“There is a level of grief so deep that it stops resembling grief at all. The pain becomes so severe that the body can no longer feel it. The grief cauterizes itself, scars over, prevents inflated feeling. Such numbness is a kind of mercy.” ― Elizabeth Gilbert
IT’S NORMAL — that numbness that settles into your bones along with the grief. It often occurs at the beginning, when the shock of your loss is wearing off, leaving you feeling dull and empty as a windswept plain. You find yourself dry-eyed and wondering why the tears won’t come, wondering if there’s something wrong with you, and why you feel nothing. If you are experiencing self-doubt, be reassured — you are not alone.
Numbness doesn’t confine itself to a specific period of time or sequence in grief. It’s a defense mechanism. We simply shut down whenever feeling becomes too much to bear. We take numbness in and disappear within ourselves because it provides a respite from the raw suffering of loss, a kind of emotional anesthetic. And that’s okay. Like I said at the start, it’s completely normal.
The main problem with feeling numb is that it seems to block out all feelings, not just the undesirable ones. When you are numb, you may not feel pain, but you also feel no joy, no laughter, no hope. Nothing. Which can be completely disorienting. The world is void of emotion as you drift from one thing to another, going through the motions and taking care of daily tasks without enthusiasm or engagement. To complicate things, those around you may mistake your numbness for recovery. They may see you competently managing your daily life, interpret your lack of emotion for stoicism, and compliment you for dealing with your grief so well.
However, numbness doesn’t make your grief go away. It only postpones the inevitable return to sadness, and to processing your loss. Your numb state is like an underground passage from point A to point B. The door behind you is closed and locked. There is no going backward, only forward. The passage is quiet, but there is no light and no sustenance. You may welcome the anesthetic qualities of numbness, but you also realize you can’t dwell in it forever. At some point, you’ll need to emerge from your emotional sleep.
The key is to recognize the positive value of your numb state and use it to help you begin feeling again — when you are ready, and to the degree you are ready.
The following prompts will help you move through this period of numbness, rather than getting stuck in it, as well as help you to recognize when you’re ready to begin processing your emotions again. It may also be beneficial to work with a counselor to understand what you’re going through and support you in finding your way through your grief.
Journaling Prompts (along with a visualization exercise and a video)
- Picture your numbness as a landscape you are walking through, or as an object that you could pick up and carry with you. Describe that landscape or object. Below your description, draw a picture of it.
- If your numbness was a person, what would it say to you?
- How does numbness protect you? Make a list of the potential benefits of not feeling emotions as you normally would.
- If you lost a loved one, describe that person’s best qualities and why you loved them. What about them made you smile?
- If you lost something else — for example, your home, life dream, or health — write about the qualities of that object or idea that are most important to you. In what ways could you bring at least one of those qualities back into your current life situation?
- Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply as you move your attention down and into your body, into your heart region, and then into your belly. Identify where your sense of numbness exists in your body. Visualize that numbness as a cocoon that is wrapped around your emotions and holding them safe. What emotions lie within that cocoon? When you are ready, open your eyes and write about the visualization process, your response to seeing your numbness as a cocoon, and what feelings it is protecting.
- Watch the following video, “Coping with Grief.” (Though this is about coping with grief caused by the death of a loved one, the advice it offers is relevant for all types and causes of grief.) Then, write down your thoughts and responses to the advice given. Does any of this resonate for you or help you feel better about your process?
In the video, grief is depicted as having more in common with a roller coaster ride, with its dips and surges and spiraling around, than climbing a staircase and its linear progression from one place to another. That analogy has certainly been true in my own personal experience of grief, and it’s a good reminder that numbness, as well as sadness, anger, and pain, may come and go.
It’s important to remember to take care of yourself, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Writing down your thoughts and feelings during your grieving process is one way of caring for yourself. Reaching out for connection and help is another.
I hope these journaling prompts are helpful for you.
Please Note: I am not a professional counselor or psychologist and am writing about grief from my personal perspective, experience, and research. If you are feeling overwhelmed or stuck, please reach out to a professional for help navigating your grief.
Previous articles in this series:
- Journaling Through Grief – Introduction
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 2 – A Conversation with Grief
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 3 — 5 Ways to Express Grief Safely