What Is Grief?
Grief is a natural response to losing someone or something that’s important to you. You may feel a variety of emotions, including anger, sadness, or loneliness. You can experience grief for different reasons. Maybe a loved one died, a relationship ended, or you lost your job. Other life changes such as a chronic illness or moving to a new home can also lead to grief.
Everyone grieves differently. But if you understand your emotions, take care of yourself, and seek support, you can heal.
Types of Grief
This used to be called “normal” grief. With this, your grief symptoms are most intense for 6 months after a loss. But they lessen with time.
In this type of grief, you experience loss before it occurs. This can happen when you learn a loved one has a terminal illness, for example.
This can happen when you don't take time to recognize or process your feelings of grief. It can lead to physical problems, such as panic attacks or trouble sleeping.
In some cases, grief doesn’t get better. You may not be able to accept the loss. This is called “complicated grief.” Talk to your doctor if you have:
- Trouble keeping your normal routines
- Feelings of depression
- Thoughts that life isn’t worth living
- Thoughts of harming yourself
- Any inability to stop blaming yourself
With this type of grief, you don't process your feelings at the time of your loss; instead, you feel and process them weeks, months, or years later. This may happen because the shock of your loss interrupts your ability to deal with grief. Or maybe you're so busy with practical matters that you don't have time to feel grief until a later point in time.
This is when you don't show any outward signs of grieving. But you may be working through complex feelings internally.
This happens when you're processing multiple losses at once. Maybe you're grieving the loss of a marriage and job at the same time. Cumulative grief makes the grieving process longer and more complicated.
This kind of grief happens when you have prolonged difficulties after a loss, making that make it hard to get on with everyday life. It makes it hard to have any positive memories of the loved one you lost. This type of grief can affect you no matter what age you are. But when it happens to children, it's called Childhood Traumatic Grief.
This is when you grieve far-reaching losses as part of a group. Examples are natural disasters, school shootings, and pandemics.
Prolonged grief disorder
Also known as complicated grief, it's very similar to traumatic grief. As this type of grief is intense and lasting, it interferes with your daily life. Your grief doesn't diminish over time. You may need to seek professional help to deal with your feelings and symptoms.
Causes of Grief
Grief is the experience of coping with loss. It's associated with the death of a loved one, but you can feel grief because of any change that challenges your identity or life routines.
You may grieve:
- The death of your friend, family member, partner, or pet.
- The end of your marriage or a friendship.
- Leaving your home, neighborhood, or community.
- The end of your job or career.
- Losing financial stability.
- The death of a dream or goal.
- Loss of your health.
- The end of your youth.
- Being unable to have children.
- Loss of the life you had before a disability or illness.
- Your own loss of life as you prepare for death.
Stages of Grief
Your feelings may happen in phases as you come to terms with your loss. You can’t control the process, but it’s helpful to know the reasons behind your feelings. All people experience grief differently. In the 1960s, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief. She was a psychiatrist, author, and pioneer in near-death studies.
Those stages are:
- Denial: When you first learn of a loss, it’s common to think, “This isn’t happening.” You may feel shocked or numb. This is a temporary way to deal with the rush of overwhelming emotions. It’s a defense mechanism.
- Anger: As reality sets in, you’re faced with the pain of your loss. You may feel frustrated and helpless. These feelings later turn into anger. You might direct it toward other people, a higher power, or life in general. To be angry with a loved one who died and left you alone is natural too.
- Bargaining: During this stage, you dwell on what you could’ve done to prevent the loss. Thoughts such as “if only…” and “what if…” are common at this stage. You may also try to strike a deal with a higher power.
- Depression: Sadness sets in as you begin to understand the loss and its effect on your life. Signs of depression include crying, sleep issues, and a decreased appetite. You may feel overwhelmed, regretful, and lonely.
- Acceptance: In this final stage of grief, you accept the reality of your loss. It can’t be changed. Although you still feel sad, you’re able to start moving forward with your life.
Every person goes through these phases in their own way. You may go back and forth between them or skip one or more stages altogether.
Symptoms of Grief
Loss can be very stressful and take a physical toll on your body. Grief can affect your nervous system as well as weaken your immune system.
