Numbness Can Be the
First Sign of Grief

 Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist

I am sure you have heard of incidents where people walked home with major injuries, burns, or fractures, unaware of how bad the body was damaged.  Soldiers, with severed limbs, have remained at the front for hours on end without feeling the pain.  Numbness is a built-in survival mechanism, perfected over hundreds of thousands of years.  The loss of a partner is equally a matter of life and death, threatening our own existence, and invoking our defenses for survival.  So the numbness, the inability to feel pain at that moment, enables us to deal with the crisis and gather our forces.  The body produces endorphins, a natural morphine to enable us bear those pains and make them manageable.  When the pain is unmanageable or too intense to bear, we stop feeling the pain.  Numbness is nature's way of buffering pain, this is true for physical as well as emotional pain.  In the case of severe "emotional injury," or shock, a psychological numbness occurs.  
 Many people, when they first hear the news of a loved one's death, they are stunned, unable to cry or feel the pain.  They are too "dumbfounded" to fully fathom the impact of the loss.  Most people are stunned as if  they are unable to grasp the reality and the meaning of the news.  They have heard the words but not the message .  Survivors have been heard to say, "I just couldn't take it all in," "I couldn't believe it," "It was like I was in a dream.  It didn't seem real."  Many times, you hear, "I can't believe he(or she)is dead."  The bereaved may find themselves performing the daily routines "like an automaton."  In intense pain, we are likely to "dissociate," that means, in a manner, stepping away from ourselves, so we don't feel the pain from too close a point.  As a result of such a dissociation, we may not be fully thinking, seeing, hearing, or feeling everything.  
 Numbing does not prevail for ever.  It starts receding slowly, like opening the inlets a little bit at a time, so we don't get flooded.  However, in this state of psychological numbness, there is a general feeling of tension and apprehension.  If there is a calm, it is an "uneasy calm."  The uneasy calm, may be broken at any moment by sudden outbursts of extreme sorrow, anger, anguish and rage as the bereaved moves to other stages.  At times, survivors experience an overwhelming feeling of panic in which the loneliness becomes unbearable.  Occasionally, the survivor may have gales of laughter without reason or feel sudden elation in an imagined experience of reunion with the lost person.  The survivor either feels compelled to seek the presence of friends and relatives or completely shun the presence of others.  
 The natural process of numbing is temporary and is meant to last for a few hours to a few days.  It should then give way to the realization of the loss and the attendant pain.  Pain must be felt in order for a person to get over the pain and to take actions required to adapt to the loss.  Medication is often prescribed by the doctors to sedate the survivor who is experiencing extreme distress.  The danger of oversedation with medication or use of medication over an extended period is that it prolongs the psychological numbing and dulling of senses.  Any progress in grief work is likely to be delayed when the survivor is medicated.  Grieving is for a purpose and that we believe requires completion of these four tasks.
1)  To accept the reality of the loss - The first task of grieving is to come full terms with the reality that the person is gone for ever and shall not return.
2)  To experience the pain of grief - It is necessary to acknowledge and work through the emotional and sometimes, even physical pain that is associated with loss.
3)  To adjust to an environment in which the lost person is no more - This can mean different things to different people, depending on what the relationship was with the lost person.  For example, for a widow, this means coming to terms with living alone, raising children, facing an empty house, and managing finances alone.
4)  To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship - This can be the most difficult, but one that is very important.  It is quintessential for the survivor to be at peace with the notion that by doing this, he or she is not dishonoring the lost person.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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