Reactions & expressions of grief

Tuesday 31 January, 2012

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On this page: Physical | Emotional | Behavioural | Social | Spiritual | Acknowledgements


Grief affects the whole person: mind, body and spirit.

Signs of grief can be similar to many signs of illness. This can make it hard to separate symptoms of your cancer and its treatment from signs of grief. You may begin to worry your reactions are due to your cancer getting worse. You may even believe you are going to die because of your feelings of grief. Although this may be unlikely to be true it may still feel real and frightening.

The important thing to remember is that grief is a normal and necessary process. It's not a ‘disease'. Although some of how you are feeling may resemble other illnesses, you usually won't need medical treatment. However, if you do have concerns or think you may be suffering from depression, see your GP.

Possible reactions or ‘signs' of loss and grief vary across different stages of our lives and are outlined below. Many of the reactions are similar to those people experience after the death of someone close to them.

Physical

  • feeling very tired: fatigue and exhaustion
  • weakness
  • shortness of breath
  • tightness in the throat or chest
  • increased heart rate
  • nausea and vomiting
  • changes in your bowel habits: diarrhoea or constipation
  • changes in your eating habits and weight: loss or gain
  • aches and pains: abdominal discomfort, headaches and back ache
  • changes in your sleep habits: sleeping too much or not enough
  • lack of interest in sex
  • crying a lot
  • being unable to cry
  • sighing a lot
  • restlessness.

Emotional

  • emotional ups and downs
  • feeling sad
  • anger
  • frustration
  • irritability
  • panic and anxiety
  • helplessness
  • hopelessness
  • numbness, disbelief, denial
  • feeling abandoned and lonely
  • self-blame
  • fear
  • guilt
  • depression
  • thoughts about harming yourself
  • thoughts of taking your own life.

Behavioural

  • forgetfulness
  • difficulty thinking and concentrating
  • sense of unreality or emptiness
  • dreaming about your loss: you may even have nightmares
  • feeling or looking like you're in a trance: ‘zombie’ like
  • needing to retell your story about your loss over and over again
  • avoiding talking about your loss so others won’t feel uncomfortable
  • drinking too much alcohol or taking recreational drugs to help ease or forget the pain.

Social

  • being extremely sensitive in social situations
  • acting dependent and needy when you're with others
  • withdrawing from social occasions
  • avoiding others
  • lack of interest and ability to organise a social event
  • not talking or talking too much in social situations
  • relationship difficulties
  • loss of self-esteem.

Spiritual

  • doubting your beliefs and questioning spiritual values
  • becoming more spiritually aware
  • relying more on or turning away from your faith
  • being angry with God or other ‘God-like’ being
  • worrying about your own health or death
  • feeling differently about what is important.

Acknowledgements: Written by Annie Angle, cancer nurse (Dip. Oncology Nursing, Royal Marsden, London). Reviewed by Voula Kallianis, Social Worker, St Vincent's Palliative Care Unit; Eugenia Georopoulos, Project Officer, Centre for Culture Ethnicity and Health; Wendy Thurling, Senior Bereavement Counsellor, Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement; Jane Fletcher, Deputy Head, Cabrini Monash Psycho-oncology Research Unit and Director Melbourne Psycho-oncology Service; Associate Professor Michael Jefford, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre; Marie Craw; Nadia Montibellar; Neil O'Loghlen; Lesley Bawden; Meg Rynderman, Cancer Connect and Australian Cancer Survivorship Centre Volunteer; Majella Franklin.
Updated: 31 Jan, 2012