Grief symptoms can include:
- Upset stomach
- Joint pain
- Weak muscles
- Tightness in your throat or chest
- Loss of appetite or increased appetite
- Sleeping too much or too little
When you're grieving, it's common to feel emotions in waves. There are no right or wrong feelings in grieving. You may feel normal one minute but be in tears the next. You also may have conflicting or confusing emotions, such as:
- Feeling sad that a loved one died but also a sense of relief that they're not in pain.
- Missing your spouse after divorce but also feeling happy about a new start.
- Having guilt for being glad as you no longer have to take care of a dying loved one.
- Feeling apathy, anger, sadness, and regret, all at the same time, as you grieve the loss of someone with whom you had a difficult relationship.
What's a grief trigger?
It's a sudden reminder of a loved one who died or something you lost. It can bring strong emotions. These triggers can include songs, places, smells, sounds, and special occasions. They're most common in the first weeks and months after a loss, but they can happen later too.
How Long Does Grief Last?
There’s no correct amount of time to grieve. Your grieving process depends on a number of things such as your personality, age, beliefs, and support network. The type of loss is also a factor. For example, chances are you’ll grieve longer and harder over the sudden death of a loved one than, say, the end of a romantic relationship.
With time, grief symptoms will usually ease. You’ll be able to feel happiness and joy along with grief. You’ll be able to return to your daily life.
Coping With Grief
A therapist can help you explore your emotions. They can also teach you coping skills and help you manage your grief. If you’re depressed, a doctor may be able to prescribe medicines to help you feel better.
When you’re in deep, emotional pain, it can be tempting to try to numb your feelings with drugs, alcohol, food, or even work. But be careful. These are temporary escapes that won’t make you heal faster or feel better in the long run. In fact, they can lead to addiction, depression, anxiety, or even an emotional breakdown.
Instead, try these things to help you come to terms with your loss and begin to heal:
- Give yourself time. Accept your feelings and know that grieving is a process.
- Talk to others. Spend time with friends and family. Don’t isolate yourself.
- Take care of yourself. Exercise regularly, eat well, and get enough sleep to stay healthy and energized.
- Return to your hobbies. Get back to the activities that bring you joy.
- Join a support group. Speak with others who are also grieving. It can help you feel more connected.
Grief support groups
Studies show that participating in a grief support group can help protect you from developing prolonged or complicated grief. Look for one near you by contacting nonprofits like The Compassionate Friends, or you may find grief groups through your doctor, community, or place of worship.
How to Help Grieving Loved Ones
There are some ways to support your loved ones when they're grieving. Some important steps include:
- Be there. Ask them what they need. Do they want to talk? Take a walk? Help with arrangements? Support them in the ways they need.
- Find ways to help. Offer to run errands, drive their kids to school, cook a meal, or help with laundry.
- Let them know they can talk to you. They may be waiting for a signal that it's alright to share stories and process their feelings. Listen more than you talk.
- Don’t minimize their loss. Never say a loss wasn’t a big deal, or that they should move on. Don’t put a positive spin on their loss. Statements like “it’s all for the best” or “they’re in a better place now” can sound dismissive. Allow your loved one to process their feelings honestly. It’s a natural and necessary part of grieving.
When to Get Professional Help
Working through grief may require professional help. If your grief interferes with your life, or your symptoms aren't better after 6 months, it may be time to talk to a mental health counselor or therapist.
- Grief is a natural reaction to various kinds of loss.
- You may have different feelings that come and go, in any order.
- There's no right or wrong way to grieve. It's different for everyone.
- There are many different kinds of grief.
- There are five stages of grief that can be used to help understand loss.
- Grief can cause physical and emotional symptoms.
- There's professional help and support available for coping with grief.
What are the seven stages of grief or loss?
Some experts have expanded Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief to seven stages. In addition to the stages she identified, these include stages of shock and processing.
What is painful grief?
All types of grief involve painful feelings. But they can also include painful physical symptoms in your body, such as backaches, headaches, and joint stiffness. Grief can cause you to develop new health issues, or worsen ones you already have.
What is normal grief?
The way you grieve isn't like anyone else because everyone grieves differently. The term “normal grief”, or uncomplicated grief, refers to the usual feelings of grief that arise in the days and weeks after a loss. There is no right or wrong timeline, but this type of grief gets better with time.