What does grief feel like?

Grief can be difficult to pin down. We asked grieving people and experts to share an analogy to describe their grief.

The best way for me to describe grief is like you’re at a crowded movie theatre. And you’ve bought your tickets for a Rom Com (romantic comedy). And, you’re there and the movie starts and it’s been going for about 15 minutes and then all of the sudden the screen splits in two, and melts, and a horror movie starts in its place.

This isn’t the movie that you showed up for. This isn’t what you bought tickets for.

And everybody else around you is behaving as though this is all perfectly fine. And you’re like, “Wait a minute this isn’t … this isn’t right! This is a horror movie! This is not what I signed up for.” And they’re like, “Meh, it’s just a movie. Just eat the popcorn this is great!” Right?

When you’re inside intense grief like that, you’re no longer watching the same movie everybody else is watching. And because nobody else is watching that movie, they all think everything is fine.

Nothing is fine. Right? And it’s that dissonance between what’s happening in your world versus what’s happening in other people’s world. And the fact that we don’t recognize that everybody is walking around with their own personal movie screen all the time.

Play Video placeholderJoyal Mulheron: Like a Volume Switch

Grief is like a volume switch. In the very beginning, it’s very loud. It’s almost so loud that you can’t remember if you’ve eaten, you can’t remember if you’ve showered, you are just- things in life that were so common and regular, you won’t remember.

Over time, your grief volume, you work on ways to lower it and you try to keep it at a manageable volume. And I think in the first few years, it remains very- it remains high. Although it lowers enough that you remember to eat, you remember when you need to shower. You might not remember to lock the car or you might leave your wallet laying out for someone to take in an open car. But, the more sort of critical functions, you know, the basic functions: eating, sleeping, remembering where your children are. They become easier.

I think it is a lifelong switch that is turned on and depending on the activities or the anniversaries, it’s a volume that can go very high again and spike and you work on ways to try to reduce its volume.

Play Video placeholderBeatriz McKee: Grief is Like a Mountain

I would define grief as this giant mountain. This mountain that you know you have to climb, and come through to the other side. Because on the other side is the valley and it represents normality again. But it’s a mountain that you can’t ever reach the peak of.

You climb and you climb and you climb and you might fall off a little bit and then you try to climb it again and again and again, and maybe when you get up closer to the top, it might seem like, “wow, I’ve made this much progress and I don’t have that much longer to go,” but then you realize that you really haven’t reached the top yet. You’re only halfway there. I think that that’s a good way that I would describe grief.

Play Video placeholderJenn Hepton: Grief is Like a Second Skin

It is like another skin that you’ve inherited. It is like a sweater that you wear forever. You’ve been put into this ocean ... and you’re bobbing, and sometimes a wave will come and you’ll be okay, and then a tsunami comes, and you’re gone.

And I don't think people understand that this is ... forever. It’s not something that you get over. Yes, it softens, but it’s not something that you get over. So fast forward 10, 20 years, I’m still going to be in my grief. It may take a different shape or form, and I may walk into a grocery store and see a girl that looks like Loee or will remind me of Loee, and I might start crying, 20 years later.

Play Video placeholderAsia Khan: Like Losing a Piece of Yourself

You know what, it’s like losing a piece of yourself, maybe a limb. Say if you lost your leg or you lost your arm because of a surgery or maybe an accident. Even though it’s no longer there, you know it’s physically gone, you still feel it no matter what you do. When you try to grab something and realize, “Oh, wait. I can’t use that hand” or “I can’t use that leg to step that way.” You still feel the essence of something that tries to grasp on to it.

Play Video placeholderAjai Blue-Saunders: Grief is Like a Sore

Grief is like a sore. It’s a sore on your arm. It’s a very deep cut that has, that’s bleeding. And over time that it will stop bleeding as much, but you’re always be aware that you have a sore. You’ll always be aware that there’s a, that there was a cut there and if you scratch that, that wound too much, it’s going to resurface again. But you never forget that that is there.

Play Video placeholderJulie Kaplow: Like a Wave

When I talk about grief especially with kids, what we often talk about are the waves of grief, kind of like the waves of an ocean, where sometimes that wave can feel really high and like it may overtake you, and sometimes the waves are much smaller. And so recognizing that that can be a continuous process, that again there’s no endpoint to the grief, but that it just can come and go as waves.

Play Video placeholderNic Hepton: Grief is Messy

Grief shows up not in the way you expect it to. Um, it's messy. When you hear about grief, you hear about there are stages to grief. And you move from stage to stage, and that’s just not true at all. Um, you might move from stage to stage, but then you … It’s not linear. You- you never … You’re never recovered.

People expect you to have moved to a different stage if you they don’t see you for a period of time. They’re surprised when you’re not there. And I think a lot of people said, “We don’t know what to say.” And I would say, “That’s cool, because I don’t know what to say either.” And sometimes you don’t want to say anything except know that they’re there. it was just … It was confusing, really confusing.

Um, and you wouldn’t always know why you were not feeling right, or unhappy, or … disconnected or distracted. And you’d think it was something that was in your immediate universe, and then when you realized that it wasn’t that then, then the only answer was that you- you were grieving.

Play Video placeholderJayne Agena: Love

For sure it’s love. Um, it’s a different version of it. It’s the missing of it. It’s the missing of a person. . . who mattered in so many different ways that you didn’t even know you could count. Which makes it beautiful, but it makes it hard to describe or quantify.