The Grief Coaster: Understanding stress in grief

Stress is a given, whether it’s experienced in response to major life events or minor everyday occurrences. When life is going okay, your stress ebbs and flows. It’s kind of like one of those little kiddie roller coasters – all small peaks and tiny dips.


When something terrible happens, your stress level rises dramatically and you may feel as though you’ve boarded the ‘Mega Mind-Blowing Super Stress Coaster’.

The stress experienced after the death of a loved one is kind of like the ‘Mega Mind-Blowing Super Stress Coaster’, except grief has many uncomfortable peaks and goes on for an unpleasantly long time.

Which roller coaster looks the most threatening to you? Many people would say the middle one looks the most dangerous, but research has shown that everyday, ongoing, chronic stress can be just as harmful as a major stressful event to your mental and physical well-being. So lucky you, the ‘Grief Coaster’ includes a major life event and ongoing chronic stress.  What a thrill!

The Internet has no shortage of articles on stress, but a specific discussion about grief and stress certainly couldn’t hurt considering all the potential stressors associated with the death of a loved one. In this article, we’ll address the experience of stress in grief and coping with stress.


Stress in Grief:

It’s impossible to parse the stress experienced as a result of a loved one’s death out from normal everyday stress. For that reason, when conceptualizing stress in grief, it may be wise to accept that all your stress is now swirling around in one big stress cauldron – making stress soup – yum.  That said, here are a few basic reasons why stress levels may increase dramatically after the death of a loved one. In the interest of time (and your attention span), we’re unable to write an exhaustive list.

Change: Many people will find that after the death of their loved one they have to adjust to a life that looks nothing like it used to. Like one domino knocking down the next, the death of a loved one can cause secondary loss after secondary loss, which means an immense amount of change.

Emotions: Experiences like trauma, loss, and grief can evoke new and intense emotions that people often feel ill-equipped to deal with. Part of what makes something stressful is an individual’s belief that they lack the resources to cope with it. Internal conflict is also a common source of stress. As we noted in a recent article, people often find themselves experiencing conflicting thoughts and emotions in grief.

Interpersonal stressors: A common source of stress and pain after the death of a loved one is conflict, alienation, and hurt feelings among family and friends.

Pressure: It would be wonderful if after the death of a loved one people were given a grace period to grieve. One long enough to allow them to process their emotions, cope with logistical issues, and, I dunno, get their lives together.  Sadly, people often experience the opposite when they receive pressure, both from others and from themselves, to…

  • move on
  • be normal again
  • feel better
  • wear pants with non-elastic waistlines
  • support other grieving family and friends
  • step into new roles
  • let go
  • go back to work
  • etc.

Frustration: Frustration is a common source of everyday stress.  Frustration occurs when the pursuit of something is prevented or thwarted.  Basically, frustration occurs when a person wants something they can’t have or wants things to be a certain way when they aren’t. After the death of a loved one, when the one person you want is gone and everything you knew about life has changed, things can feel very frustrating.


Appraising Stress:

How people experience stress often comes down to how they perceive and appraise the situation. In their 1984 book, ‘Stress, Appraisal, and Coping’, Lazarus and Folkman explained that humans make two appraisals when responding to stress: a primary appraisal and secondary appraisal.

Primary Appraisal: 

In the primary appraisal, a person evaluates whether the potential stressor is relevant to them. If they determine the stressor is relevant, they then decide if it is also threatening.

Secondary Appraisal:

If the stressor is determined to be both relevant and threatening, a person then makes a secondary appraisal by asking themselves – “Do I have the resources and skills necessary to cope with this stressor?”

After a loss, the response to this second question is often a resounding NO!

When faced with grief, emotion, change, frustration, and all the other peaks on the ‘Grief Coaster’, one’s first instinct may be to think they don’t have the strength or abilities to cope. Still, the ride isn’t ending anytime soon, and there’s no way to get off, so what choice do they have?


