What Is Grief?
Grief is a normal human response to the loss of something or something significant. Grief is a journey toward healing and recovering from this significant loss. Grief reactions may be felt in response to physical losses (the death of a loved one) or in response to symbolic or social losses (divorce, loss of job). Either type of grief reaction involves something being taken away.
Read more about loss.
Read more about help with grieving.
Coping with the loss of someone or something you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming. You may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. The pain of grief can also disrupt your physical health, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. These are normal reactions to significant loss. But while there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.
Before healing from grief may begin, one must accept and manage the pain of loss. Grief is as individual as each person experiencing it. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.
Grief is a very natural process but we, as highly intelligent humans, often think we can ignore our bodies and hearts and just “get on with it.” Pay attention to your body, your heart, your soul and your family. They will never lead you astray.
Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. The more significant the loss, the more intense your grief will be. You may associate grieving with the death of a loved one—which is often the cause of the most intense type of grief—but any loss can cause grief, including:
- Divorce or relationship breakup
- Loss of health
- Losing a job
- Loss of financial stability
- A miscarriage
- Death of a pet
- Selling and moving from the family home
- A loved one’s serious illness
- Loss of a friendship
- Traumatic responses
- Loss of a dream
Even subtle losses in life can trigger a sense of grief. For example, you might grieve after moving away from home, graduating from college, or changing jobs. Whatever your loss, it’s personal to you, so don’t feel ashamed about how you feel, or believe that it’s somehow only appropriate to grieve for certain things. If the person, animal, relationship, or situation was significant to you, it’s normal to grieve the loss you’re experiencing. Whatever the cause of your grief, though, there are healthy ways to deal with the pain and eventually come to terms with your loss.
What Are Some of the Symptoms of Grief?
While loss affects people in different ways, many of us experience the following symptoms when we’re grieving. Just remember that almost anything that you experience in the early stages of grief is normal—including feeling like you’re going crazy, feeling like you’re in a bad dream, or questioning your religious or spiritual beliefs.
Emotional Symptoms of Grief:
Shock and disbelief. Right after a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened. You may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened, or even deny the truth. If someone you love has died, you may keep expecting them to show up, even though you know they’re gone.
Sadness. Profound sadness is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief. You may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning, or deep loneliness. You may also cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable.
Guilt. You may regret or feel guilty about things you did or didn’t say or do. You may also feel guilty about certain feelings (e.g. feeling relieved when the person died after a long, difficult illness). After a death, you may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more you could have done.
Anger. Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful. If you lost a loved one, you may be angry with yourself, God, the doctors, or even the person who died for abandoning you. You may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to you.
Fear. A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears. You may feel anxious, helpless, or insecure. You may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about your own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities you now face alone.
Physical Symptoms of Grief:
We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief can and will involve physical problems, including:
- Lowered immunity
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Aches and pains
Normal Patterns of Grief:
Grieving is a highly individual experience; there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and how significant the loss was to you.
Inevitably, the grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried—and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold.
Several patterns of grief have been identified and documented, but it is important to remember that grief is as individual as the person experiencing it.
Early Phase of grieving is marked by shock, dismay and disbelief. It leaves a person feeling unproductive, dazed and mechanical as they try to function. This phase of grief may last hours, minutes, days or weeks, although thanks to psychological numbing, the person may not remember what has happened during this period.
Middle Phase of grief is marked by much intense pain with more intense reactions. The middle phase lasts many months. Even after life seems to be back to normal, a chance remark can cause those feelings to resurface.
Late Phase of grief is the process characterized by glimmers of hope, renewed sense of coping and a returning sense of well-being, and a renewed belief in life.
What Are The Five Stages of Grief?
The Five Stages of Grief were postulated by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross after interviewing 500 dying patients. It describes, in five separate stages, the model by which people cope with and handle grief, tragedy, and catastrophic loss.
These stages have been accepted as the Five Stages of Grief, although these stages are not meant to be completely linear or chronological stages. Nor does everyone dealing with a catastrophic loss experience the five stages in the same manner. Some stages may be missed, some re-experienced, while some may get stuck in one stage.
Grief is as unique as the person experiencing it.
1. Denial and Isolation. Commonly, when a person is faced with a catastrophic event, they feel denial. Their reaction is one of shock and disbelief: “I’m fine,” or “This cannot be happening to me.” Denial is a built-in coping mechanism allowing the pain to seep through the numbness in small increments. If all the pain hit at once, it would be debilitating. Those grieving may isolate themselves from social contacts while denying the loss.
