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, including:
Common Symptoms of Grief
Everyone grieves differently, however, there are some common physical or psychological symptoms we might share.
- Tightness in the chest
- Shortness of breath
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of concentration and restlessness
- Feeling of isolation and loneliness
- Feelings of anger, guilt, and fear
Five Stages of Grief
Inspired by her work with terminal ill patients, Kübler-Ross postulates a series of emotional stages experienced by survivors of an intimate’s death. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
- Denial— One of the first reactions is denial, wherein the survivor imagines a false, preferable reality.
- Anger— When the individual recognizes that denial cannot continue, it becomes frustrated, especially at proximate individuals. Certain psychological responses of a person undergoing this phase would be: “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?”; “Why would God let this happen?”.
- Bargaining— The third stage involves the hope that the individual can avoid a cause of grief. Usually, the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a reformed lifestyle. Other times, they will use anything valuable against another human agency to extend or prolong the life. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek compromise.
- Depression— “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?”
During the fourth stage, the individual becomes saddened by the certainty of death. In this state, the individual may become silent, refuse visitors and spend much of the time mournful and sullen.
- Acceptance— “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.”
As stated above, Kübler-Ross claimed these stages do not necessary come in order, and not all the stages experienced by the bereaved. Often, people experience several stages in a “roller coaster” effect – switching between two or more stages, returning to one or more several times before working through.
Four Tasks of Grief
Describing grief as a process, not a state, William J Worden suggested that people need to work through their reactions in order to make a complete adjustment. In his tasks of bereavement, grief is considered to consist of four overlapping tasks, requiring the bereaved person to work through the emotional pain of their loss.
Task 1: To accept the reality of the loss.
Acceptance is both intellectual and emotional, and requires many different experiences in order to become real to us.
Task 2: To process the pain of grief.
The type of pain experienced depends on many factors unique to each relationship. Many people benefit from outside support to help face and endure the pain of loss. It does soften and lessen over time.
Task 3: To adjust to a world without the deceased.
Adjustments are wide-ranging, including external adjustments (daily living without the person), internal adjustments (Who am I now?) and spiritual adjustments (finding new ways to view the world). There are opportunities to find new capabilities and to create purposeful changes.
Task 4: To find an enduring connection with the deceased while embarking on a new life.
Acceptance of the loss does not mean a relationship with the deceased has ended. Finding one’s unique way of continuing a connection with the deceased is normal and healthy. Realistic goals of grief work include regaining an interest in life and feeling hopeful again, discovering new aspects of self, and forming new relationships—moving forward.
Coping with grief and loss
Step 1: Get support
- Turn to friends and family members — Now it is the time to lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong or 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 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.
Step 2: Take care of yourself
- 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 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.
- William Worden (2009), Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy (Third Edition): A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner.