Coping with the Conflicting Emotions of Grief

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 between 50,000 – 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.

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 the 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, but 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, but he still wishes the death had never happened.

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

A husband feel happy at his son’s graduation, but 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 at exactly the same time. 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 and you move forward in the present.

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April 18, 2017

12 responses on "Coping with the Conflicting Emotions of Grief"

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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

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

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      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.

      Eleanor

  10. 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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