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 again – it’s thrilling, and it’s scary, and it’s one hell of a ride.
Except now, 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 and throwing their hands in the air.
The technical word for feeling nothing is anhedonia. Anhedonia 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 emotional numbness, especially in the days to weeks following the death. Under any circumstance, feeling nothing feels awful.
What does ‘feeling nothing’ feel like?
Anhedonia may be described as the loss of interest in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities such as friends, family, hobbies, work, food, sex, and laughter, but some might say this description pales in comparison to real-life experience. It’s actually pretty 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 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 can 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 loved one dies 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?!?” It seems like everyone else seems pretty in touch with their feelings. They’re crying, they’re letting it all out, they’re encouraging you to let it all out.
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.
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 and 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.
Will I ever feel feelings again?
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 vengeance. 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 while grieving; this does not reflect anything negative about you as a person or your love for the person who has died.
That said, 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.
Also, 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 you’re going through, identify broader disorders, and support you in finding your way out of the abyss.
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