratitude from Alberta.

  6. Kristin  February 1, 2017 at 9:56 pm Reply

    This is so true. I am so used to now saying ‘fine’ I’m not sure if anyone would believe to hear what I really feel. Sometimes i am no longer sure how I really feel.

  7. Gabi  January 28, 2017 at 7:10 pm Reply

    Your post is comforting and validating. I’m grieving the loss of my fiancé, Peter, who died of brain cancer a year and half ago, and actively in a new relationship with a wonderful, supportive and accepting partner. We actually got engaged recently and it’s all so bittersweet to take in. The great love I loss and this new, unexpected love that showed up out of nowhere. I am noticing as I am beginning the wedding planning for my upcoming summer wedding, I get sad and cry. I get overcome with emotions of gratitude and deep loss. Not all my family and friends understand the mix bag of emotions I experience and I can feel at times guilty because I am not happy all the time. Life is strange and fascinating-losing Peter was what lead me to meet my George. Thank you for your posts-they create a space where I am accepted and acknowledged.

  8. anne  January 28, 2017 at 1:02 am Reply

    Thank you for your loving words to allow others to understand these feelings

  9. Juanita  January 26, 2017 at 8:09 am Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing this “post”. I have experienced these feelings & have wondered what was wrong with me…not realizing, maybe, that it is a common thing for grievers to feel sunshine & rain @ the same time. Thank you!

  10. Claudia  January 25, 2017 at 4:53 pm Reply

    Thank you for talking about this. It is so hard to explain to those who have never felt it. If 17 year old me knew that I actually prefer my joys with a hint of sad and bittersweet she would think I was crazy. But feeling both allows me to remember, and that is so precious to me that I actually appreciate it. I loved this article.

  11. Kathleen  January 25, 2017 at 12:38 am Reply

    Eleanor, Without a doubt grieving creates and continuously fosters the confusion of feeling more than one emotion, having more than one thought at any given moment. How right you are that grief makes you feel things. So many things and OFTEN all at once. I’ve labled this state of being for myself as “walking in circles”. Grieving the death of my son while welcoming a new baby boy into the family is experiencing the rain and the sun at the same time, creating a very large circle to walk. You have, as Erin said, captured perfectly the mixed bag of emotions and feelings one can experience throughout the day and even within the moment. Grief can and does fine tune that experience. Thank you for another thought provoking post.

  12. Carolyn Cochrun  January 25, 2017 at 12:25 am Reply

    I’m dealing with a different kind of loss all together, it’s my own death. I have stage 4 breast cancer and according to the doctors in my last month here on this earth. I’ve know for over a year and that has given me time to deal with all of it but the grief process is very different for me. I have good days and bad days, I have panic attacks, less often now than in the past. I am ready to meet the Lord so I’m not really worried about anything other than those I’m leaving behind. I’m thankful for every day that God wakes me up to a new day on this earth. Things are different when you have an idea of when you will be leaving. This has given me the opportunity to say good bye to many and prepare things for that end. I’ve given away everything I’m not currently using so no one has a mess of stuff to deal with after I’m gone. I’ve also left letters for some of my loved ones and for my baby grandson. He will get his letter when he is 16. I’ve made my final arrangements and got it all paid for. I’ve been able to make some things right that I messed up in the past and I’m completing projects I had started. I even started a couple of new ones that I’m hoping to finish. My sister assured me she would see they get finished and delivered to the right folks.
    It’s not what everyone gets or even wants but I’m very thankful for this opportunity to see the end of my life in this way. I do realize it may not be as the doctors think it will be because God is in control but it’s giving me closure I would not otherwise have had. Having to choose this way or not knowing I would probably choose this way of going. I’m getting quality time with my family and my 9 year old grandson is getting his first understanding of death. I just want my death to bring glory to God and maybe bring someone to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
    By the way, I’m the one that had to explain death to my young cousin at my fathers viewing so many years ago. I never though it would end this way but it is what it is. I’ve had a good life and I’m leaving many good memories for others when I leave here. You all have helped me a lot with your posts. Thank you for what you do and please keep it going. It’s a lot more help than you might imagine.

    • Kathleen  January 25, 2017 at 2:28 am Reply

      Carolyn, You are in my prayers.

  13. Erin  January 24, 2017 at 3:12 pm Reply

    Thank you! This beautifully written post completely captured the contradicting emotions of grief, particularly that bittersweet feeling of happiness mixed with sadness.

  14. Ron  January 24, 2017 at 2:41 pm Reply

    Thanks for your post, however, there was no mention of child loss, or did I miss something?

    • Eleanor  January 24, 2017 at 3:30 pm Reply

      Hey Ron,

      No, we didn’t specifically mention child loss, but like we said this something that plays out in many ways for grieving people depending on their unique experience of grief. It’s one of those universal themes, I suppose.


  15. laurajay  January 24, 2017 at 2:14 pm Reply

    thank you for this great post and all of your great posts. I lost my brother unexpectedly in June and while i have lost both parents and their loss was both difficult and different from each other and also this loss. Your posts are so helpful, letting me know its all normal and helping me understand what I am going through.

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