There are so many things one can feel in this life – anger, joy, jealousy, love, shame, happiness, embarrassment, amusement, sadness, euphoria, frustration. The roller coaster of emotion whips over high peaks, spins, and dips over and over and over – it’s thrilling and it’s scary and it’s one hell of a ride.
Except, I want you to imagine that one day you get on the roller coaster and as it climbs, falls, twists and turns you realize that you feel nothing. You are sitting in a tiny cart being whipped around like a wet noodle, wondering why everyone else is laughing, screaming, and throwing their hands in the air.
Feeling nothing may be described as anhedonia, which is one of the main symptoms of major depressive disorder, but someone might also experience this sort of reaction in response to things like anxiety or trauma. In grief, it is common to experience such emotional numbing, especially in the days to weeks following the death. Under any circumstance, it feels awful to feel nothing.
Anhedonia is often described as the loss of interest in previously rewarding or enjoyable activities such as friends, family, hobbies, work, food, sex, and laughter; although some might say this depiction pales in comparison to the actual experience. The trouble is, it’s difficult to explain feelings of nothingness to people who feel a general something-ness.
Well, sometimes I feel like I’m melting.
And sometimes I feel like I’m disappearing.
Unfortunately feelings of melting and disappearing can also be difficult for people to relate to.
Feeling nothing is not akin to feeling ‘okay,’ underwhelmed, or unenthused. Feeling nothing is more like feeling empty, dead inside, emotionless, as though you have nothing to contribute, or as though you can’t relate to the feelings and emotions of others (thus rendering social interaction problematic).
It’s hard to understand how the absence of feeling could actually equal extreme pain and distress, but it does. When you feel nothing, the world seems to make less sense. You look in the mirror and barely recognize yourself, without emotions you feel alien and it’s hard to imagine being a person ever again.
The emotional numbness sometimes experienced in grief can feel especially disturbing because after a death you expect to feel so much. You might wonder, “What is wrong with me?!?! Why don’t I feel anything?!? Maybe I’m not a human being at all. Oh no, what if I’m a sociopath?!? Or a robot?!?” Feeling nothing during grief is alienating and isolating because everyone else seems pretty in touch with their feelings. You know you’re sad about the death, but you can’t actually access the emotions and so you feel different than others grieving the death.
Friends and family show up in support and say things like, “I can only imagine everything you must be feeling right now” and send you cards that say, “tears are a reflection of love”, and you feel guilty because you’re not crying. Worse, you worry others will think you’re apathetic and question your love for the person who has died.
Feeling nothing when you’re supposed to feel intense sadness is really disorienting. You need to feel feelings again STAT, so you try to coax your emotions out by doing things like picking fights.
Or by engaging in reckless behavior in hopes of feeling something….anything. Picking fights and reckless behavior sometimes work, but they also come with undesired consequences.
The good news is, in the absence of disorders like depression, bipolar, or anxiety, sooner or later your feelings should return. But be forewarned, sometimes feelings return with a vegence.
Overall, I want to reassure you that you’re most likely capable of experiencing feelings. I also want you to know that it’s normal to feel numb for a little while grieving; this does not reflect anything negative about you as a person or your love for the person who has died. If you’ve been feeling this way for longer than you’re comfortable with, or if it is having a profound and negative impact on your ability to cope with your losses and engage in daily life, then you might want to talk to a licensed mental health professional.
If you have been experiencing anhedonia i.e. feeling nothing for a long time (weeks or months) under any circumstances, we recommend talking to a licensed counselor. A counselor might be able to help you understand what your going through, identify broader disorders, and support you in finding your way out of the abyss.
Please excuse my egregious use of stick figures lately, I find them to be a suitable substitute when words fail. Also, subscribe to receive posts straight to your email inbox and head over to our shop and check out our print grief resources.
My mother died just over 5 years ago from cancer and not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. I thought it was about time I wrote about how losing her has changed the way I see the world, has changed me and what it’s been like trying to get my head around it all.
