Everyone has loss daily. The loss can be large or small. Grieving for a loss is daily routine and is a normal psychological response.
There is specific science called Thanatology to study loss and grieving, particularly the needs of the terminally ill patients and their families.
Loss is defined as unrecoverable and usually unanticipated and non-recurring removal of, or decrease in, an asset or resource.
There are tremendous numbers of loss, if you try to count. For the convenience of discussion, we focus on loss of significant person in one’s life in this post.
What is grieving?
Everyone has an idea of what they expect grief to look or feel like. There are many different types of grief. It’s important to know that everyone grieves in unique ways and it’s okay if your grief is different from those around you.
At times you may even be unaware that you are grieving or that you’ve experienced a loss that deserves to be grieved.
In addition to the emotional expression of grief, grief can be expressed in physical, behavioral, social, and cognitive ways.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there are healthy ways to deal with the grieving process.
Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. 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 loss—and the more significant the loss, the more intense your grief will be.
Coping with the loss of someone you love is one of life’s biggest challenges. You may associate grieving with the death of a loved one—which is often the cause of the most intense type of grief.
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 cope with the pain that, in time, can ease your sadness and help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and eventually move on with your life.
Types of grief
For family caregivers, grieving can start long before the person you are caring for actually passes way. Anticipatory grief often starts when the person you are caring for gets a significant diagnosis and their health begins to deteriorate.
Feelings are related to the loss of what was or what you thought life was going to be like. It can be difficult to speak with others about anticipatory grief because the person you care for is still alive and you may have feelings of guilt or confusion as to why you are feeling this kind of grief.
There are no set guidelines to define normal grief in terms of timelines or severity of grief. Instead, think of normal grief as any response that resembles what you might predict grief to look like.
Many people define normal grief as the ability to move towards acceptance of the loss. With this comes a gradual decrease in the intensity of emotions. Those who experience normal grief are able to continue to function in their basic daily activities.
Delayed grief is when reactions and emotions in response to a death are postponed until a later time. This type of grief may be initiated by another major life event or even something that seems unrelated.
Reactions can be excessive to the current situation and the person may not initially realize that delayed grief is the real reason for becoming so emotional.
Complicated grief refers to normal grief that becomes severe in longevity and significantly impairs the ability to function.
It can be difficult to judge when grief has lasted too long. Other contributing factors in diagnosing complicated or prolonged grief include looking at the nature of the loss or death (was it sudden? violent? multiple?), the relationship, personality, life experiences, and other social issues.
Some warning signs that someone is experiencing traumatic grief include: self-destructive behavior, deep and persistent feelings of guilt, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, violent outbursts, or radical lifestyle changes.
Disenfranchised grief can be felt when someone experiences a loss but others do not acknowledge the importance of the loss in the person’s life.
Others may not understand the importance of the loss or they may minimize the significance of the loss. Disenfranchised grief can occur when someone experiences the loss of an ex-spouse, a pet, or a co-worker.
The other side of disenfranchised grief is when you experience a loss such as when the person you are caring for has dementia or a decline in their physical abilities. The person is physically present but they are also absent in other significant ways.
Chronic grief can be experienced in many ways: through feelings of hopelessness, a sense of disbelief that the loss is real, avoidance of any situation that may remind someone of the loss, or loss of meaning and value in a belief system.
At times, people with chronic grief can experience intrusive thoughts. If left untreated, chronic grief can develop into severe clinical depression, suicidal or self-harming thoughts, and even substance abuse.
Cumulative grief can occur when multiple losses are experienced, often within a short period of time. Cumulative grief can be stressful because you don’t have time to properly grieve one loss before experiencing the next.
Masked grief can be in the form of physical symptoms or other negative behaviors that are out of character. Someone experiencing masked grief is unable to recognize that these symptoms or behaviors are connected to a loss.
Unfortunately, distorted grief can present with extreme feelings of guilt or anger, noticeable changes in behavior, hostility towards a particular person, plus other self-destructive behaviors.
Exaggerated grief is felt through the intensification of normal grief responses. This intensification has a tendency to worsen as time moves on. This may result in self-destructive behavior, suicidal thoughts, drug abuse, abnormal fears, nightmares, and even the emergence of underlying psychiatric disorders.
Inhibited grief is when someone doesn’t outwardly show any typical signs of grief. Often this is done consciously to keep grief private. Problems can arise with inhibited grief through physical manifestations when an individual doesn’t allow themselves to grieve.
Collective grief is felt by a group. For example, this could be experienced by a community, city, or country as a result of a natural disaster, death of a public figure, or a terrorist attack.
Abbreviated grief is a short-lived response to a loss. This could occur due to someone or something immediately filling the void, the distance that was felt, or the experience of anticipatory grief.
Absent grief is when someone does not acknowledge the loss and shows no signs of grief. This can be the result of complete shock or denial of the death. It can be concerning if someone experiences absent grief for an extended period of time.
Secondary losses in grief
Secondary loss is felt after the primary loss and can affect multiple areas of an individual’s life. The grief from secondary loss is the emotional response to the subsequent losses that occur as a result of a death (the primary loss).
It’s important to note that in some instances, just because you can’t see the signs of grief, it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is not grieving.
Coping with the loss of a close friend or family member may be one of the hardest challenges that many of us face. When we lose a spouse, sibling or parent our grief can be particularly intense.
Loss is understood as a natural part of life, but we can still be overcome by shock and confusion, leading to prolonged periods of sadness or depression. The sadness typically diminishes in intensity as time passes, but grieving is an important process in order to overcome these feelings and continue to embrace the time you had with your loved one.
