Simply put, grief is the reaction that people have to some type of loss. Most often, we think of grief as mourning, the deep sadness that we experience when someone that we care about dies. There are a number of emotional, physical, and psychological dimensions to grief, and not everyone responds to loss in the same way. It’s important to note that there is no one right way to grieve a loss, and no set time period in which a person should “get over” their grief.
What Does Grief Mean?
Grief is a reaction to loss, and it’s a normal and natural part of the healing process. Nearly everyone experiences grief in some way, even if they don’t react the way that one might expect. Many people experience extreme sadness and cry a lot, while others might feel anger, regret, frustration, or anxiety. Still others simply feel numb and don’t know how to react. All of these responses are common, and people often feel several different ways at once, which can be confusing. All of these reactions are ways of processing and dealing with the loss, allowing us to move on from the past and invest our energy in the future.
It’s important to remember that grief is not a way of forgetting the past, nor does it mean that the person we lost is no longer important to us. It is a way of honoring our loved one, but moving forward with our lives. Grief is also not depression; while great sadness often accompanies grief, serious depression is a psychological condition that needs professional help.
How We Express Grief
Different people express their grief in different ways, but there are a number of common reactions:
- Crying and deep sadness
- Anger or frustration
- Feelings of guilt and remorse
- Withdrawal and the desire to be alone
- The need to be near loved ones
- Lack of energy and trouble concentrating
- Numbness or apathy
- Insomnia and difficulty sleeping
- Increased sensitivity to noises
Many people feel overwhelmed with emotion after a loss, and may feel like they are going crazy. Often we feel contradictory feelings – for example, we might feel deeply sad after a loved one dies, but also relief that their suffering has ended, and guilt over this relief. We may feel numb at our loss, and angry at ourselves because we think we should be reacting differently.
No matter how you express your grief, try to recognize that these feelings are temporary and all are simply different ways of processing the loss. Don’t judge yourself or others too harshly for their reactions, and give yourself time to move through your emotions. It’s also best not to make abrupt decisions right after a loss; take some time to consider your actions before making choices that you might regret later.
Common Ways of Dealing with Grief
After you experience a loss, there are a number of ways that you can process your grief and start to move on with your life. There is no time limit on grief or schedule that you should follow to “get over it.” We all experience loss differently, and you should take the time that you need to deal with the experience.
Many people find that memorializing the deceased helps them deal with their grief. It’s often said that funerals are for the living, and these ceremonies can be an effective way of allowing friends and families to express their grief publicly, surrounded by others who are also experiencing loss. A funeral, wake, memorial service, or other gathering is a social expression of grief that people often find brings a sense of closure. Choosing to not attend a funeral or memorial may leave family members feeling like there is unfinished business.
You may also find healing by helping others. Some people, when they suffer a loss, feel the need to reach out to those who are also grieving to share and lessen some of the pain. Related to this, if your loved one died after an illness or accident, you may find healing in raising money to help others suffering in similar situations. Many people find that this gives meaning to their loss and helps them feel like they are taking a positive action in response.
Others deal with grief through religion or spiritual pursuits. The idea that we have a place in the universe and that there is something waiting for us after this life can be very comforting. Devoting more time to spiritual or philosophical purposes can add meaning to our lives and help us to recognize the role that loss plays in our existence.
There are also unhealthy ways of dealing with grief, including overeating, abusing drugs or alcohol, lashing out at others, and completely cutting ourselves off from our lives for an extended period of time. These reactions are often dangerous to ourselves and others, and they don’t help us process our grief. If you’re struggling to deal with your emotions or feel like you don’t know how to move forward, talk to a counselor, join a support group, or seek out spiritual support. It’s OK to need help and to ask for it.
Five Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the five stages of grief – or, more accurately, the five stages experienced by those who are dying – in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” While there is some question about how common these stages actually are, many people recognize their reactions to grief in each:
People who are experiencing grief may pass through some, all, or none of these stages, and there is no requirement that you should experience all of these stages. These are common experiences for people who are dying and those who are grieving a death, however, and you may find some peace in knowing that others have experienced similar reactions.
Types of Grief
While many people experience grief that is relatively straightforward, there are several defined types of grief that can one may experience. These types of grief often do not occur at the time of the loss, but may be experienced before or after the actual experience.
Complicated grief, also called prolonged grief disorder or persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a psychological condition in which an individual becomes incapacitated by their grief and unable to function in normal life. This type of grief is often characterized by intense feelings of loneliness or emptiness, continually thinking about the person who died, the inability to accept that the death has occurred, difficult trusting or caring about others, and being unable to participate in one’s life. It’s important to note that, while anyone who is grieving may experience some or all of these reactions, complicated grief is typically much more profound and lasts for an extended period of time – often several months.
Profound grief that lasts for an extended period of time needs professional treatment. Some people find that antidepressant medications may help treat complicated grief, but these drugs are not helpful for all sufferers. Specific types of psychological counseling can be used to treat this disorder, including techniques similar to those used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
When grief is not acknowledged by society or the people around you, that is called disenfranchised grief. It can be overwhelming to experience a loss and have the people in your life either not recognize it or tell you that it’s not important. Dealing with grief alone can be challenging, and no one has the right to tell you that your grief isn’t real or that you should “get over it.”
It’s OK to allow yourself to feel your grief, no matter what your loss. Try not to let other people’s judgement determine what you should or should not feel. If you’re experiencing grief that others cannot or do not acknowledge, you may want to seek out a counselor or support group where you can share your experiences.
Anticipatory grief occurs when we know a loss is coming, and we start the grieving process even before it happens. If you know that a loved one is going to die, for example, you may start to grieve the loss while the person is still alive. Some people who experience anticipatory grief may find themselves dealing with overwhelming sadness and feel like they need to put their lives on hold until the death occurs. They may also feel anger and frustration with the situation, especially when they cannot do anything to prevent the anticipated death.
In some ways, anticipatory grief can open up healthy ways of dealing with loss. When we know that someone who we love is going to die, it can give us the chance to mend a broken relationship, express our love, and say goodbye. We may have the opportunity to share happy experiences in those last days. Many people seek out support groups for caregivers and family members of those who are dying where they can be honest about their feelings.
Even years after a loss, you may experience a resurgence of grief around the anniversary of the death, a wedding anniversary, a holiday, or another important date. Anniversary reactions are not uncommon, and they can last for days (or longer). You may encounter a sudden reminder of your loss, even when there is no anniversary to remember. During such times, you may experience grief reactions like sadness, anger, guilt, and fatigue.
Emotional reactions to a loss, even years after the death, are completely normal. If you know that certain times of year remind you of your loss, try to be prepared ahead of time. Start a new tradition to remember the deceased, or plan for a way to distract yourself on that day. If the feelings of grief are sudden and unexpected, you should allow yourself to feel those emotions. Reach out to friends and family to talk about the loss, or join a support group where you can find the help you need.
Get Help with Grief
If you’re grieving and think that you need help, start by reaching out to friends who can listen without judgement. You can also speak to a priest, minister, or other religious leader in your community; many religious organizations also have lay counselors available who you can talk to. If you’re looking for a professional counselor or psychiatrist, ask your physician if they can recommend anyone. You can also call the psychology department at a local college or university to ask for a referral.
Psychology Today offers a list of grief psychologists and support groups throughout the U.S. and Canada that you can search for a local therapist. You can also search via the website of the American Psychological Association. The Association for Death Education and Counseling provides a searchable list of members who can help, including members of the clergy, counselors, and social workers. If you’re dealing with the death of a loved one by suicide, you can find a support group through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.