Anxiety, vanishing libido and 'grief face': Things nobody warns you about when a loved one dies.

It's Saturday morning, three months after my mum died suddenly. I've got up after a 10-hour sleep, feeling like I've been on an all-night bender. I drag myself from the bedroom to the couch, where I lay wrapped in a blanket all day, watching TV. 

It's more than feeling tired; it's a constant, unshakeable exhaustion that keeps me pinned to the sofa. 'Why am I so exhausted?' I type into Google. Is it my cycle? Or is it the product of a big week at work? 

It was my grief. 

People assume that grief is just sadness, but it’s also incredibly physical. And it’s not just after a death loss that we can feel grief, either. We grieve things like a loss of freedom (hello, 2020), redundancy, changes to health, or a relationship ending. 

Good Mourning co-founder Sally Douglas. Supplied.


I know I'm not alone in the experience of being caught off guard by how my body responded. In fact, it wasn’t until I co-founded Good Mourning in 2020, and started talking openly about grief, that I understood the many, many ways that grief gets to work physiologically. 

When it comes to any loss, the body keeps the score (although it would be great if it could please not). What happens is the brain perceives the emotional stress of grief and loss as a threat to survival, defaulting to fight-or-flight mode to help you cope. The thing is, that’s very helpful when there’s a threat, but not so much when you’re trying to do simple, everyday things. 

Psychiatrist and author Bessel Van Der Kolk says after a trauma (like death), your entire organism has been affected – your body is continuing to defend itself against a threat that belongs in the past, and the brain is trying to ensure our survival. You're experiencing the world with a different neural system. 


When you are stressed, it sets off the fire alarm in your brain, and even after the fumes are put out, it keeps ringing. Triggers after a death – for me it was seeing a photo or hearing my mum’s name – can set the fire alarm off again and again. Hence why prolonged exhaustion can be common.

I felt anxious often, too, adding dizziness, sweating palms, trembling, and racing heartbeat to my modus operandi. Claire Bidwell Smith, therapist and author of Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief, says that anxiety is linked to our physiology. You might have fear-based thoughts stemming from the experience of loss that generates a physical sensation. 

And sex? Forget it! That was another part of my great grief vanishing act for a while. It's not always the case, though – some people experience an insatiable urge for sex. Both are normal responses to loss. Psychotherapist Meghan Riordan Jarvis says that an increased sexual desire is at the root of procreation and the survival of our species, so for some, the instinct to have sex is stronger to combat the threat of death and embrace life.

Sally Douglas and her mum Rose. Supplied.


I wish I could say it ended there, but no. My friend and Good Mourning co-host Imogen Carn and I jokingly say we both have 'grief face', because we feel like we've aged so much since our mums died. 

Feeling foggy, confused and forgetful also became my default setting – I'd trail off mid-sentence, forget simple details, and often leave the house wearing mismatched Birkenstocks. 

There's a good reason for 'grief brain', as neurologist Dr Lisa Schulman explained when we interviewed her on the Good Mourning podcast. After the loss, the brain rewires itself. Stress is a potent activator of neuroplasticity, and chronic high-stress results in weakening nerve growth and "bad neuroplasticity", presenting as memory impairment and increased fear. 


If chronic stress causes a circuit of fear and anxiety to fire off in the brain, it can become a default setting. The more it’s reinforced, the more it gets hard-wired, which is why feelings of brain fog can linger. What helps massively with this is journaling, because it encourages clarity.

The more I let myself rest, the more I could ride it out. I stripped back the expectations I had on myself, too. Instead of pushing myself, I kept it simple. I tried to release stress by doing gentle yoga and very simple breathwork, which can be a great way to release trauma and stress from the body. 

But the biggest thing that helped was patience and time. Remember that everyone grieves in their way, and there is no right or wrong way. Be kind to yourself, and know that healing is possible.

Sally Douglas is the co-host of the Good Mourning Podcast and author of Good Mourning: Honest Conversations About Grief and Loss. 

Grab a ticket to see Good Mourning: A New Way to Think About Grief live at Vivid Sydney on June 17 here.

Main image: Supplied.

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