Articles: Emotions and Other Adjustments

The Question of Emotions

I’m just so emotional. What should I do?”

The phrase could have been spoken by any one of us, but in this instance it was a 35 year old single mother whose husband had died in a tragic vehicle accident. The feelings just welled up inside her and spilled over in tears, disbelief, anger and a host of other reactions in response to her loss.

The response of others, though well-intentioned, had been less than helpful.

 “You just have to be strong, dear. Joe wouldn’t want you to be falling apart like this. Your children need you to step up to the plate. Life must go on.”

While containing an element of truth, these comments were made in an attempt to get her to control her emotions People seem to have bought into the myth that emotions are a sign of weakness and even instability. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many of us are familiar with the five stages of grief and we have come to expect that at some point following a death we might feel denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately, acceptance. But while that is the theory, it may be surprising to learn that many other emotions can appear that are often be unexpected and downright uncomfortable.

So what is an emotion? The root word in French and in Latin means “to excite” or “to disturb”. Emotion is defined as “a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others.”  When we are happy, we have emotions that express our pleasure. No-one tries to change those. But when we experience grief and sadness, why do people try to replace the emotions of grief with what I call “fix it” statements like “be strong; pull yourself together; or, ‘it’s been three months, you ought to be over it by now?”

As a grief support facilitator, I believe the first question that grieving people should ask is not “what should I do?”, but “why is this happening”. If you understand the ‘Why’, the ‘What’ and the ‘How’ will fall into place.

So when we grieve we experience emotions because we are “disturbed” by what has happened. Our whole being and our entire world is shaken by any death or tragedy and that is a natural response. Often after bereavement, we cannot accept, believe or comprehend what has happened rationally, and so we respond to that life changing situation emotionally.

Counsellors generally agree that there are 6 basic emotions. These are:

  • Joy: feeling happy about life as it is now.
  • Sadness: feeling sad about life as it is now.
  • Surprise: feeling unprepared for something that could or is happening.
  • Disgust: feeling that something is wrong, nasty or just not fair.
  • Fear: feeling of being afraid, frightened, scared that things are out                     of control
  • Anger: reaction to a situation that is beyond our control.


While many grieving people will identify with most of these emotions, into this framework we could also weave emotions like:

  • Emptiness:
    Where once there was a spouse, parent, grandparent, child, colleague, or friend, there is now a void. The role the deceased played in your life is now empty. No-one can ever fill that space, and we have to find ways to fill our lives with something else.
  • Helplessness
    Most of us rely on someone else to perform a variety of roles in our life. Without that person we may feel helpless. Who will drive at night, do the taxes, install or fix the technology, do the laundry, or cook. While it might take time, many people are surprised when they are able to rise to the occasion and discover they can indeed navigate life by themselves.
  • Feeling Lost
    When we have a history and have shared a facet of our life with someone it is easy to feel lost without them. No matter what role the deceased played in our life, whether friend, relative, colleague, or neighbor, we are now missing someone whom we relied upon and it can be difficult to see how we will manage without them.


We and our lives are disturbed when someone we love dies. That’s what the word “emotion” means. Grief is an emotional response to a significant loss. If you hadn’t needed that relationship, or risked the emotional attachment, you wouldn’t be feeling the loss. But you did, and, oh yes, it was worth the risk. It is a high compliment to any relationship that we miss it enough to shed a tear and feel emotional. How awful if we didn’t! Tears are not a sign of weakness, but an indication of how special the relationship was. To experience grief is to acknowledge that you are human. 

One of my weaknesses in life is a love of chocolate, particularly my favorites, Ferrero Rocher clusters. After a lifetime of research, I have made an amazing discovery! There are no two nut clusters exactly the same!. While each consists of the same basic ingredients, every single one is different. Some are round while others are a little “off shape”; some having a few extra nuts, others having a bigger blob of chocolate on top. All have the same basic ingredients, but none are identical.

In the same way, grief is a cluster of emotions. Every individual has their own unique cluster, because we are all different people, with different losses and unique circumstances. While one person may experience many of the emotions of grief, it is always to a lesser or greater degree than someone else.

Every individual, every situation and each relationship is unique, and so don’t be surprised if your response to your loss is unique. Don’t feel you have to live up to the expectations of other people as to what emotions are appropriate. As William Shakespeare put it, “Everyone can master a grief that is not his own.” You are the expert on you, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.