Grief reactions

Grief can affect us more, and for longer, than we expect.

It’s not just an emotion. It can affect us emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually, and in the way we socially relate with others.

Everyone will respond in their own ways, but it’s common for people to experience some strong reactions.

  • shocked, stunned, disbelieving, numb
  • disoriented, confused
  • uncertain, worried, afraid
  • guilty, blaming yourself or others
  • angry, resentful, more easily upsetregretful, if only…
  • sad, pining for who or what’s been lost                 
  • despairing, vulnerable, alone
  • feeling different from others, embarrassed, ashamed
  • helpless, powerless
  • negative thoughts, depressed, or even thoughts of self-harm
  • tired, exhausted, weak, low energy – or high energy, restless, energised
  • tearful, crying, sobbing – or unable to cry             
  • tight chest, shallow breathing, deep sighs             
  • sleeping a lot or unable to sleep, nightmares
  • headaches, aching limbs, tense muscles               
  • eating more or less, nausea, digestion problems
  • falling ill more easily or existing health conditions may worsen
  • clumsier, more accident prone
  • more sensitive to sound, sight, taste, smell, and touch        
  • preoccupied by your loss and what happened – or avoiding thinking about it at all
  • going over and over things to make sense of it
  • difficulty concentrating
  • forgetful
  • slow reactions
  • wanting more information
  • difficulty planning or making decisions
  • wanting to be with others more – or alone more
  • able to talk about it – or not wanting to
  • avoiding certain places or topics
  • trouble coping with even small things
  • more sensitive about what others are saying or thinking
  • sharing humour more to decrease tension
  • avoiding remembering or feeling emotions, distracting yourself, keeping very busy
  • more irritable with others, possibly aggressive
  • making poor choices, doing things impulsively
  • using more alcohol, drugs or other risk-taking that can be harmful
  • questioning…why?
  • strongly sensing the injustice of it
  • seeing the world and life differently now, changed priorities
  • drawing closer to beliefs and faith, or away from them
  • searching for or sensing the presence of someone who has died or tīpuna/ancestors
  • looking for meaning

How long does grief last?
The grief process takes the time it needs to take, to help us gradually adjust to what’s happened, so we can begin to move forward.

There is no set timetable and it’s different for everyone. The bigger the loss, the greater the grief. The more traumatic and frightening a loss is, the more complex grief can be. If your loss was traumatic, you are likely to also be experiencing some trauma reactions, which can make your experience even more intense. (See our page What is Trauma?)

Grief for very significant losses is likely to always be part of your life in some way. The pain will lessen slowly, and while life will begin to adjust to what’s happened, it’s normal to have some ‘grief waves’. Even long after your loss, all kinds of things may trigger grief reactions – a calendar date, a person’s name, a certain location, a piece of music, or a photo. Gradually, recovering from these ‘grief waves’ will become a little easier.

Women staring out of a window

“Time itself doesn’t heal…it’s what you do with the passing time that counts. You can let yourself grieve or try to avoid its pain.

Avoiding it is understandable but trying to bury it isn’t good for you and doesn’t work.  Grief is on your side, even though it doesn’t feel like it at the start.”


Our information sheets, Coping with trauma and When you are grieving and Dealing with flashbacks can help you to cope.

If children or young people have been affected by what’s happened
See our information sheet for parents and caregivers about Supporting your child or young person after a crime or traumatic event. Don’t hesitate to get them some extra professional help if they are struggling to cope. Helpful places to go for that help are listed towards the back of this information sheet.


Coping with traumatic grief