Aftermath of loss – Numbness

My personal perspective

I was a full-grown adult when my Dad died. He was in his seventies, mid-way through plastering a wall at home, when he collapsed. He took his last natural breath as I hurtled up the M1. A doctor switched off his breathing apparatus 25 minutes before I completed the 4-hour journey to his side. That night I lay awake in my former bedroom, still painted the pale, dusky pink I had chosen as a teenager. One word repeated in my head. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy…..”

During the following days the routine of death took over. Obtaining the death certificate, speaking to dozens of relatives and friends to break the news, arranging the funeral. I was numb. It took several months before my body felt safe enough to feel the extent of my pain and then release it. Intellectually I was aware that numbness is common after experiencing a loved one’s death. At an emotional level I longed for a sense of my own body and of feeling something, anything. At a visceral level I was in a state of high protection.

Numbness as a defence

So how does numbness after loss serve us? Numbness is a defence mechanism. It is one way our bodies guard us from the overwhelming swell of feelings that would otherwise threaten our lives. I am not making an overstatement of the facts here. When something distressing happens our bodies operate at a primal level. Emotional pain is a trigger which elevates the body’s stress response. Our heart rate increases, the body enters the early evolutionary state of fight or flight, caustic cortisol floods our organs and our blood pressure sky rockets. But our bodies are sophisticated, they can protect their existence by entering a state of numbness where we cannot be overwhelmed.

Some people feel guilt about emotional numbness. They wonder if it means they loved less. This is simply not so.

Some people experience numbness as an out of body experience. Some do not feel in full control of their limbs. For some individuals food is tasteless or an insidious chill fills their veins. Maybe they cannot hear properly or their vision is distorted; they long to feel something and can enter a phase of behavioural risk taking or might embark on a passionate affair.

In some cases, numbness after loss will last for hours. In other cases years.  Reframing numbness as a healthy response to a shocking event can help. Your body is protecting you. Your feelings (or lack thereof) are natural. Grief is a natural process. If numbness persists, talking therapy may help. Other methods include the use of binaural soundwaves; bilateral body movement (running or dance, for example); breathing exercises that engage the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. 

The aftermath of loss can feel like a state of limbo. In my case, recovery began the moment I acknowledged out loud that I simply wanted to feel normal again.

Helen Clarke is a qualified Humanistic Integrative Counsellor based in Coastal West Sussex. She specialises in loss and the associated physical signs of profound, traumatic loss, such as palpitations, sleep issues, panic attacks, vivid and recurrent dreams, unexplained aches & pains, a sense of immediate and physical fear or overwhelming sadness. Follow this link for more information on Helen’s private practice. follow @sussexcounsell1 on Twitter