It’s true what they say, you can never really understand what it’s like until it happens to you. I once described losing my mother as like the sky suddenly falling down. My mother carried me for 9 months, gave birth to me, was the first sight I ever set my eyes upon, fed me when I was hungry, got no sleep for months when I woke her up crying at night, changed my nappies, watched me smile when I recognised her face, start to crawl, take my first steps, say my first word. She was always there for me, every memory I’ve ever had growing up has her in it. When I was upset she was there to cheer me up. When I needed advice it was her I sought out. And when I stepped out of line it was her who put me back in step. She was a strong, loving mother who I always knew was on my side, would do anything for me and my brother and gave us the perfect upbringing that made us the men we are today. I’d known her as my mother and as I became an adult I knew her as the woman Jean Conners with a devilish sense of humour and a certain innocence about her. She was the most wonderful person I’ve ever known. She had always been a huge part of my life and now that she’s gone I realise that I’d always assumed she would be.
You never expect the sky to fall down, the sky is always there and always will be. And that’s exactly how I felt about my mother.
When my father phoned me early one morning to tell me my mother was dying the first words I said to him were “you’re joking”. Obviously he wouldn’t, but my instinct was that it couldn’t be happening. Him phoning me again later (I can’t remember if I’d left to drive home or was just about to leave) to tell me she had died just didn’t seem real – I was numb. I arrived home before my brother (who’d been staying with me that weekend and was driving himself to my dad’s) and stepped into the hall. My dad came over to me and something I didn’t expect then happened. All my life my dad had been the one to comfort me in times of sadness but this time he was the one holding onto me and I was the one comforting him. It’s times like that you realise when you’ve grown up and become an adult. We were both inconsolable and if you ever find yourself imagining what a situation like that is like, imagine it a million times worse. And then when my brother turned up, well think a British billion times worse (that’s a million million). Even then, I still just couldn’t believe it.
In the months after her death I just couldn’t grasp that she was gone. I’d walk past an arts and craft shop and my first thought would be to take her there the next time she was down. I’d see something on TV that I knew she’d be interested in and I’d go to pick up the phone and call her before reality hit me. It was as though my brain just wouldn’t accept that she was gone forever.
Whenever I’d visit my father’s house I’d come down in the morning before anyone else was up and watch TV in the lounge like I always did. I’d be sitting there waiting for her to come in and sit next to me like she always did (we were early risers). I cried far more while she was suffering with cancer than after she died but on mornings like that I could never hold back the tears, sat there sobbing on my own waiting for someone that was supposed to always be there who I started to realise never would be again.
After some time – I couldn’t tell you how much – my brain dealt with things in a different way. I seemed to accept that she was gone and didn’t find myself about to call her any more. Instead she kept turning up in my dreams. Sometimes the dreams would be set in my childhood and it was only when I woke up that I’d feel sad, knowing I’d seen her again, or feel happy because it felt like I’d spent some more fleeting moments with her. More upsetting were the dreams where I knew she was dead in the real world, and in the dream she did too and I was just talking to her telling her how I missed her. Waking up would just take me away from her. If I were a spiritual person I’d feel comforted that maybe she was reaching out to me from beyond the grave, but unfortunately I know better and it’s my mind coming to terms with her death showing me what it thinks I want to see – or something like that. Odder were the ones where in the dream I saw her and was really upset knowing that when I woke up she’d be gone. I’d wake up with tears on my pillow but had left the sadness in the dream and didn’t feel upset at all.
The dreams started to fade away (although they do come back from time to time) and I found that my mind seemed to understand that she was gone. It was as though in the preceding years (and it took that long) my brain had been drip-feeding me little bits at a time rather than trying to get my head around the concept that my mother was gone all at once. It’s a good job I didn’t take it all in at once – because it’s such an utterly terrible thing to have to get used to and live with. I feel so bad for friends who lose parents because I know that it actually never gets any easier with time – you have to carry the pain and burden for the rest of your life. The only thing that changes is that you learn to live with it in your own way.
As I said at the start, not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. I still get upset from time to time but my mother was exactly the same decades after the death of her mother. She never hid the tears from us and as a result we were brought up knowing that it was perfectly normal to miss someone you loved and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
She wrote me a letter when she knew she wouldn’t make it and in it she told me she’s always admired my positive outlook on life and to make the most of life as it’s so precious. Every day that goes by that’s exactly what I try to do.
CategoryFrom The Heart, Looking Back
Posted by John Conners
Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.