Everyone reacts differently to death and employs personal coping mechanisms for grief. Most people can recover from loss on their own through the passage of time if they have social support and healthy habits.
It may take months or a year to come to terms with a loss. There is no “normal” time period for someone to grieve. Don’t expect to pass through phases of grief either, as new research suggests that most people do not go through stages as progressive steps.
If your relationship with the deceased was difficult, this will also add another dimension to the grieving process. It may take some time and thought before you are able to look back on the relationship and adjust to the loss.
Human beings are naturally resilient, considering most of us can endure loss and then continue on with our own lives. But some people may struggle with grief for longer periods of time and feel unable to carry out daily activities. Those with severe grief may be experiencing complicated grief. These individuals could benefit from the help of a psychologist or another licensed mental health professional with a specialization in grief.
Moving on with life
Grieving individuals may find it useful to use some of the following strategies to help come to terms with loss.
Talk about the death of your loved one with friends and colleagues in order to understand what happened and remember your friend or family member.
Denying the death is an easy way to isolate yourself, and will frustrate your support system in the process. Accept your feelings. People experience all kinds of emotions after the death of someone close.
Sadness, anger, frustration and even exhaustion are all normal. Take care of yourself and your family. Eating well, exercising and getting plenty of rest help us get through each day and move forward.
Reach out and help others dealing with the loss. Helping others has the added benefit of making you feel better as well. Sharing stories of the deceased can help everyone cope.
Remember and celebrate the lives of your loved ones. Possibilities include donating to a favorite charity of the deceased, framing photos of fun times, passing on a family name to a baby or planting a garden in memory.
What you choose is up to you, as long as it allows you honor that unique relationship in a way that feels right to you. If you feel stuck or overwhelmed by your emotions, it may be helpful to talk with a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional who can help you cope with your feelings and find ways to get back on track.
The grieving process
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.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced 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: The patient refuses to believe that he or she is dying.
Anger: The patient may become angry at the physician, hospital staff, and family member.
Bargaining: The patient may try to strike a bargain with God (e,G., I promise to go to church every da if only I can get rid of this disease)
Preoccupation: The patient become preocupied with death and may be emotionally detached.
Acceptance: The patient is calm and accepting of his fate.
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.”
How to deal with the grieving process
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.
- Accept that grief can trigger many different and unexpected emotions.
- Understand that your grieving process will be unique to you.
- 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.
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.
Seek support for grief and loss
The pain of grief can often cause you to want to withdraw from others and retreat into your shell. But having the face-to-face support of other people is vital to healing from loss.
Even if you’re not comfortable talking about your feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when you’re grieving. While sharing your loss can make the burden of grief easier to carry, that doesn’t mean that every time you interact with friends and family, you need to talk about your loss.
Comfort can also come from just being around others who care about you. The key is not to isolate yourself.
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. Rather than avoiding them, draw friends and loved ones close, spend time together face to face, and accept the assistance that’s offered.
Often, people want to help but don’t know how, so tell them what you need—whether it’s a shoulder to cry on, help with funeral arrangements, or just someone to hang out with. If you don’t feel you have anyone you can regularly connect with in person, it’s never too late to build new friendships.
Accept that many people feel awkward when trying to comfort someone who’s grieving. Grief can be a confusing, sometimes frightening emotion for many people, especially if they haven’t experienced a similar loss themselves.
They may feel unsure about how to comfort you and end up saying or doing the wrong things. But don’t use that as an excuse to retreat into your shell and avoid social contact. If a friend or loved one reaches out to you, it’s because they care.
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 community.
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, or see the Resources section below.
Talk to a therapist or grief counselor. If your grief feels like too much to bear, find 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.
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.
Take care of yourself as you grieve
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 your loved one.
Try to maintain your hobbies and interests. There’s comfort in routine and getting back to the activities that bring you joy and connect you closer to others can help you come to terms with your loss and aid the grieving process.
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 you loved.
Look after your physical health. The mind and body are connected. When you feel healthy physically, you’ll be better able to cope 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 artificially.
When grief doesn’t go away
As time passes following a significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, it’s normal for feelings of sadness, numbness, or anger to gradually ease. These and other difficult emotions become less intense as you begin to accept the loss and start to move forward with your life.
However, 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 relationships.
Symptoms of complicated grief include:
- Intense longing and yearning for your deceased loved one
- 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 your deceased loved one in familiar places
- Avoiding things that remind you of your loved one
- Extreme anger or bitterness over your loss
- Feeling that life is empty or meaningless
If your loved one’s death was sudden, violent, or otherwise extremely stressful or disturbing, complicated grief can manifest as psychological trauma. If your loss has left you feeling helpless and struggling with upsetting emotions, memories, and anxiety that won’t go away, you may have been traumatized. But with the right guidance, you can make healing changes and move on with your life.
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
- Slow speech and body movements
- Inability to function at home, work, and/or school
- Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there
- Can antidepressants help grief?
- 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
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. Instead, there are other steps you can take to deal with depression and regain your sense of joy in life.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, talk to a mental health professional 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.
This article is dedicated to my dearest MOM who passed away on October 3, 2019. My mom was born in 1928. In her 92 years life journey, she witnessed the modern history of China.
She was a typical Chinese woman and worked extremely hard to raise 6 children, 5 boys and 1 daughter. The grieving expression of 6 of us are apparently different.
My sister expresses her sorrow openly and cries loudly, whenever she touches the subjects my mom used.
One of my brothers accuses another brother (who took care of my mom when she died) of mis-handling my mom and resulting in my mom’s death even though we all knew that my mom had stroke, was unconsciousness and was impossible for her to recover.
The brothers have occasionally and quietly brief crying. All of us have the normal grieving process.