On Your Mind: Grief and “getting over it”

Dear Tom,

My sister died suddenly about a year ago, and I am still really struggling with it. I don’t know how long grief usually lasts, but I feel like people around me, including my husband, expect me to be “over it” by now. I have read about the five stages of grief but my feelings don’t really match up to that. I just feel a deep sadness that doesn’t seem to go away. What can I do that would help?

Dear Mom,

First of all, no one experiences grief exactly the same way as any other person. Some people feel very little, and others experience profound and persistent loss. Everyone experiences the loss of a loved one in different ways and with different levels of intensity and for different lengths of time. So don’t get down so much on yourself for not being “over it” as soon as others may think you should.

Yes, as you mentioned, there are stages, phases and theories of grief that can help us understand the experience, but these stages and phases are not experienced by everyone. If they are experienced, they’re not experienced in a linear fashion but more in overlapping or circular stages. Here are some other things that will affect the way you experience grief over your sister’s death:

  • What was your relationship with your sister like? Close, not close, or wanted to be closer?
  • What was the cause of her death? Was it unexpected and/or traumatic?
  • What would you have liked to say to her or do with her that you can’t do now that she has died?
  • What, if anything, do you think you could have done to prevent your sister’s death?

How you answer those questions will have a direct affect on four things — your emotions, your physical sensations, your behaviors, and your thought processes.

Sometimes it’s helpful to know what the most common emotions are during grief, so I’ll list them here: sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, and maybe even numbness. Some of the most common physical sensations are fatigue, upset stomach, shortness of breath, or tightness in your chest.

As far as behavior is concerned, you might have a loss of appetite, insomnia, tearfulness, social withdrawal and lack of interest in things you used to do. You may even have more dreams about your sister right now. These are all very normal behavior responses.

Finally, you should know that it’s normal for your thought processes to be impacted by grief. You may be more absent minded right now or even find yourself having mental conversations with the person you’ve lost. If you’re wondering if what you’re feeling is normal, you should know that wondering or worrying about being normal is also very common during grief.

As for time? You might experience some of these things for what feels like a really long time, but that doesn’t mean you’re unusual or crazy. It just means that grief is a unique experience that can be different for each person who goes through it.

You said in your note that you’ve felt a lot of sadness for quite a while now. One thing we know as counselors is that the more a person talks about the loss and ultimately understands it, the less intense or frequent her grief symptoms will occur. So one of the best tools for healing and recovery is to talk to someone you trust — someone who is accepting about your loss and your emotions. This may be a close friend, relative, clergy, or a  professional counselor. I hope you can identify one or more of these understanding folks to talk to. If you need help finding that person, you should give us a call at Ozark Guidance because we can help. (The number to call is 479-750-2020.)

You mentioned your husband in your note, and I know that grief can sometimes be hard on a relationship. You’ve got to keep talking to each other. It also might help if you and your husband go to an educational session about grief so you’ll both know what you’re dealing with. Remember — you’re not alone with this. There ARE resources out here and help is available. Thank you for asking such a good question, especially one that so many people experience. I hope you’ll begin to feel better soon.


Tom Petrizzo serves as CEO of Ozark Guidance and has degrees in social work and law. He has spent the last 20 years managing non-profit centers in Texas, Kansas, Colorado and Arkansas. He has also served as adjunct faculty at the social work graduate program at three large universities. He’s married to Teri Classick, a licensed clinical social worker, and they have two daughters. When he’s not at work, Tom likes to jog, bike ride, read and he even belted out the National Anthem lately at a Northwest Arkansas Naturals Game!

Tom would be happy to answer your questions and read what’s on your mind. Click the butterfly icon below to fill out an anonymous submission form with your question or concern. The form contains NO identifying information and is designed to give local women an online place to share concerns with a person qualified to offer feedback. Tom will be back each month to answer another woman’s question.