What if I Don't Feel Sad After a Loved One's Death?

A fellow caregiver asked...

Is there something wrong with me if I don't feel very sad after someone close to me died?

Expert Answer

Martha Clark Scala has been a psychotherapist in private practice since 1992, with offices in Palo Alto and San Francisco, California. She regularly writes about grief and loss, the necessity of self-care, and substance abuse. Her e-newsletter, "Out on a Limb," is available to subscribers through her website.

Sadness is the feeling that most people commonly report after someone dies, which might be why it feels peculiar to you if you don't feel sad. But be mindful that grief and loss evoke a number of different feelings, not just sadness. You may also feel numbness, relief, anger, guilt, fear, remorse, peace -- or perhaps even joy. None of these feelings are right or wrong. They're just feelings.

The circumstances of the loss and your relationship to the person who died are likely to influence the emotions you feel. If the person was in excruciating pain, was suffering a prolonged illness, or demanded a lot from you, you may feel more relief than sadness once he or she has died. For example, if you cared for your mother during a long, final battle with cancer, you may feel comforted that she's no longer in anguish; you may also feel happy to be freed from the constancy and uncertainty of caring for her. And if the person who died wasn't nice to you, you can't really expect to feel terribly sad. These are all normal responses.

Also, some people go through more sadness before a death than after it. If you've done a lot of this type of anticipatory grieving (while caring with someone with Alzheimer's or another debilitating disease, for example), you might be surprised that you shed fewer tears once the person is gone. That's normal, too.

Finally, be aware that we're all capable of feeling a number of different emotions at the same time, which can sometimes have confusing results. For example, fear, relief, and anger may vie for top billing when someone you love has died after a long illness. Fear could be about the medical bills. Relief could be about the end of the person's physical suffering, or about the enormous stress and self-sacrifice you experienced as a caregiver. Anger could be about the kind of medical care the person received. It can be almost impossible to feel sad when all of those other feelings are swirling around. Sadness may surface at some later time when the more immediately demanding feelings have been addressed -- or it might not.

If it still strikes you as odd or unsettling that sadness isn't registering when you think about the person who died, that's worth exploring. Since sadness is an extremely hard emotion to weather, maybe your psyche is somehow holding you back from letting you feel it. Ask yourself, "What would be the worst thing that could happen if sad feelings started to surface?" Explore further by asking, "If that worst thing happened, would I survive it?" And if it doesn't feel like you'd survive it, ask, "Is there anything I could do to make that worst possible outcome more tolerable?"

For example, a lot of people express concern that if they tapped into their sad feelings, there'd be an avalanche. They fear they'd never be able to stop crying. This fear is extremely common, but usually unfounded. Emotions come and go -- and they go more swiftly when they get airtime. So if you fear an avalanche, you might ask someone to be your safety net -- to act as your witness, or simply to be available to you should you need companionship.

You might discover that the more you look into the absence of sadness, the more you see it really as just that -- an absence of sadness. If it's an absence of feeling altogether, then your task is to keep yourself safe while numbness persists. It's easy to give numbness a bad reputation, but it really is your psyche's best attempt to protect you from big feelings or reactions until you're ready to have them surface.

If the numbness lasts for many months, however, consider treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as this is one of the disorder's most common symptoms. If it turns out that numbness or PTSD is blocking you from feelings of sadness, getting treatment can help you identify and understand the how and why of your emotions -- and help get you back to feeling like yourself again as quickly as possible.