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Grief and Grieving - What Happens

Grieving a significant loss takes time. Depending on the circumstances of your loss, grieving can take weeks to years. Ultimately, passing through the major stages of grieving helps you gradually adjust to a new chapter of your life.

Becoming aware of a loss

Full awareness of a major loss can happen suddenly or over a few days or weeks. While an expected loss (such as a death after a long illness) can take a short time to absorb, a sudden or tragic loss can take more time. Similarly, it can take time to grasp the reality of a loss that doesn't affect your daily routine, such as a death in a distant city or a diagnosis of a cancer that doesn't yet make you feel ill.

During this time, you may feel numb and seem distracted. You may search or yearn for your lost loved one, object, or way of life. Funerals and other rituals and events during this time may help you accept the reality of your loss.

Feeling and expressing grief

Your way of feeling and expressing grief is unique to you and the nature of your loss. You may find that you feel irritable and restless, are quieter than usual, or need to be distant from or close to others, or that you aren't the same person you were before the loss. Don't be surprised if you experience conflicting feelings while grieving. For example, it's normal to feel despair about a death or a job loss yet also feel relief.

The grieving process does not happen in a step-by-step or orderly fashion. Grieving tends to be unpredictable, with sad thoughts and feelings coming and going, like a roller-coaster ride. After the early days of grieving, you may sense a lifting of numbness and sadness and experience a few days without tears. Then, for no apparent reason, the intense grief may strike again.

While grieving may make you want to isolate yourself from others and hold it all in, it's important that you find some way of expressing your grief. Use whatever mode of expression works for you. Talking, writing, creating art or music, or being physically active are all ways of expressing grief.

Spirituality often is part of the grieving process. You may find yourself looking for or questioning the higher purpose of a loss. While you may gain comfort from your religious or spiritual beliefs, you might also be moved to doubt your beliefs in the face of traumatic or senseless loss.

Grieving problems. In this complex and busy world, it can be hard to fully grieve a loss. It is possible to have unresolved grief or complications associated with grieving, particularly if you:

  • Had several major losses in a short period of time.
  • Are grieving permanent losses caused by chronic illness or disability.
  • Lost someone very important in your life. You may feel that you will never get over the loss of someone special.
  • Experienced the unexpected or violent death of a loved one, such as the death of a child or a death caused by an accident, a homicide, or a suicide.
  • Have special life circumstances that act as obstacles to grieving, such as having to return to work too soon after a death.
  • Have a history of depression or anxiety.
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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: October 17, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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