Losing someone or something
you love is very painful. After a significant loss, you may experience all kinds
of difficult and surprising emotions, such as shock, anger, and guilt.
Sometimes it may feel like the sadness will never let up. While these feelings
can be frightening and overwhelming, they are normal reactions to loss.
Accepting them as part of the grieving process and allowing yourself to feel
what you feel is necessary for healing.
There is no right or wrong
way to grieve — but there are healthy ways to cope with the pain. You can get
through it! Grief that is expressed and experienced has a potential for healing
that eventually can strengthen and enrich life.
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. You may associate grief with the death of a loved one – and
this type of loss does often cause the most intense grief. But any loss can
cause grief, including:
Loss of health
Losing a job
Loss of financial
Death of a pet
Loss of a cherished
A loved one’s
Loss of a friendship
Loss of safety after
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
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 loss.
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.
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
The five stages of grief:
“This can’t be happening to me.”
“Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
“Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
“I’m too sad to do anything.”
“I’m at peace with what happened.”
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 is grieving 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.
Common symptoms of grief
While loss affects people
in different ways, many people 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 them to show up,
even though you know they’re gone.
– 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.
– 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.
– Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, you may feel angry and resentful. If
you lost a loved one, you may be angry at 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.
– 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.
– 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
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.
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.
How to support a grieving person
If someone you care about
has suffered a loss, you can help them heal by asking about their feelings,
spending time just being with them, and listening when they want to talk.
Coping with grief and loss tip 2: Take care of
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
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 artificially.
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.
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 relationships.
Symptoms of complicated
Intense longing and
yearning for the deceased
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
grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy, since they share many symptoms.
However, 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:
sense of guilt.
Thoughts of suicide
or a preoccupation with dying.
hopelessness or worthlessness.
Slow speech and body
function at work, home, and/or school.
Seeing or hearing
things that aren’t there.
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 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.
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
Feel numb and disconnected from others for
more than a few weeks
Are having difficulty trusting others since
Are unable to perform your normal daily