Losing someone you love hurts, and it can feel like a hole in your heart. With grief, it is possible that you will experience many emotions and different stages of being. It can be hard to focus, and you might be in shock and unable to absorb reality as it is.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Grief Explained
- What Are the Different Stages of Grief?
- Different Types of Grief
- How Can You or a Loved One Handle Grief?
- How Do You Know If You’re Ready for Grief Counseling?
Grief can feel disorienting, painful, and lonely. Your grief may have some similarities to other people’s experiences, but it will also be unique.
You’ve likely heard of the five stages of grief, or other explanations of what your grief can seem like. At points, it can feel like nothing will even capture the enormity of your emotions.
But there are many ways to describe and define grief, as well as different types of grief. Even if you may feel like nothing can describe the pain of loss that you have, there may be some words that can offer comfort and recognition of your experience.
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Grief is a mixture of many feelings that a person has when coping with a loss. People can feel grief when they lose a loved one, but they can also feel it with other losses. Losing a home in a storm, losing a job, losing money, and losing friendships can all create a grief reaction.
Some people have difficulty expressing their grief. They may have family traditions or social rules that do not allow them to express their emotions. Sadly, this can make grieving a difficult and lonely process.
Think about the last time you felt grief. Was it over a person who died? Or was it about an event that happened in your life? Grief can happen when we least expect it. And it happens more often than you might realize.
Everyone's grief experience is unique. You may have trouble expressing or dealing with your emotions sometimes. This is a normal part of grieving. Nobody has one best way of coping with it.
Also, grief has no specific timetable. It is often most intense in the first few weeks or months following the loss. But over a longer time, feelings can become less intense and easier to manage.
Reminders of the loss can trigger brief episodes of grief. This is also normal. You don't just grieve for a little while and then get over it.
A major loss in your life will have an impact for years to come. For some people, living with a loss gets easier. The pain doesn’t completely go away, but it can soften over time.
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Difference between grief and mourning
Grief and mourning are two different words, often used in the same way. But these two terms are not the same.
Grief is a person’s own reaction to loss. And it is important to reiterate that there is no single best way to grieve, as some people believe that grief has to feel a certain way to be right.
However, grief is not only about feeling sad or lonely. Sometimes people get angry at everyone around them, including the person they lost. Other times they feel anxious and uncertain. Apathy, rage, panic, hopelessness, and even happiness can all be part of a normal grief process.
The outward expression of these feelings is mourning. When a grieving person cries or appears sad, they are mourning. Mourning can be as simple as wearing black clothes or telling stories about a loved one.
Mourning can also include social, ethnic, and cultural rituals. These practices include religious ceremonies like funerals and graveside services.
What Are the Different Stages of Grief?
Grief can look different depending on timing and your situation. Many people know about the five stages of grief. But it’s important to realize that they can occur in a different order for everyone. The order shown below describes how many people experience grief. However, it's good to remember that there’s no right or wrong to go through grief. The stages may be better understood as phases that may overlap or repeat. A person may go through grief for any length of time as well.
Stage 1: Shock and denial
The shock and denial stage is typically at the beginning of a person’s grief journey. Even when a person’s passing isn’t a surprise, the actual moment of death can hit hard. Reality sets in and there’s no reversing it.
Shock and denial may become more prominent when a person dies suddenly or in a traumatic way. An accident, heart attack, or even a quickly developing disease can leave loved ones grasping at reality. Nothing seems real and they may imagine their loved one may walk around the corner any time.
What this stage feels and looks like
A person going through shock and denial may experience some of the following:
- Believe there’s a mistake or someone’s lying to you
- Emotional numbness or disconnection
- Emotional confusion or blurring
- Like your body is frozen and tense
- Physical sensations don’t feel right, like you’re in a cocoon
Stage 2: Anger
A person in the anger stage feels like they’re bursting with emotion. They have a lot of emotional pain surging through them and they don’t know what to do with it. Their pain can burst out as anger. It’s normal and healthy to feel angry, but it may cover a mix of other feelings below the surface.
They don’t want to accept the truth about their loved one’s death and will fight off that reality as long as possible. It’s often easier to express anger than loneliness or sadness. Anger can make a person feel powerful, especially when death spins everything out of control.
