The numb stage of grief often comes first. The psalmist makes note of this reality during times of grief like this,
“I am numb with pain and severely battered; I groan loudly because of the anxiety I feel.” -Psalm 38:8
“Therefore my spirit is overwhelmed and weak within me [wrapped in darkness]; My heart grows numb within me.” -Psalm 143:4
The person experiencing this numbness may not realize what’s happening, sort of like slowly sinking in quicksand, that is until they are down at the bottom. Observing this fade is not always obvious to others until it seems that “no one is home.” Your loved one has disappeared staring at you as a deer in the headlights.
Understanding the numb stage
What is it? The numb part of the grief process often comes right after the death of her husband. I believe this is God’s way of emptying the hurting one of emotion for a period of time in order for the adrenaline to kick in. The numbness provides the strength and ability to get through some very hard days and tasks at hand.
Please know, it is a very common experience. Widows often talk about it later, calling it the grief fog.
How does it feel? Numbness is a feeling, even though the definition of numbness is “to be deprived of feeling.” How can one feel a lack of feeling? Numbed ones often describe the feeling as empty or non-existent. Feeling nothing can feelconcerning, leaving the hurting one to believe that something is wrong with them. Did they really love their husband if they don’t feel sad and can’t even cry over his death?
Again, this is normal.
How long does it last? A physical numbness may start within minutes of hearing the tragic news or it could take longer starting after a few days. First, the body may experience numbness, and then emotions start to go numb. This physical and emotional numbness may last for several months.
In many ways, numbness is a protective covering over the heart. Keep in mind, spiritual numbness is also a reality, as wrestling with God often takes place after such a tragic loss. It is difficult for widows to focus on anything, even spiritual things. It’s easy to drift away from God during this time, but it’s important to understand that He has not left their side.
How to help someone in the grief fog
- Understand that one loss includes other losses. This may include loss of clear thinking, normalcy, time, control, dreams, and loss of the one they loved. There is so much loss taking place at one time that accompanies the one who experienced the death of her husband.
- Feel the pain with them. The best words spoken to acknowledge their pain is to say, I have no way of understanding what you are feeling, and I am so very sorry that you are hurting so badly. And stop there! It is tempting to add another phrase of hope, a scripture, or even your own personal experience that, to you, may seem similar, but don’t. Just sit in silence and feel the dark moment with them, knowing that the moment may extend to days, weeks, and months.
- Allow them to lament. This is not always pretty. True lament in Scripture includes raw emotions: anger, complaining, and crying out before God. He can handle them more than we can. Pray as they experience this important piece of the journey.
- Know the truth: they won’t be numb forever. Physical numbness lasts a few days or weeks. It is often compared to having the flu. The grieving one may experience all feelings drain from their body bringing them into a foggy state without the ability to stop what is happening. It’s like being put to sleep when under anesthesia. They will come in and out of consciousness as if in a coma. Their emotions will follow into a numbed state. They may proclaim that they aren’t sad or can’t cry. Onlookers will conclude they are “all done” grieving which is impossible. It takes time, approximately two years or longer, to grieve the loss of a loved one.
- Help them. Accept that death will change the trajectory of their lives which requires transition from what was to what will be. During this phase, take over where they left off. Cook the meals, clean the house, carry them emotionally until they can feel on their own.
Feelings will return causing the hurting one to long for the days of grace when numbness was the only feeling. God is at work. He is there during each twist and turn of the journey. Hold onto the hope that God will restore their soul and the scar will not sting forever, but it will provide a story of God’s faithfulness.