Losing a loved one can completely alter your view of yourself and the world. This can lead to personality changes that may or may not be temporary.
Can Grief Change Your Personality?
Grief can change your personality on a temporary or more permanent basis based on various factors including how profound the loss was, your internal coping skills, your support system, your general temperament, your general stress tolerance, and your outlook on life. Grief can alter your thoughts and emotional process, as well as your behaviors. Keep in mind that your personality develops based on both environmental and genetic factors, meaning that it is malleable and able to change due to circumstances and experiences.
Difference Between Personality Changes and Grief-Related Symptoms
Symptoms of grief can impact your personality, behavior, emotions, and cognitions, so it can feel challenging to understand if your personality has permanently changed, or if you are in the midst of processing your grief. Symptoms of bereavement may include pervasive thoughts about your loved one and joining them, difficulty with sleeping, changes in appetite, feeling detached, withdrawing from others, as well as anhedonia. To better understand if you are experiencing a personality shift, or are experiencing a grief-related symptom or disorder, pay close attention to:
- If you are having difficulty with acts of daily living (eating, drinking, getting dressed, sleeping, etc.) - These are typical grief related symptoms and not necessarily indicative of a personality shift
- If your outlook on life has changed, or you have different priorities because of the loss - This may be more of a personality change
- If you've become more outgoing or introverted as a response to the loss - This may be more of a personality shift
- If you constantly feel sad and lonely - These are common reactions to loss and not necessarily indicative of a personality shift
- If you're redefining your identity - This can be in line more with a personality shift
- Feeling an increase in your resiliency - More indicative of a personality change
How Does Losing a Loved One Affect an Individual?
People react differently after losing a loved one. While some individuals are able to experience the grieving process full force, others may experience periods of numbness and detachment. People may also:
- Have difficulty getting back to school or work
- Have trouble eating or sleeping
- Not know how to live life without their loved one
- May struggle to find a new normal and create a different routine
- May resist change more
- May find unique ways to heal
The grieving process will look different for each individual and there is no set amount of time it takes for anyone to grieve.
Behavioral Responses to Grief
A behavioral response is an action, reaction, or interaction within your environment. Examples of behavioral responses to grief include:
- Feeling foggy and behaving in a more confused manner
- Having memory recall difficulties
- Withdrawing socially
- Experiencing decreased productivity
- Fidgeting, difficulty sitting still
- Difficulty with concentration
- Hearing, seeing, or smelling your deceased loved one
- Changes in appetite
- Difficulty falling asleep
Does Grief Change Your Brain?
The brain is plastic meaning that it can reorganize and change many times over one's lifetime. This makes human beings incredibly adaptable, even under stressful and painful circumstances. Grief can have an impact on the brain, but because the brain is so adaptable, these changes, may not be long-lasting. Research indicates that grief may impact the posterior cingulate cortex, medial/superior frontal gyrus, and cerebellum. These areas of the brain deal with affect processing, memory retrieval, automatic regulation, balance, and facial recognition. In the thick of the grieving process:
- You may feel triggered by your environment, which can lead to increased levels of distress
- Feel physically off balance
- Feel exhausted as your brain continues processing your loss
- Experience rumination, nightmares, and pervasive thoughts as your brain processes painful memories, so they can be stored appropriately
The brain can be changed by grief, but grief can also force immense growth in resiliency if memories are processed and stored in healthy ways. Keep in mind that suppressing painful memories, whether done unconsciously or consciously, is not healthy psychologically or physically and can lead to other, more severe issues.
Can You Die From Grief?
While grief is not a direct cause of death, grief can lead to heightened physiological and psychological responses that can impact one's overall health and wellness. Studies that focus on grief and subsequent health issues or death indicate that:
- Adjusted for age and socioeconomic status, three months after losing a partner, the risk of mortality for men was 1.87 times higher and for women was 1.47 times higher when compared to individuals who did not lose their partner
- 12 months after losing a spouse the risk of mortality for men was 1.16 times, while for women it was 1.07 times higher when compared to individuals who did not lose their partner
- Brokenheart syndrome, or the widowhood effect, refers to the increase in the general risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, acute health issues, chronic issues, and cancer, following the loss of a spouse. The risk is 22% higher for both widows and widowers compared to their married counterparts. The loss of a spouse is a higher risk factor for a widow or widower passing away even when compared to smoking.
Keep in mind that if you have experienced a profound loss, you may be more at risk for both psychological and physiological issues and complications. It is critical to monitor both your emotional and physical wellbeing, especially after the first few months following a loss. If you feel like something isn't quite right, are having difficulty with acts of daily living, and/or are having thoughts of self-harm reach out for professional help immediately. You may need to speak with both a medical doctor, and a psychologist or therapist to better understand what is going on.
Can a Loved One's Death Change Your Personality?
The death of a loved one who was a meaningful part of your life can absolutely lead to significant shifts in your personality, which may include changes in your thought processes, priorities, motivating factors, and emotional patterns. Keep in mind that some personality changes may just be a temporary response to grieving, and with time, you will have a better understanding as to which aspects of your personality are more enduring.