There are so many things one can feel in this life – anger, joy, jealousy, love, shame, happiness, embarrassment, amusement, sadness, euphoria, frustration. The roller coaster of emotion whips over high peaks, spins, and dips over and over and over – it’s thrilling and it’s scary and it’s one hell of a ride.
Except, I want you to imagine that one day you get on the roller coaster and as it climbs, falls, twists and turns you realize that you feel nothing. You are sitting in a tiny cart being whipped around like a wet noodle, wondering why everyone else is laughing, screaming, and throwing their hands in the air.
Feeling nothing may be described as anhedonia, which is one of the main symptoms of major depressive disorder, but someone might also experience this sort of reaction in response to things like anxiety or trauma. In grief, it is common to experience such emotional numbing, especially in the days to weeks following the death. Under any circumstance, it feels awful to feel nothing.
Anhedonia is often described as the loss of interest in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities such as friends, family, hobbies, work, food, sex, and laughter; although some might say this depiction pales in comparison to the actual experience. The trouble is, it’s difficult to explain feelings of nothingness to people who feel a general something-ness.
Well, sometimes I feel like I’m melting.
And sometimes I feel like I’m disappearing.
Unfortunately feelings of melting and disappearing can also be difficult for people to relate to.
Feeling nothing is not akin to feeling ‘okay,’ underwhelmed, or unenthused. Feeling nothing is more like feeling empty, dead inside, emotionless, as though you have nothing to contribute, or as though you can’t relate to the feelings and emotions of others (thus rendering social interaction problematic).
It’s hard to understand how the absence of feeling could actually equal extreme pain and distress, but it does. When you feel nothing, the world seems to make less sense. You look in the mirror and barely recognize yourself, without emotions you feel alien and it’s hard to imagine being a person ever again.
The emotional numbness sometimes experienced in grief can feel especially disturbing because after a death you expect to feel so much. You might wonder, “What is wrong with me?!?! Why don’t I feel anything?!? Maybe I’m not a human being at all. Oh no, what if I’m a sociopath?!? Or a robot?!?” Feeling nothing during grief is alienating and isolating because everyone else seems pretty in touch with their feelings. You know you’re sad about the death, but you can’t actually access the emotions and so you feel different than others grieving the death.
Friends and family show up in support and say things like, “I can only imagine everything you must be feeling right now” and send you cards that say, “tears are a reflection of love”, and you feel guilty because you’re not crying. Worse, you worry others will think you’re apathetic and question your love for the person who has died.
Feeling nothing when you’re supposed to feel intense sadness is really disorienting. You need to feel feelings again STAT, so you try to coax your emotions out by doing things like picking fights.
Or by engaging in reckless behavior in hopes of feeling something….anything. Picking fights and reckless behavior sometimes work, but they also come with undesired consequences.
The good news is, in the absence of disorders like depression, bipolar, or anxiety, sooner or later your feelings should return. But be forewarned, sometimes feelings return with a vegence.
Overall, I want to reassure you that you’re most likely capable of experiencing feelings. I also want you to know that it’s normal to feel numb for a little while grieving; this does not reflect anything negative about you as a person or your love for the person who has died. If you’ve been feeling this way for longer than you’re comfortable with, or if it is having a profound and negative impact on your ability to cope with your losses and engage in daily life, then you might want to talk to a licensed mental health professional.
If you have been experiencing anhedonia i.e. feeling nothing for a long time (weeks or months) under any circumstances, we recommend talking to a licensed counselor. A counselor might be able to help you understand what your going through, identify broader disorders, and support you in finding your way out of the abyss.
Please excuse my egregious use of stick figures lately, I find them to be a suitable substitute when words fail. Also, subscribe to receive posts straight to your email inbox and head over to our shop and check out our print grief resources.