Can you recognize the signs of grieving in this scene?

One day when the youngest of my three children, Christian, was a baby, I placed him in his Pack’n Play and asked his older brother to keep an eye on him for a few minutes while I ran downstairs to switch the laundry—a common parenting survival tactic for moms. My older two, Michael and Kieran, were used to distracting him briefly from time to time when I needed to step away. Kieran overheard my request and joined Michael by the side of the Pack ’n Play. From the laundry room, I heard the sweet sounds of Michael cooing to Christian and gently rattling a toy. Then I heard Kieran interject firmly: “No, look, he wants to play with this elephant.”

Frustration and Escalation

Next came sounds of scuffle, Michael’s voice of protest, and fussing sounds from Christian.

Then escalation: “Kieeeran, stop! Mom! She’s . . .”

“No, Michael!”


Quickly I tossed the last handful of socks in the dryer, slammed the door shut, and pressed the start button. Adrenaline surged as I raced back up to where the scene was unfolding. Then, in one of my least proud parenting moments, I exploded. “Stop! Kieran, can’t you see he doesn’t like that in his face? You’re going to hurt him. You brat! All I wanted was a few minutes to switch the loads! Can’t you just leave him in peace?”

Unrepentant, Kieran gave me a stony stare, her chin jutted out and her eyebrows pinched together, and it was gasoline on a fire.

“Just go away! Upstairs! Out of my sight!” My volume grew as my tantrum took hold, the familiar feeling of overwhelm rising and the plaintive voice whining in my head, I can’t do this. This is too much. Shame prickled as I lifted Christian out of the Pack ’n Play and held him over my right shoulder.

Woman seated on floor, clutching her head, grieving but doesn't know it

My outburst was out of proportion. As the kids grew, my erratic emotional responses remained constant. When disputes arose—over toys, over who was responsible for the playroom mess, over whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher—I could easily erupt.  Although young parents have plenty of reasons to feel frustrated, deep in my bones, I knew that my reactions and their irrational escalation meant more than normal parenting stress.

Tuning in to Grieving

During my journey of confronting the long-buried grief I experienced after losing my own mom as a child and growing up motherless, I realized that these reactions were symptoms of my grieving. I write about this in The Art of Reassembly. Because I am now so tuned into these symptoms of grieving, I am likely to recognize them in others. But even though we’ve reached a cultural tipping point where open conversations about grief are embraced, there are many people who may not know signs of grieving. Or, as in the present time, we may not recognize our emotions as actual grief in the face of continuing struggles due to the pandemic.

Here are the most common signs that a person is grappling with some form of grief:

  • Angry outbursts over seemingly minor things, and a tendency to get easily annoyed.
  • Frequent silence and emotional distance, along with seeming troubled or preoccupied.
  • Emotional numbness, displayed as muted or flat reactions to situations that would typically evoke an emotional response.
  • Excessive busyness.
  • Eating and / or drinking more than usual, potentially accompanied by weight loss, weight gain or a surprising shift in their routine.

Knowing these signs of grieving is important because it can help us recognize when a friend or loved one is grieving. Then, we can support them in whatever way they need. It’s also important because in many cases, people don’t recognize the signs of grieving in themselves. In such cases, being able to point them out and help those you care about connect the dots to the root cause of their reactions might be the greatest source of support of all.