Coping with Stress:

Ideally, in this scenario, a person will choose constructive coping, but we should mention that people are especially susceptible to negative coping when feeling overwhelmed, confused, stressed-out, and/or exhausted.

Not so constructive ways to cope with stress:

Stress has been linked to a number of mental and physical health problems, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, migraine, headaches, ulcers, sleep problems, and anxiety and depression, so it’s wise for grieving people to actively seek out constructive ways to cope with their experiences. WYG has written many articles geared towards helping people cultivate positive coping.  Here are a few suggestions…

Constructive ways to cope with stress:

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December 8, 2017

24 responses on "The Grief Coaster: Understanding stress in grief"

  1. Betty Jean ChopickJuly 12, 2018 at 10:59 amReply

    Such a valuable website. I am so sorry for the grief pain people carry. I am going to post a different take on grief.
    My husband of 50 years was killed instantly 8 months ago by a speeding gravel truck. I mostly just feel numb and relief. He was a bossy moody narcissist often mean. I lived on egg shells. I was mostly afraid to speak because if I felt comfortable, thats when he would strike. His death has given me life without fear. I was jealous of people who got divorced. I can’t believe I lived like that for 52 years! I walk around in shock and disbelief even 8 months later.
    My therapist has been so helpful.
    Now I can spend my final 10 or 15 years recovering from my marriage in peace.

  2. I lost my husband 5 months. Yesterday would have been our 55th wedding anniversary. The first couple of months I felt somewhat numb and so much of my time was taken with dealing with practical things such as finances, car and home maintenance etc Now I feel like this ship sailing on a vast ocean without an anchor. I have a lot of support from family and friends and I have quite a few hobbies which include art and music, but still, sometimes I feel quite overwhelmed by anxiety, and this horrible feeling that I am only half the person I used to be.

  3. My grief is complicated by the fact that I suffer from post-concussive syndrome. The effects – inability to focus or sleep, anxiety, confusion, physical and mental exhaustion, quick temper, depression – mirror those of grief. So my grief is intensified. I was able to meet with my neurologist within a couple of weeks after my mother’s death, and he agreed – as did my other doctors – that I have to take things even more slowly than I would without the PCS. Since I’m the one everyone goes to to “talk”, and I’m the one responsible for all financial, legal, etc. details, taking care of my health is critical. I’ve written 6 books about grieving the death of a friend, which unfortunately makes some people believe that grieving my mother is somehow easier for me. It’s not. I understand everything I’m going through, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I have to be kind to myself every single day. I know when I’ve pushed myself too far (I learned that from my concussion), so I don’t overdo it. But it’s a challenge every day to set boundaries for my own self-care and be patient with myself.

  4. I think the concept of processing emotions is when you are ready to. It is now two and a half years since I lost my husband and I avoided anything that I wasn’t ready to cope with. Slowly I have dealt with them but only when I felt able to, I know this only on reflection. I was scared at first because I knew that I was avoiding doing this, not allowing myself to think about him for too long, not listening to music or looking at photo’s of him etc., My avoidance was because I knew that I would slip into that black hole again, I now know that I have done all these things but only when I felt I could without being overwhelmed by the thoughts. Grief is indeed a roller coaster and the great dips come when we least expect them, sadly the missing them never changes.

  5. what exactly do you mean when you write: “Disconnect from electronics”. I have found out that social media like facebook etc can really upset me. Al these positive things people post about and things tehy do with their families………..
    Is that what you mean ?

  6. LMAO This reminded me of when I was in Paramedic School and listening to a doctor who was there to discuss mental illnesses. He told us that if a person has no stress at all it means they’re dead, bc you can’t be alive an be without some type of stress.
    Personally I think I’ve been WORSE off since entering psychotherapy. I don’t care what anyone says, I’ve noticed a difference and not in a calming way that since I started doing the things she’s said my emotions have been worse than ever with being up or down and nowhere in between.