What this stage feels and looks like
A person going through anger may experience some of the following:
- May rationalize that being angry is more acceptable than being sad
- Self-talk may focus on how it’s unfair or how terrible your loss is
- Feelings of rage
- Feeling emotionally powerful
- Fighting feelings of being out of control
- Release muscle tension by breaking, pushing, or kicking things
- May feel restless, like pacing or moving around
Stage 3: Bargaining and guilt
Mentally wrestling with so much pain often hurts too much to handle it all at once. Bargaining is a way to bring order to the painful chaos of grief. People may feel so out of control that they take on responsibility for their loved one’s death. They’re often willing to do anything to take the sting out of their loss, even if it isn’t possible or doesn’t make sense.
And when a person believes they could have done something different, guilt sets in. They’ve created a logical cause for their loss, but the price is being flooded with guilt. This process is a reminder of how vulnerable we are as humans.
What this stage feels and looks like
A person going through bargaining and guilt may experience some of the following:
- Making promises to do or act a certain way in exchange for their loved one being alive again
- Self-talk is focused on “what if” and “if only” thoughts
- Feeling desperation, helplessness, and lose of hope
- Feeling guilty, like they could have prevented their loved one’s death but didn’t do enough or try hard enough (even if it prevention would have been impossible or unlikely)
- May look worried or physically unsettled
- Muscle tension may be milder, body language may signal fear or uncertainty
Stage 4: Depression
The depression stage represents a form of surrender. The person has realized the emotional weight of their loss and knows it is final. Life can look bleak as the full impact of their loss becomes clear. Emotion may come in waves, but it is mostly focused on raw sadness.
There’s no way to fill the deep hole left behind as they become engulfed in emotion. Depending on how close they were to the deceased person, they may feel like part of them is gone. The loss is real, enormous, and unavoidable.
What this stage feels and looks like
A person going through depression may experience some of the following:
- Negative thoughts about themselves and the future because of their loss
- Difficulty imagining life without their loved one
- Feeling overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness
- Feeling empty or like part of them has died
- Feeling no purpose or spark about life, emotionally worn out
- May do the bare minimum, may feel exhausted and stay in bed or not get out of pajamas
- Body language expresses they have given up trying to fight their emotions
- May isolate and avoid going out in public
Stage 5: Acceptance
As the intensity of their emotion subsides, a person moving into the acceptance stage may finally feel some peace. They still feel deep grief, sometimes in waves of raw emotional pain. But they are no longer fighting off the reality that their loved one is gone.
Accepting the loss means they have emotional energy for other parts of their life. They aren’t necessarily getting over the death or moving on. Grief isn’t about forgetting or dismissing pain. But they can begin to make space for their loss as they go forward each day.
What this stage feels and looks like
A person going through acceptance may experience some of the following:
- Less resistance to reality, understanding that the loss is part of the new normal
- Beginning to visualize life differently without their loved one
- Focus comes back to the person’s other activities
- Feeling less overwhelmed and stuck from their emotions
- Feeling emotional pain, but also having moments of peace
- Feeling more balanced as they learn to cope with their emotions
- May start rejoining social activities and be more comfortable with their routine
- May still feel exhausted from grief, but able to get rest and recharge
Different Types of Grief
Grief involves a variety of emotions and a lot of change. There are many similar feelings and experiences that some people share, like the five stages of grief. To add distinction, there are several types of grief, each based on different circumstances and timing.
Normal grief: This is the typical reaction a person has when coping with loss. The emotions are often felt strongly at first, then gradually become easier to manage. Eventually, the person goes back to everyday life. Normal grief occurs not only with the death of a person but also in the loss of a relationship, friendship, job, financial security, and health.
Anticipatory grief: This type of grief is felt before the actual loss happens. Anticipatory grief hits hard when there’s nothing that can be done to avoid the loss. The person feels anxiety and concern for the dying person, imagines their death, and looks ahead of the actual death. It does not reduce or replace the grief felt after the loss occurs. This grief is more common when a person has a serious illness like cancer or Alzheimer's disease.