2. Anger. The individual experiencing the loss realizes that denial cannot continue. The person becomes outraged, envious, and full of anger. Anger can be healing. While the anger may be directed toward no one at all, it may spill out into the grieving person’s relationships with other people. The anger shouldn’t escalate to a dangerous level, but a healthy amount is therapeutic. The anger you feel is an indication of the intensity of your love and loss. “Why me?” and “Who can I blame?” are common reactions during this stage of grief.
3. Bargaining. After the anger abates, those who are grieving enter a stage of bargaining with God. This stage is reminiscent of childhood days when children plead with their parents. It’s almost as though the bereaved is saying, “Now that I’m no longer angry, can I have a little more time?” Someone in this stage of grief may say things like, “Please just let me see my child get married” or “Please let me have a few more minutes with my loved one.”
4. Depression. When the bereaved realizes they cannot deal their way out of this situation, reality sets in. Depression leads to sadness, grief, as the full weight of what they have lost or are in the process of losing sinks in. The bereaved cries and mourns and wonders how they can continue. It may be helpful for those in this stage of grief to talk through their feelings with a counselor or even good friends. This stage, along with the others, will ebb and flow over weeks, months, or possibly years.
5. Acceptance. Acceptance is the most confusing stage of grieving. Though the bereaved accepts that they have experienced a significant loss, they are never truly “over it.” People on the outside of the situation will assume the bereaved has moved on. During acceptance, the bereaved learns how to live their “new normal.” It’s much like learning to walk again but without a limb. It will NEVER be like it was, but life can can be lived again.
Abnormal Grief Reactions:
Anticipatory Grief is the emotional response that occurs before the loss itself. The emotional response has many of the characteristics of grief itself with a couple exceptions. With anticipatory grief, one hopes that the loss one anticipates will not occur. The uncertainty and wishing it would happen while dreading the finality of the loss make the grieving process more unstable.
Chronic Sorrow is the presence of pervasive grief in people with chronic illnesses, their caregivers, and the bereaved. It’s thought to be a normal response to an incomplete or ongoing loss.
While grieving a loss is an inevitable part of life, there are ways to help cope with the pain, come to terms with your grief, and eventually, find a way to pick up the pieces and move on with your life.
- Acknowledge your pain and loss
- Accept that your grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions
- Understand that your grieving process will be unique
- Seek out face-to-face support from people who care about you.
- Support yourself emotionally by taking care of yourself physically.
- Recognize the difference between grief and depression
Distinguishing between grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy as they share many symptoms, but there are ways to tell the difference. Remember, grief can be a roller coaster. It involves a wide variety of emotions and a mix of good and bad days. Even when you’re in the middle of the grieving process, you will still have moments of pleasure or happiness. With depression, on the other hand, the feelings of emptiness and despair are constant.
Other symptoms that suggest depression, not just grief, include:
- Intense, pervasive sense of guilt
- Thoughts of suicide or a preoccupation with dying
- Feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness
- Slowed speech and body movements
- Inability to function at home, work, and/or school
- Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
Types of Grievers:
Grief is a very complicated emotion and one who is deeply grieving may feel as though he or she is “grieving wrong”. There are several types of grievers – none are wrong. All are normal:
The Intuitive Grievers
A person who is an Intuitive Griever feels the experience of grief with great intensely. He or she may be helped by expressing his or her grief emotionally, often by crying. One of the best ways for the Intuitive Griever to cope with his or her grief is to express his or her emotions about the grief freely and openly, possibly in a group setting.
Common Characteristics of Intuitive Grievers include:
- Expresses his or her feelings openly.
- Anguish is expressed with sorrow with tears.
- An Intuitive Griever is not afraid to find support in other people.
- He or she allows the proper time to fully experience the inner pain.
- During the grief process, he or she may become physically exhausted or riddled with anxiety.
- During the grief process, he or she may experience long periods of confusion.
- The confusion may make way toward an inability to concentrate.
- Has the ability to openly discuss the grief.
- May benefit from support groups.
The Instrumental Griever
The Instrumental Griever feels grief, but less intensely and more physically. He or she may use thinking and problem-solve as ways of coping with the grieving experience. The Instrumental Griever must have a tangible, physical way to express the grief. He or she may be reluctant to talk about feelings.
Common Characteristics of Instrumental Grievers Include:
- He or she may push aside feelings of grief in order to cope with the present situation.
- Chooses active ways of expressing grief.
- May be hesitant to discuss his or her feelings.
- May use humor to express his or her feelings as well as to manage anger.
- Feelings may only be expressed in private.
- Needs – and seeks – solitude to reflect upon the grief and adapt to the loss.
- He or she may not find a support group setting an ideal place to discuss his or her feelings.
