My Grief Care

The Grief Journey

6 Episodes

Episode 2 : I’m Grieving and Just Barely Surviving


Episode Notes

The Grief Journey: Surviving

Whether we know it or not, our grief journey begins the moment we hear that our loved one has died. For some, it begins the day that their loved one receives a fatal diagnosis. For many, they experienced a moment when their world abruptly skidded to a halt and they found themselves in a state of shock.

My moment happened when I received a phone call informing me that my husband had suddenly died. I was out of the country on business and I dropped to my knees and realized that life as I knew it was over.

Ron tells me that his realization that his wife, DeeAnn, was not going to win her battle with cancer came years after the first loss. He says his first loss was learning that she had cancer, even though her doctors gave her a good chance of beating it. But, Ron will tell you, from the first confirmation that DeeAnn had cancer, he sensed he would not experience life the same anymore. He would never again look at his wife or their marriage quite the same because the fragility of her mortality had become all too real.

Let’s just ponder that moment and some of the moments that followed.

What was your moment? 

What did you hear, and how did you hear it? 

How did you react at the time? 

How has it changed you?

Perhaps your “moment” was very recent. Maybe it was months or even years ago. However long, I’ll bet you remember some pieces of it very well.

I don’t know the specifics of how your life was to change or how you reacted to the changes. I just know that for most of us, the news of the loss is shocking, disorienting, debilitating and confusing.

This is the beginning of what we call the surviving phase. How long does the survival phase last? Weeks, months, or longer? It isn’t predictable.

But while we are in this surviving phase of our journey, we begin to look at the world differently. What we observe around us may seem unimportant, stupid and pointless. We may even become angry because while our world has stopped – the world around us certainly has not stopped. You may have thought, “Can’t people see how much pain I am feeling? How dare they laugh, smile and enjoy themselves?”  Does that sound familiar to you?

The variations are endless. Clients have told us of experiencing dissociation – a sense of disconnection with the world or even their own bodies – as though they are observing themselves from above and yet intellectually knowing that they are still sitting in a chair in their living room.

My friend took me to the doctor a few days after my husband died because I passed out and when he asked me why that might have happened – I said I didn’t know.  There was nothing wrong with me.  My friend said, “Are you kidding?  Her husband just suddenly died.”  But I was in a clueless state.

You may be in survival mode right now. How would you know? Well, here are some characteristics that are common to those in survival mode.  You may have some of none of these:

  • Shock – the aftermath of a toxic surge of emotion upon learning your loved one has died or will die.
  • Pain – physical, emotional and psychological. Pain that can be deeper felt than any other pain you have experienced.  It can be utter anguish.
  • Numbness – the absence of pain which may be your body’s survival mechanism kicking in.
  • Mental incapacity or confusion – which may include a sense of losing your equilibrium, experiencing an alternate reality, and a complete loss of normalcy.
  • Hyperfocused on your lost loved one
  • Dysregulated sleeping and/or eating
  • Lack of concern for activities of daily living
  • Exaggerated sense of fear or anxiety
  • Loss of desire to go on with life (this is different from wanting to end your life)       

I often hear people describe their survival mode as if they were wearing lead shoes, or barely treading water, sometimes they feel they can barely breathe.

On top of all the emotional and physical symptoms you are grappling with, you probably became aware of “things” that you have to take care of due to the loss, for example – administrative tasks, paperwork, insurance, estates, bills, home related tasks and chores that the other person may have done.

Remember, you may have some of these symptoms or you may not have any of them.  Everyone is different.

Another story that we hear is about people who “seem” to function well in the early days. They somehow translate their overload into productivity, taking care of others, making arrangements for a funeral, plowing through paperwork, cleaning out closets and, well, just about anything they deem necessary to bring order to a very disorderly world.

But, that sort of response can’t go on forever. At some point, their determination to not let their devastating loss devastate them caves in. They are burnt out, overspent and they get hit hard.

For most people, the symptoms listed will gradually dissipate and they will try to move a few steps toward normalcy. Often, they don’t have much of a choice. Many people get only a few days away from their job – even after a huge personal loss. And, often that means they have to figure out how to act okay when they aren’t. And acting sucks a lot of energy from us.

So, how does a person constructively respond to this depleting and confusing phase of surviving and move toward a higher level of existence?

Here are some tips we’d like to offer.

  • Lower your expectations of yourself and others – you cannot maintain a self that doesn’t match up with your emotional, physical and mental limitations for very long and often people around you won’t understand what you are going through so you need to lower your expectations of them too.
  • Build a support team – think about who can help you and with what. And allow people to help you even though that feels unnatural.  I know it can be hard to ask for help. We have a series on this.
  • Consider what sorts of activities or responsibilities you can let go for now
  • GIve yourself as much opportunity to rest as possible. (Rest as much as possible)
  • Consider seeing your physician for a basic check up, discuss problems like sleeping, anxiety, depression, etc. If you are really struggling, ask about possible short-term disability.

Remember, these are common reactions but they may not be yours. Everyone’s journey is unique so if you feel you have passed this phase, that is quite possible.

And as you may move into the existing phase, there are times when you could go back to the survival phase.  That would be normal.


Find a quiet place and contemplate where you are in your grief journey. Are you still in survival mode? If so, take some time to examine the suggestions above. Pick out 1 or 2 that you could focus on in the next few days.

If you remember being in the surviving phase, but sense you are in a bit better place now, you are probably ready to move to the next video on the journey phases – the existing phase. Watch that next when you have 10 minutes to spare.