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What is grief?
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 the grief will be. You may associate grief 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,
The more significant the loss, the more
intense the grief. However, even subtle losses can lead to
grief. For example, you might experience grief after moving
away from home, graduating from college, changing jobs,
selling your family home, or retiring from a career you
Everyone grieves differently
Grieving is a personal and highly
individual experience. How you grieve depends on many
factors, including your personality and coping style, your
life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss. 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.
Myths and Facts About Grief
MYTH: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.
Fact: Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will
only make it worse in the long run. For real healing it is
necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.
MYTH: It’s important to be “be strong” in the face of loss.
Fact: Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to
loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. You don’t need to
“protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front.
Showing your true feelings can help them and you.
MYTH: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the
Fact: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the
only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply
as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.
MYTH: Grief should last
about a year.
Fact: There is no right or wrong time frame for grieving. How
long it takes can differ from person to person.
Source: Center for Grief and Healing
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Are there stages of grief?
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what
became known as the “five stages of grief.” These stages of grief
were based on her studies of the feelings of patients facing
terminal illness, but many people have generalized them to other
types of negative life changes and losses, such as the death of a
loved one or a break-up.
The five stages of grief:
- Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger: “Why is this happening? Who
is to blame?”
- Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in
return I will ____.”
- Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what
If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss,
it may help to know that your reaction is natural and that you’ll
heal in time. However, not everyone who grieves goes through all of
these stages—and that’s okay. Contrary to popular belief,
you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal.
In fact, some people resolve their grief without going through
any of these stages. And if you do go through these stages of
grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential
order, so don’t worry about what you “should” be feeling or which
stage you’re supposed to be in.
Kübler-Ross herself never intended for these stages to be a rigid
framework that applies to everyone who mourns. In her last book
before her death in 2004, she said of the five stages of grief:
“They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat
packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but
there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no
typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
Grief can be a roller coaster
Instead of a series of stages, we might also think of the
grieving process as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs,
highs and lows. Like many roller coasters, the ride tends to be
rougher in the beginning, the lows may be deeper and longer. The
difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time
goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss. Even years
after a loss, especially at special events such as a family
wedding or the birth of a child, we may still experience a
strong sense of grief.
Source: Hospice Foundation of America
Common symptoms of grief
While loss affects people in different ways, many experience the
following symptoms when they’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 beliefs.
- 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
him or her to show up, even though you know he or she is 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 – We often think of grief
as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves
physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity,
weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia.
Coping with grief and loss tip 1: Get support
The single most important factor in healing from loss is having
the support of other people. Even if you aren’t comfortable talking
about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to
express them when you’re grieving. Sharing your loss makes the
burden of grief easier to carry. Wherever the support comes from,
accept it and do not grieve alone. Connecting to
others will help you heal.
Finding support after a loss
- Turn to friends and family members – Now is
the time to lean on the people who care about you, even if you
take pride in being strong and self-sufficient. Draw loved ones
close, rather than avoiding them, and accept the assistance
that’s offered. Oftentimes, people want to help but don’t know
how, so tell them what you need—whether it’s a shoulder to cry
on or help with funeral arrangements.
- Draw comfort from your faith – If you
follow a religious tradition, embrace the comfort its mourning
rituals can provide. Spiritual activities that are meaningful to
you—such as praying, meditating, or going to church—can offer
solace. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the
loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious
- Join a support group – Grief can feel very
lonely, even when you have loved ones around. Sharing your
sorrow with others who have experienced similar losses can help.
To find a bereavement support group in your area, contact local
hospitals, hospices, funeral homes, and counseling centers.
- Talk to a therapist or grief counselor – If
your grief feels like too much to bear, call a mental health
professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced
therapist can help you work through intense emotions and
overcome obstacles to your grieving.
Coping with grief and loss tip 2: Take care of yourself
When you’re grieving, it’s more important than ever to take care
of yourself. The stress of a major loss can quickly deplete your
energy and emotional reserves. Looking after your physical and
emotional needs will help you get through this difficult time.
- Face your feelings. You can try to suppress
your grief, but you can’t avoid it forever. In order to heal,
you have to acknowledge the pain. Trying to avoid feelings of
sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process. Unresolved
grief can also lead to complications such as depression,
anxiety, substance abuse, and health problems.
- Express your feelings in a tangible or creative way.
Write about your loss in a journal. If you’ve lost a loved one,
write a letter saying the things you never got to say; make a
scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life; or get
involved in a cause or organization
that was important to him or her.
- Look after your physical health. The mind
and body are connected. When you feel good physically, you’ll
also feel better emotionally. Combat stress and fatigue by
getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising. Don’t use
alcohol or drugs to numb the pain of grief or lift your mood
- Don’t let anyone tell you how to feel, and don’t
tell yourself how to feel either. Your grief is your
own, and no one else can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or
“get over it.” Let yourself feel whatever you feel without
embarrassment or judgment. It’s okay to be angry, to yell at the
heavens, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh, to find
moments of joy, and to let go when you’re ready.
- Plan ahead for grief “triggers.”
Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can reawaken memories
and feelings. Be prepared for an emotional wallop, and know that
it’s completely normal. If you’re sharing a holiday or lifecycle
event with other relatives, talk to them ahead of time about
their expectations and agree on strategies to honor the person
When grief doesn’t go away
It’s normal to feel sad, numb, or angry following a loss. But as
time passes, these emotions should become less intense as you accept
the loss and start to move forward. If you aren’t feeling better
over time, or your grief is getting worse, it may be a sign that
your grief has developed into a more serious problem,
such as complicated grief or major depression.
The sadness of losing someone you love never goes away
completely, but it shouldn’t remain center stage. If the pain of the
loss is so constant and severe that it keeps you from resuming your
life, you may be suffering from a condition known as complicated
grief. Complicated grief is like being stuck in an intense
state of mourning. You may have trouble accepting the death long
after it has occurred or be so preoccupied with the person who died
that it disrupts your daily routine and undermines your other
Symptoms of complicated grief include:
- Intense longing and yearning for the deceased
- Intrusive thoughts or images of your loved one
- Denial of the death or sense of disbelief
- Imagining that your loved one is alive
- Searching for the person in familiar places
- Avoiding things that remind you of your loved one
- Extreme anger or bitterness over the loss
- Feeling that life is empty or meaningless
The difference between grief and depression
Distinguishing between grief and
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 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:
- Intense, pervasive sense of guilt
- Thoughts of suicide or a
preoccupation with dying
- Feelings of hopelessness or
- Slow speech and body movements
- Inability to function at work, home,
- Seeing or hearing things that aren’t
Can antidepressants help grief?
As a general rule, normal grief does not warrant the use of
antidepressants. While medication may relieve some of the
symptoms of grief, it cannot treat the cause, which is the loss
itself. Furthermore, by numbing the pain that must be worked
through eventually, antidepressants delay the mourning process.
When to seek professional help for grief
If you recognize any of the above symptoms of complicated grief
or clinical depression, talk to a mental health professional right
Left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to
significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems, and
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
- Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
- Are unable to perform your normal daily activities
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