The Dissonant Griever:
The Dissonant Griever handles grief one way but feels uncomfortable with the manner in which they experience grief. A Dissonant Griever may feel that openly expressing his or her feelings about the grief may be inappropriate. Or, an Instrumental Griever may feel guilt and shame for being unable to express his or her emotions about the grief in the way that an Intuitive Griever can.
These conflicting feelings make it uncomfortable for the Dissonant Griever to deal with their grief and, therefore, harder for them to grieve
What Is Complicated Grief?
Complicated grief is grieving that is incapacitating, usually over a long period of time, and involves disorganized, depressed behavior. Professional help is always needed in cases of complicated grief.
Symptoms of Complicated Grief:
- Excessive focus on the loss
- Continued and intense longing/pining
- Difficulty accepting the loss
- Feeling numb or detached
- Distracting or consuming sorrow
- Feelings of bitterness
- Difficulty enjoying life
- Trouble moving on
- Difficulty performing normal routines
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Thoughts that life is pointless
- Irritability or agitation
Abbreviated Grief: Abbreviated grief is grief that is short-lived but genuine. It may occur in situations in which the deceased is quickly replaced (by remarriage or something similar).
Absent Grief: Absent grief is a situation in which there are no outward signs of grieving following the loss of a loved one. Absent grief may be grief that is stuffed down deep inside only to emerge in other ways like irritability, anger, or depression.
Ambiguous Loss: Ambiguous loss is a loss that is unseen or unaccepted socially as a “valid” loss. This may include a miscarriage, loss of a pet, or losing someone who has been slowly dying.
Converted Grief: Converted grief is grief that is displayed through excessive physical or psychological symptoms that are not linked by the person to their loss.
Delayed Grief: Delayed grief involves the postponement of grief for weeks, months and years. Delayed grief can abruptly be ended by subsequent losses or losses of others that are similar to their own.
Disenfranchised Grief: Disenfranchised Grief is a type of sorrow not publicly or socially recognized and the reality of the loss is unrecognized by society. Society may, in fact, stigmatize the grieving of the loss. This may occur with abortions, suicide, drug overdose, or other socially unacceptable deaths.
Distorted Grief: Distorted grief is morbid grief reaction in which anger and guilt are the two distorted types of emotions displayed.
Inhibited Grief: For those who have inhibited grief, there is some outward evidence that the person is grieving, but his or her reactions are less than expected in respect to the loss. This may occur with people who have unresolved issues with the dead or other negative emotions regarding the loss.
When You Should Call The Doctor:
If you’re experiencing symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, call your doctor (if you don’t have a therapist yet) right away. Left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems, and even suicide. But treatment can help you get better.
- Contact a grief counselor or professional therapist if you:
- Feel like life isn’t worth living
- Wish you had died with your loved one
- Blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it
- Feel numb and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
- Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
- Are unable to perform your normal daily activities
If You Are Feeling Suicidal:
Seek help immediately:
- In the U.S., call 1-800-273-TALK(8255).
- In the UK, call 08457 90 90 90.
- In Australia, call 13 11 14.
- Or visit IASP to find a helpline in your country.
Memorial pages on Facebook and other social media sites have become popular ways to inform a wide audience of a loved one’s passing and to reach out for support. As well as allowing you to impart practical information, such as funeral plans, these pages allow friends and loved ones to post their own tributes or condolences. Reading such messages can often provide comfort for those grieving the loss.
Of course, posting sensitive content on social media has its risks. Memorial pages are often open to anyone with a Facebook account. This may encourage people who hardly knew the deceased to post well-meaning but inappropriate comments or advice. Worse, memorial pages can also attract Internet trolls. There have been many well-publicized cases of strangers posting cruel or abusive messages on memorial pages.
To gain some protection, you can opt to create a closed group on Facebook rather than a public page, which means people have to be approved by a group member before they can access the memorial. It’s also important to remember that while social media can be a useful tool for reaching out to others, it can’t replace the face-to-face support you need at this time
Grief in Children:
Naturally children will display grief differently than adults. Children who are unable to express their complex feelings of loss may act out through increased demands for food, love, and attention or exhibiting babyish behavior. Because children have a limited ability to consider the world outside their own sphere of influence, they may blame themselves for a loss. It is important to address this concern with children and reassure them that the loss was not their fault.
If your grief is so intense that you have thoughts of suicide, please pick up the phone and dial 911.
In addition, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is open 7 days a week, 24 hours per day: 1-800-273-8255.
Additional Grief and Grieving Resources:
GriefShare is an international website which helps individuals locate local grief recovery support groups in the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa.
GriefNet.org allows people who are grieving to set up an online memorial to their loved ones.
Page last audited 8/2018