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What Helps When We're Experiencing the Unthinkable

Shutterstock / Biserka Stojanovic

What happens to our bodies when we get the terrible news that someone has died? And how do we get through it?

I looked at my watch: 8:17 p.m.

“He really should be back,” I thought. “I know it’s harder to jog here than back home. But, even so, he’s had enough time to finish his run by now.” Work had gone well today, and after supper Greg had said, “Want to join me for a six-mile run?”

“No, sir, offer declined,” I said. “I’ll do the two-mile route and see you back here when you’re finished.”

So I had run to the Possum Creek bridge and back, and it was now time—past time—for Greg to be home. Minutes passed. “I bet these hills did get to him,” I said to myself. “He’s probably walking the last miles. I’ll take the car and go pick him up; he’ll appreciate a ride back home.”

When I got to the curve above Possum Creek, a large crowd was there. So was the black-and-white car that belonged to the sheriff’s patrol. And so was the orange-and-white ambulance….

I got out of the car. One man stood on my right side and one on my left. We began to walk, not touching, toward the ambulance. Greg, my husband, was dead. 

Excerpt from "Seven Choices" by Elizabeth Harper Neeld

What happens to us when we get this kind of terrible news? Perhaps the news comes in the form of a telephone call. Or a doctor’s announcement. Or the arrival of someone at our front door. Whatever the source of the information, we experience the impact immediately, and we do respond. We may go numb. We may be swept by emotion. We may have a physical response that feels as if someone has punched us in the stomach.

How can we understand what is happening to our bodies when we get this terrible news? One of the uses of our emotions is that they regulate our lives, give us a sense of coherence in our lives. So the minute that we get news that makes our life seem incoherent, that makes it seem not to make any sense anymore, the emotions are triggered.

Scientists tell us that our emotions can be triggered faster than one beat of a hummingbird’s wing. They can be triggered faster than one blink of the eye.


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When the emotions are triggered by the terrible news, that causes a body response. Perhaps the CRH hormone is increased. This CRH hormone actually produces anxiety. Or the central nervous system can be stimulated. Chemicals might be released throughout the body. The heart may beat faster, the muscles contract, the T-cells leave what they usually do and take on another role. Our blood vessels may constrict and sometimes even reroute the blood. Neurohormones may (at least temporarily) close down a part of our awareness so that we don’t fully realize what is happening. No matter their form, the body responses are varied and profound when our emotions are triggered.

What’s Normal When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable?

Presence of strong emotion

 Absence of emotion and feeling

Need to roam; inability to sit still

Inability to concentrate

Yearning and longing

Being dominated by memories

Body biorhythms disturbed (sleep, eating, etc.)

Plagued by anger, blame, guilt

Experiencing fear, disorientation, confusion

What Can We Do?

First of all, we need to give ourselves permission to feel any way we feel and to express those feelings in any way that is appropriate for us. We need to know that there is no right way to respond, no right way to grieve. And we need to know that it is dangerous not to choose to express grief fully. Studies show that those who suppress their emotions have more physical and psychological ailments during the first month, remain disturbed much longer, and, even as long as thirteen months after the loss, are still displaying more marked disturbances than people who were willing to express fully their feelings following the loss. So expressing our emotions — in whatever form is right for each individual — is a healthy and normal response to experiencing a loss.

What Helps When We’re Experiencing the Unthinkable?

• Stay close to people who love you.

• Talk to the lost person as if she or he were actually present.

• Ask for anything you need.

• Spend time, as much time as you can, with someone who encourages you to grieve in any way you want to.

• Slow down.

• Take care of yourself.

• Talk to a professional. There are wonderful counselors, care professionals, social workers, and therapists who can be a guide in this painful grieving process.


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Dr. Elizabeth Harper Neeld offers wisdom and practical insights born of personal experience to people rebuilding their lives after suffering grief and loss. As an internationally recognized and accomplished consultant, adviser, and author of more than twenty books—including Tough Transitions and Seven Choices: Finding Daylight After Loss Shatters Your World—she is committed to work that helps lift the human spirit.


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