Complicated grief: When a person's grief is intense and ongoing for many weeks, they may have an abnormal reaction called complicated grief. They may feel numb, bitter, and feel a persistent longing for their loved one or their broken situation. With this kind of grief, typical daily activities become difficult. People with complicated grief often notice improvement with therapy.
Sudden loss: When a person experiences an unexpected loss, their first reaction is shock. Like anyone feeling grief, they must adjust to life after their loss. However, they may also struggle with their new and unexpected reality. Depending on the kind of loss, they may have some trauma to work through.
Disenfranchised grief: Grief is not always a socially acceptable emotion. A person feels disenfranchised grief when their loss is not accepted by society. Examples can include suicide, the death of a pet, a lost job, or the death of a person with disabilities. Most people who grieve over these losses may feel like their grief is less valuable, or maybe even shameful. They have trouble reaching out and getting support. These individuals often mourn over their losses alone or in private.
Secondary loss: Secondary loss occurs after the primary loss, such as death, divorce, or traumatic event. After the death of a loved one, a break-up, or a divorce, a person may lose touch with common friends or family members. After losing a spouse to death or divorce, a person loses a companion and a sexual partner. Losing a child means a change in both sibling and parent-child relationships. These losses are significant but often go unnoticed.
Anniversary grief: Grief can come and go in waves. This is especially common when anniversaries related to the loss come around. For example, the first anniversary of a person's death can bring on a minor wave of grief. Special calendar moments like the last Christmas or last birthday can also trigger a grief reaction. These may also happen for several anniversaries.
How Can You or a Loved One Handle Grief?
Grief can be overwhelming and painful. You may feel like hiding from it, but that will not help you. However, as you learn to live with your grief, the pain will get easier with time. Engaging in self-care, asking others for support, and doing grief work can help remove the sting of a loss.
Rest and relax
Your body can get worn out from grief. Feelings of anxiety, stress, and constant crying can leave you feeling tired. Make sure you get as much rest as you can. Take frequent naps when needed and go to bed earlier than you normally would.
If you have trouble sleeping, make an effort to relax and calm your mind several times during the day. This can help you fall asleep faster at night. Try gently stretching your head toward your shoulders, first focus on one side and then the other. This will stretch your neck muscles and release tension.
Connect with others and ask for support
Turn to your friends and family when you need them. Call them when you need comfort. Their support and presence will help you not feel so alone, especially if they are also grieving.
Talk about the loss to get things off your chest. Saying things out loud and expressing how you really feel can help you release pent-up emotion. This may also be a good time to tell stories and bring up good memories.
Take a break from drugs, alcohol, and self-medicating
When the strongest feelings of grief come up, you might desperately wish to make it go away by drowning your sorrows with drugs or alcohol. It is important to resist the temptation. You may forget the pain for a few hours, but it will come right back.
Using drugs or alcohol can make your grieving process take longer. You are only covering up your emotions instead of facing and dealing with them.
Plan a few fun things to look forward to
It's ok to spend time and have fun with others while you grieve. You don't have to talk about your feelings every time you're with other people. Doing fun things is a great distraction.
Scheduling lunch with a friend or a trip to a park will give you something to put on your schedule and separate from your grief. Your grief may make you feel hopeless sometimes. Planning something fun can keep you looking forward.
Take care of your spirituality
Take this time to grow spiritually. If you believe in a higher power, you might find prayer comforting. Speak to a religious leader to help you deal with your grief.
Connect with nature and the universe. Nature can also help with healing. Get out of the house for some fresh air or take a walk outside. Read books on spiritual growth or on grief. Explore something other than yourself.
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Talk to a grief counselor
Grief is not a disorder, and it's not the same as depression. Some people who are grieving may need the support of a counselor, but it is important not to be afraid to do so if it becomes unmanageable. When searching for a counselor, choose someone who focuses on grief and bereavement.
These counselors have specialized training with various types of grief. If your grief makes daily life difficult and it doesn’t seem to get better, call a counselor in your area. They can help you cope and provide support.
Join a support group, in person or online
Support groups are ideal for helping people through grief. Everyone shares their experiences, helping each other feel less lonely.
Unfortunately, some people are not comfortable talking about their feelings with their family and friends. They may feel misunderstood or judged. In this case, an online support group may create a safe place to share and listen.
