Feeling numb after someone you love dies

4 min read

What if you feel numb when you are grieving?

  • Feeling disconnected from others and showing little emotion—or not feeling anything at all—is a normal part of the grieving process for many people.

  • Losing someone you love is jolt to your mind and body, and numbness can be a reaction to that.

  • Avoid judging yourself for not grieving in some preconceived “correct” way.

  • If emotional numbness after a death lasts for a long time, it may be a sign of complicated grief.

  • Reach out to people or groups who can support you; feeling numb with grief can be a disorienting and lonely experience..

After a loved one dies, you may experience a range of different emotions. You may be struggling to cope with them, thinking that you should be feeling a certain way, or mourning for a set amount of time.

But grief is an intensely individual process. Whatever you are feeling, it is an entirely valid way to grieve.

This is true even if you are not feeling much of anything at all. It is not uncommon to experience numbness during grief: emotionally blank and disconnected from the world around you.

Many people who go through this worry that they are not properly processing their emotions, or they feel guilty because they are unable to cry or otherwise show an emotional response to their loss. It is often difficult to shake the sense that you’re supposed to be feeling things more intensely, rather than less.

Religion, culture, upbringing, and more all shape our ideas of bereavement and make us think there is a specific way to feel and act when someone close to you has died. But numb grief isn’t proof that you don’t care as much as someone who grieves for a loved one in an openly emotional way—and it definitely doesn’t mean you loved them any less.

It’s good to remember that your relationship with the person who died was unique, and so the way you grieve this person will also be unique. If feeling numb is part of your individual grieving process, try to let go of the need to judge yourself and let the emotions come when and how they will.

When grief doesn’t feel the way you thought it would

Even if it’s expected, losing someone can be a shock, and in reaction to this shock, some people find themselves carrying on as if little or nothing had happened. It’s hard to come to grips with the fact that someone important has left your life. It's not uncommon to turn to emotional numbness since it provides you with a protective defense and a way to manage, instead of feeling suddenly overwhelmed and disoriented.  

Even though this is a common and understandable reaction, it can be an uncomfortable experience, especially if you’re surrounded by displays of anguish. Those around you may see sadness as a way of honoring their lost loved one; they may even suggest that the intensity of the pain they exhibit shows the strength of their love.

But these are just two different responses to loss, and neither has a claim on being the right or most loving way to mourn. If possible, gently remind the more demonstrative griever in your life that judgment has no place here. You both deserve each other’s respect for your own feelings and style of grief. And you may find that this allows you to support one another at this difficult time even better. Instead of sharing a single experience of grief, your processes can complement one another, finding strength when the other is weak and depending on them when they can support you.

Feeling numb as a way to cope 

Other numb grievers don’t react with immediate shock. Instead, they are often able to tap into enormous energy to deal with arrangements and logistics, comforting others, and other much needed tasks in the first few days or weeks after a loved one dies. But then after the flurry of activity has died down and they have time to themselves, the numbness sets in. They may even lose motivation to deal with their everyday needs

This is a common response to intense experiences known as crisis fatigue. The body responds to severe stress by releasing adrenaline and other stress hormones. When the crisis has passed, this high-energy situation will have fatigued your system. Taking time to reflect and heal can help replenish your physical and emotional resources. It may take some time before you feel like yourself again.

While you are taking the space you need to recover, keep in mind that there is nothing selfish in this reaction, nor does it reflect in any sense on how much you cared about the person who died or how much you continue to care about those around you. It is just another aspect of your mourning process.

Experiencing survivor’s guilt

Emotional numbness can feel especially disturbing if you set expectations that you will feel so much, so intensely now that a loved one has died. You might start to wonder if you really loved them, if something is wrong with you, or why you had to lose them at all.

Feeling nothing when you’re ”supposed” to feel intense sadness can be really disorienting. You may even find that in order to start feeling again, you create negative situations, like picking fights with those you love,so that you have an outlet for your bottled-up emotions.

You may even find that in order to start feeling again, you create negative situations, like picking fights with those you love.

If you can recognize your tendency to direct this disguised anger and sadness at your family and loved ones, and instead channel that energy into an activity such as exercise, volunteering, or advocacy, you should be able to release the tension without the interpersonal awfulness.

Getting to the other side of grief 

If you give yourself the time, space, and compassion to sit with your feelings, they will inevitably evolve, and you will move through the grieving process at a pace you can handle. Remind yourself that you won’t always feel this way. Someone you loved is gone, and your heart is broken. You are responding the way you need to right now. Allow yourself to heal at your own pace, in your own time. Simply accept that right now you are numb because of a death. You don’t know how long it will last or exactly how you’ll handle the numbness, but your feelings and your grief will change in time.

When numbness becomes complicated grief

In most cases, numbness is a normal and protective part of grief, and this feeling is temporary. However, if numbness is the only thing you feel, and none of the other feelings associated with grief are coming up, even in your quietest moments of self-reflection, you may be stuck in a space where you are closing yourself off from your true emotions. Rather than becoming manageable in the long-term, this kind of numbness can worsen and affect your day-to-day living.

In this case, it is often a good idea to seek out someone to talk to. Most people find that sharing their experience of grief helps them to understand what they’re going through. You can talk with friends, join a grief support group, or see a counselor. You may also find that keeping a journal helps you work through what you’re feeling. With support, patience, and effort, you will get through this part of grief. In time the pain will lessen, leaving you with cherished memories of your loved one ●