  7. This is a great article that addresses the reality of grief. I love the roller coaster analogy – so very true. After losing my mom (’06), my brother 5 months later (’07) and then my son to suicide a year after that (’08) I was in emotional trouble. Between a wonderful therapist and an awesome support group called GriefShare (available in many areas – Google it for a group near you) I have found healing. GriefShare leads you through almost all of the constructive coping ideas mentioned in this article and gently leads you out of being “stuck” in grief. I highly recommend this program.

  8. I think for me it is a question of getting through this terrible period as safely as I can. I lost the love of my life last year and believe me, I have gone through some of the not so constructive ways of coping listed above, but am now realising I need to swim up to the light, instead of going down, down, down. So the second, constructive list is helpful. You have to work through your issues and at the same time distract yourself a bit from them, so they don’t dominate your life. Try to feel good again. I would also add music and outings and I found a good free hypnosis ap on dealing with anxiety which has helped a lot. As you say, a roller coaster….

  9. Thank you for this article. Eight months tomorrow will mark the loss of my spouse. The ups and downs are so hard. I’m a planner, and I like a schedule, normalcy, and routine, and grief is NOT any of those things. When I have good days, I am so grateful (well, occasionally even a little guilty…to be honest), but when followed by bad days, I feel like I must be “doing” my grief wrong. I also note that the hills and dips are not scheduled and come out of the blue almost always catching me by surprise — like having the wind knocked out of you. When I go on roller coasters, I usually watch before hand and I know when the hills and dips are coming so I can prepare. I worry and stress over what I think are going to bad days (birthday, wedding anniversary, Christmas), and then end up difficult but not so bad. But then days where there should be no reason at all to be a bad day, a song, a smell, a memory, or even seeing a truck like my husband drove can set me off into tears and into a dip that can last days. If only there were a manual……………………sigh…..

    • Wow linda i coukd have wrote this, i feel exactlythe same. Currently in a real and unexpected dip, feeling like I’m not ‘right’. Sending loving thoughts x

  10. Thank you so so much for this article. I lost my baby brother to suicide on June 1st and my mother on Sept 18th of 2016. I often go through periods of deep sorrow still. Some days are black as sin and some days I see the sun. What I wouldn’t give for sunny breezy skies always. If you haven’t gone through something as life changing as this then you could never understand how much pain you are actually causing to those that are grieving. We would love to go on but some of us are stuck..

  11. So much grief! Long illness, loss of work and money due to illness. Finally regain health. Go back to work. Yeah!
    Find new boyfriend after many years alone while ill.
    Next step, close friend dies from cancer. Boyfriend leaves, very close relative dies, very good friend dies. All this right around menopause.
    I collapsed and never really recovered.
    I had too many stressful events in a row.
    I have migraines, sleep problems, employment problems like I never had in my life. I feel isolated and unable to do anything about it.
    I tried to find a counselor but became too depressed looking and not finding.
    I am really not my old self at all. I have turned a corner.

  12. I lost the love of my life in January and my Dad in February.

  13. Thank you for this post. Today was one of those difficult days. This helps me keep my stress in perspective and that I need to find more positive ways to cope.

  14. My son died 5 months ago…there isnt’s anyone to talk to about it anymore…no one seems to care or wants to listen…no one I know has ever watched their son die…they do not know how I feel…

    • Joan, I can’t even imagine the pain of losing a child. It’s the nigthmare of every parent. I care about what you have to say. The problem is most people have no idea how to help so they stay away.( mostly for fear of hurting you more). That is Not possible the pain must be horrifying. I lost my Dad and the hardest part is when everyone goes back to their lives and move on. Yet your life will NEVER be the same again, I can’t imagine your pain, no one can but you are not alone. Reach out.

      • This list if helpful ways to move on is a joke…really do yoga or get a hobby! You’re pissed and traumatized…I may choke a yoga instructor !

