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 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.
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.
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.
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 and asking others for support 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 than yourself.
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.
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