What is Grief?
Grief is a natural response to a loss and the emotional suffering you may feel when you lose someone or something that is important to you. Most people will experience loss at some point in their lives. You may have also heard the term “bereavement,” which is a specific type of grief involving the death of a loved one. While losing a loved one is one of the most painful grief experiences, you can also grieve the loss of anything important, not just people. For example, people often grieve after a relationship breakup or divorce, the loss of a pet, the loss of a job or financial security, the loss of health or physical functioning, and the loss of a home or friends after a move. Losses do not even need to be tangible-- you can grieve the loss of a dream for your future.
If you find yourself grieving an anticipated loss before the loss occurs, this is called “anticipatory grief.” It is the mourning process that occurs when you know (or worry) an impending loss is about to occur (e.g., the anticipated loss of a terminally diagnosed loved one). This pending loss can be very difficult to come to terms with and lead to a host of difficult emotions.
What Does Grief Feel Like?
Losing someone or something you love and cherish can be very painful. Typically, the more significant the loss, the more significant the grief experience. When grieving, you may experience many difficult and surprising emotions, including feeling numb or in shock, anger, guilt, and deep sadness or despair. You may also feel fear, anxiety, and a sense of helplessness. Sometimes the grief experience can also cause physical symptoms, such as changes in sleep and appetite, fatigue, or stomach upset/nausea.
It is important to remember everyone grieves differently, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve or right or wrong way to feel. The emotions experienced vary greatly from person to person.
Are There Stages of Grief?
Many people have heard of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief model, where she outlined five common stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While you may indeed feel these emotions during your own grief journey, not everyone goes through all of these emotional stages or moves through them in this order. For most people, grief is more like a roller coaster of emotions than a series of stages. Whatever you may experience is your personal way of grieving and does not need to conform to anyone else’s experience.
How long does grief last?
The length of time spent grieving is different for each person and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. Your personality and coping style, family background, culture, faith, and life experiences impact your grief experience. Likewise, the time spent grieving also depends on the nature of the loss, such as your relationship with the person in the case of bereavement.
The early and most intense feelings of grief may last weeks or months for some people and years for others. With most losses, however, the emotional pain is deeper in the beginning and with time, the difficult grief emotions should become less intense. Typically, the more intense grief feelings will last until you are able to truly accept and learn to live with the loss. If the loss is great, often even years afterwards, certain triggers such as anniversary dates (birthdays, holidays, etc.) can still lead to a strong temporary sense of loss.
Whatever your grief experience, it is important to be patient with yourself and not judge your experience or grieving process. Believing you should be “further along” will not help your grief, and it may result in you feeling worse.
Complicated grief is a condition that occurs typically after the loss of a loved one, in which the emotional pain of the loss is so constant and severe, even months or longer after the loss, that it keeps you from resuming your life and functioning in a healthy manner. The intense state of mourning prevents you from engaging in healthy relationships and social activities, returning to work, and managing your household, finances, and so on. Some individuals may have trouble accepting the death long after it has occurred or feel life is meaningless without their loved one present. Individuals with complicated grief often are diagnosed with depression and have difficulty working through their grief experience on their own without more formal support.
The Difference Between Grief and Depression
Distinguishing between grief and clinical depression isn’t always easy since they share many symptoms. In some cases, grief can be so intense it interferes with your ability to cope and function, and when this occurs (like in complicated grief), the symptoms may progress into depression. How can you tell the difference?
Depression is more than a feeling of grief after losing someone or something you love. Clinical depression is a whole-body disorder. Symptoms of depression not only include intense sadness, but often losing interest in what you used to enjoy, lack of motivation to participate in activities, feeling helpless, hopeless, or worthless, and in the case of severe depression, thoughts of death and suicide. Grief is often directly tied to a loss; whereas, clinical depression can feel free floating and attached to nothing specific.
Psychotherapy to Support the Grief Process
Remember, grieving is a normal reaction to a loss, and it takes time. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself to experience the loss and difficult emotions without judgement. If you feel you need or simply want more support, a psychotherapist can help you work through your grieving process. Many people find it helpful to work with a therapist to help them cope with the difficult emotions associated with a loss and to accept and adjust to the changes after a loss.
While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, a therapist can help you work through the emotional pain you are feeling and adjust to the life changes that occur after a significant loss. If someone believes their grief reaction has developed into complicated grief or depression, working with a therapist is recommended.