        • Brenda,

          This is not meant to be a list of ways to move on. It’s meant to be a list of simple ways to cope with or relieve stress on a day-to-day basis. This is not a prescriptive or exhaustive list either. The things that one person finds helpful, another may not. So if you are looking for ideas for coping with stress, I encourage you to take what works for you and ignore the rest.

          Thanks for reading!
          Eleanor

    • Joan I am so sorry about your son. You will be in my prayers and thoughts. I just don’t understand people. All you hear when a loved one passes is if you need anything I am here for you. No they are not. Cant someone care enough to send a text or call? I lost my husband 8 months ago. The one thing I hate most is when someone says I didn’t know what to say. I pray God sends someone to help comfort you.

    • As a grieving mother of two angels, I totally understand! I lost a 2 month old in 1986 (he spent the entire 2 months in PICU) and my 26 yr old daughter in 2005 to suicide. Seek others who have experienced the loss of a child (https://www.compassionatefriends.org); take care of yourself (force yourself to eat properly & take a 30 minute walk daily); remember this is YOUR journey and you need to “travel” at your own speed. For me, it was 5yrs after each loss before I felt like I could begin to breathe again. The pain changes over time but never goes away. <3

    • Joan, I do understand because I had to hold my Forever 32 Only Child died and other that what brought to this site today which is the letter for Grieving Mother’s, I have no words because there are none! I have to hurdles for this Holiday that I dread as I know You are as well and it is that it will be your first and even though it was 4 year’s this past Monday the 8th and got that dreaded call on May 4th and they kept telling me I had to make the decision to take him off life support while he could still breath some on his own and hook him up to Morphine and sit beside his bed while holding his hand with my head on his Chest waiting for him to take his last Breath! Putting a Decision Like that on a souly on his Mom was more than anyone​could handle and it took a little over an hour! So, I just know only one thing and that is in only a few months you are probably still not even believing it’s real, just a nightmare that you can’t wake from and going back and forth on why, what and what did I do to deserve this and so much anger and I was even angry with God but I did get over that one! Now, it’s like a Roller Coaster and it could be anything that’s sends you into that constant feeling that your Heart is going to explode! I know everyone​ is different but I had already been beat down so many times and it seems like as soon as the Funeral is over it Oh well let’s get on with it! You will never get over this and you will never be the same again and they say that it gets better with time and now it is a very little but when you Love so deeply from you depts of your loins because they are a part of you! I just Miss him so much that it just hurts! I hope you can find some support from other Mother’s instead of what I did for so long and just laid down and Prayed for Death but it never came but Thank God My Son left me the Best Gift he could ever give me which was his Son which was being kept from me on and off which kept throwing me back down until finally His Mom got away from the Evil man She was with and needed me to pick him up from School and stay with him till She got home from work and it was really hard at first but it forced me to go out and a little bit at a time I started feeling a bit stronger! He was only 10 when his Dad died and now he just turned 14 in January right after his Daddy’s Birthday which makes his pretty sad now and I see him getting more and more depressed seeing him hurt by his Mom and her Ex. that he just needs his Dad it about kills me! So, I don’t know what to say other than I am here if you look me up on Facebook and send a message or however you can get ahold of me and I will just listen because there are nothing I can do or say but I can listen if you need me! Sending you All My Love, Prayers and Strength for you in the most unbearable pain of your life! Love Mom of a of an Angel! Pamela Arthur Young

  15. what exactly do you mean when you write: “process feelings that are keeping you stuck.” isn’t that the whole crux of the issue, that a grieving person doesn’t know what to do about them, or even name them, when they arise?

    • Hey Lillian,

      If you feel like you’re doing your best to process emotions as they come, then you’re doing this already. This suggestion really refers more to people who are actively avoiding processing certain experiences or emotions – perhaps because they feel they don’t want to or need to.

      Eleanor

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