How Grief Changes You

November 17, 2021
The death of a loved one changes you in profound ways. A piece of you is missing, never to return, so the idea that grief would change you makes sense.  Because of this deep grief experience, you will never be the same again.  

Suddenly, plans for the future are gone, so many aspects of daily life have changed, and your world seems upside down.  Other more unexpected changes are the ones that occur in you as a person.  Going through the pain of loss and the intense emotions of grief changes you in ways you don’t expect. In addition to losing your loved one, you may feel you are losing yourself.  But you may also discover aspects of yourself that represent positive changes.

Some changes can be very unsettling because they are simply not consistent with who you are. You may feel you are losing your mind because you can’t remember things, you think you see your loved one, and you can’t read a simple paragraph and remember what you have read.  These tend to be the more temporary changes related to being emotionally overwhelmed. Other changes of this more temporary nature can include the following:

  • Increased irritability
  • Less patience with others
  • Feeling more fearful or anxious
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Forgetfulness

These changes occur because your brain and emotions are overloaded.  Your emotional energy is drained, and you have so many things to take care of at the very time when concentrating on any task is difficult.  Thankfully, these changes eventually go away as you regain a sense of control and begin to establish new routines.

Grief changes you in other more important ways and in ways that are longer lasting.  Grief changes how you look at the world, what is important to you, your relationships, your spirituality, and your sense of identity.

Different Priorities

Once your world has been shattered by a loss, you may find that your priorities in life change.  Things that used to be important no longer seem important, such as making more money, having a bigger home, or getting a promotion at work.  You may find that many things you spent time working on or worrying about no longer matter.  Instead, what matters to you now is a simpler life, closer relationships, and spending more quality time with the people you love.  You no longer “sweat the small stuff.”

Following a loss, some people take on new projects or change jobs to make a difference in the world.  This provides a way to create some kind of meaning out of a terrible loss.  You may decide now is the time to pursue a dream you have always thought about but never had the courage to pursue.  You have a new set of priorities in terms of what really matters in life.

Your View of the World

Grief changes the way in which you view the world and your expectations about how the world operates.  The rules of fairness and justice that you once believed in may no longer seem accurate.  Instead, the world seems unfair, random, and cruel.  Your once safe world, no longer feels safe. These changes can create despair, but if you look at the world seeking understanding and believing good exists, you will find it.

A focus on the negative can result in bitterness, but looking for signs of goodness can help you see that although your previous view of the world no longer fits, a more mature understanding develops.  You begin to notice that everyone endures hardships, but we seem to be able to find a strength that helps us endure.  You will see a world where small acts of kindness provide hope and comfort.  You begin to see how your suffering provides you with the understanding needed to help others.

Changes in Relationships

Grief changes your relationships with others. You may find that you dread being around people and are exhausted by social situations which previously gave you pleasure.  Again, this is the result of being drained emotionally from the toll of grief. Conversations, efforts to distract you or probing questions can all seem like too much, so isolating for a while to allow yourself to rest is okay.  Slowly resuming social interactions is important for your mental health, but you may need to be more selective about the people with whom you choose to interact.

Grief has a way of defining what we expect and tolerate in friendships.  Those who were not able to understand or consider your needs in your time of loss may no longer seem desirable as friends.  However, there may have been others who “showed up” unexpectedly and in the most meaningful ways. These people become lifelong friends and deserve your energy.  Family members can also be disappointing or draining.  If so, give them some grace because they, too are grieving, but also set boundaries and limit the amount of time you spend with them.

As your priorities and view of the world change, you may no longer have much in common with old friends but you will also develop new friends.  Many people deliberately choose to have fewer friends, focusing instead on the quality of their relationships.  Be mindful of choosing to spend time with those people who make you feel better or simply accept you as you are rather than those who expect too much from you or make you feel worse because of thoughtless comments or judgments.

Spirituality

Many people turn to their spiritual beliefs as a source of strength and comfort in times of loss. However, some experience a spiritual crisis as their previously held beliefs are tested by the pain of loss. Others may blame God or feel abandoned by God because of the tragedy that occurred.  If you relied heavily on your faith, feeling adrift for a time can feel frightening.  With time and continual seeking of spiritual guidance, most people come out of loss with a deeper, more mature faith.  They come to realize we were never promised a life without loss, but instead, they find spiritual strength that helps them endure suffering, and they find peace in more solid spiritual beliefs borne out of their suffering.

Sense of Identity

As you work through the struggles of grief, your sense of who you are changes.  You find that you are stronger than you ever could have imagined.  You are both strengthened by the pain of loss and softened as you find more compassion for others who are suffering.  You are forced to develop a new identity to fill the void left by your relationship with the deceased.  Out of this can come a new sense of independence, new interests, and a newfound confidence.  You may have had to rebuild many aspects of your life, but you made it.  You have now endured things you never thought you could endure. From that comes a sense of personal strength and self-reliance that makes you very different.  Your identity is that of a survivor and overcomer.

The changes that come with grief can feel overwhelming, but they can also open up many new possibilities as you work through your loss and gain new understanding of yourself and the world around you.  While no one would ever choose to experience the loss, most find the changes that result help them become more intentional about how they live their lives.  You can choose to live a life that embraces the changes resulting from your loss and that honors the memory of your loved one.

 

Author: Dr. Karen S. Scott
Dr. Karen Scott is a licensed counselor who has worked in the field of grief for more than 30 years, providing individual and group counseling, crisis response, and grief education.  She co-founded Lost & Found Grief Center, served as the Executive Director and is currently on the Board of Directors.  Dr. Scott taught college courses on Death & Dying for many years and is currently grief, a consultant, trainer, and author.