How Do You Know If You’re Ready for Grief Counseling?
Counseling isn’t a magic wand that takes your pain away. It takes commitment and effort, and that may be difficult to consider when you’re deep in grief. Here’s how to know when you may need counseling and how to tell if you’re ready.
Signs you may need grief counseling
Grief is not a mental disorder, but it can be a difficult and painful process. Here are some important signs that you may need the support and guidance found in grief counseling.
Emotions are intense and you’re having trouble managing them
You may notice that you can’t stop crying, you feel angry every day, or you often feel panicked for no reason. Feeling stuck in one emotional mode for a while may mean you’re having trouble coping.
Can’t get into your normal routine
You lack interest in things you normally enjoy and can’t engage in your usual routine. You may feel like everything is too much work or not interesting anymore. Time may seem to pass without you realizing it.
Disrupted sleep patterns
Grief is exhausting and stimulating at once. A prolonged pattern of unusual sleep keeps your emotions off-kilter. Insomnia may develop, or you may find yourself oversleeping each night or taking more naps.
Thoughts of hurting yourself
When you become immersed in so much emotional pain, you may feel like hurting yourself or ending your life to stop the pain. Your negative thoughts may tell you that you’re a burden and that everyone would be better off without you.
Change in appetite and eating patterns
You may notice a loss of appetite or interest in food. Or you may start emotional binge eating to cope with your feelings. You or others may also notice unintended weight loss or weight gain.
Feeling emotionally numb for a long time
You may feel like you’re stuck in an emotional fog, disconnected from reality or your relationships. You may struggle to keep track of the passage of time.
Using harmful behaviors to cope with pain
You may start drowning your emotions in with alcohol, prescription medications, or other drugs. You may push aside your grief with workaholic behavior or start enormous cleaning and home projects.
Signs you’re ready to try counseling
You or your loved ones may realize you need more help to get through your grief. Here are some signs that you’re ready to step forward into grief counseling.
You’re ready to talk to someone about your situation
If you’ve isolated yourself or have been closed off, you may be ready to finally connect with someone. You may feel like it’s time to get some things off your chest and share your story. Counseling may seem like a way to lighten some of your emotional burden.
What you’ve tried hasn’t worked and you feel stuck
You want to step back into your regular life and you’ve tried everything you know how to do. But you still feel like you’re in a fog of pain, exhaustion, and mental confusion. Counseling can give you the guidance and fresh ideas you need to cope with your grief.
You need to get back to your job but aren’t sure how
You need your job and it’s been hard to get back into the swing of it again. You may have taken leave, or you may be back but struggling to be productive. If quitting your job isn’t an option, counseling may be necessary to get you back on your feet again.
You want to reconnect with the world again
Isolation can limit how much reality you need to deal with at a time. And while you’re hurting, these limits can keep everything manageable. But when you want to reconnect with the world again, it may be tough to do on your own. Counseling can help you face your emotions and reconnect with the world around you.
You’re concerned about your self-destructive coping methods
You may know that your nightly glass of wine or extra pain pill hurts you. But if you feel like you’ve become stuck in harmful habits, you may not know how to change them. Others may also notice these behaviors and encourage you to try grief counseling.
Your desire for relief is strong
You may know that you’ve been struggling with your pain for a while. And it may be easier to keep doing the same things that keep you stuck. But at some point, you may be more ready for relief than making the easy choice. Your willingness to do what it takes to feel better makes a difference.
Getting Through Grief
Everyone will go through grief at some point in their life. Grief is not special, but grieving can be a difficult process.
Overcoming grief can happen with healthy coping methods like spending time with others and getting plenty of rest. If you're struggling with grief that does not get better with time, seek help from a grief counselor in your area. Remember that despite your loss, you are not alone.
- “Grief, Bereavement, and Coping With Loss (PDQ)–Patient Version.” National Cancer Institute, March 6, 2013, www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/advanced-cancer/caregivers/planning/bereavement-pdq#_11
- “Anticipatory Grief.” Stanford Children’s Health, www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=anticipatory-grief-90-P03043
- “Grief: What You Need to Know.” Howard Payne University, ww2.hputx.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/General-Information-about-Grief.pdf