How to Describe Grief to Someone Who Isn’t Grieving


Grief is the pain and sorrow experienced after a significant loss. It's a natural, emotional, psychological, and physical response to losing someone you know or something you hold dear.

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Grief can sometimes produce an overwhelming emotional reaction in someone even though they may not know or understand why they feel impacted. Considering the many facets of grief, describing it can be complicated. 

When trying to explain how grief feels to someone who hasn't felt the sting of loss, analogies help but often, they're not enough. Suffering through a life-changing traumatic experience is different for each person.

People who don't understand what it feels like to grieve typically live off the illusion of what it means to suffer based on what they've heard about or seen in popular media. Grief is subjective at best and it is challenging to explain to someone who has never felt sorrow. 

Why Is It So Hard to Describe Grief?

The challenges of explaining grief to someone stem from traumatic experiences being profoundly different from one person to the next. Someone who has never suffered catastrophe can't fully grasp its effect until they undergo trauma of their own.

Despite how much anyone tries to explain sorrow, a person must live through it to know what it feels like. Even when they try to put themselves in a bereaved person's shoes, the reality of how profoundly painful grief can be is far beyond anything they can imagine.

Moreover, suffering through loss is vastly different for everyone. Different levels and types of grief can affect the bereaved, which in turn, influences the severity of their despair. Grief also comes in stages, and not everyone faces the same circumstances and reactions to loss.

The grief process differs from person to person. Trying to explain the deepest, most painful parts of sorrow is nearly impossible to do in a way that another person appreciates. 

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How to Describe Grief to an Adult Who Isn’t Grieving

Attempting to explain grief and the grief experience to someone who isn’t grieving has its challenges. The grief experience varies among the different stages of adulthood and in proportion to a person’s relationship to the deceased, their past grief experiences, and how well they can tolerate stress.

In addition to these factors, there’s the social aspect of grief to consider. Not everyone has access to the same grief resources or levels of bereavement support. Grief is a very complicated emotional process that affects everyone differently. Here are a few ideas on how to describe grief to someone who isn’t presently grieving. 

Grief has no rules

After suffering a severe loss, your mind and body reacts in ways that you can’t control and are unfamiliar to you. Your entire personality might go through a change from one day to the next. Some people withdraw or seek attention and support from their friends and loved ones.

This shift in disposition relates to the grieving process and is different for everyone. The physical and emotional reactions you recognize in your loved one have nothing to do with you. Try to learn and accept that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve.

The pain of loss is profound

There are no words that can adequately describe what it feels like to lose someone or something you love and hold dear. Nothing you can say or do helps a grieving person to feel better. Describing the pain and sorrow adequately is nearly impossible for some.

The emotions that a bereaved person feels are difficult to describe, especially when suffering through loss. Pain and suffering are individual to the person experiencing them, and their grief reactions compound when they're already grieving other losses such as independence, social standing, and financial security. 

Grief comes in waves

Individuals suffer grief in different levels and stages. Not everyone experiences all of the stages of grief. There are many common factors in how individuals grieve despite the variations in the process. You can expect an initial shock and disbelief that the setback occurred, followed by anger and depression.

A bereaved person may skip from one stage of grief to the next and come back to the beginning with no intervening event. A new wave of emotional setbacks can come flooding in when they appear to be getting through their grief. Learn to spot these emotional ebbs and flows so you can offer the proper support. 

» MORE: Are you preparing for the loss of a loved one? Get support now.

Loss can lead to changes

Whether a person experiences the death of a loved one or another type of significant loss, expect the possibility that they’ll make drastic changes in their lives. These types of events cause individuals to reassess their life’s goals, their work, and the people they have in their life.

These are all standard parts of the bereavement process and don’t necessarily reflect on the persons affected by these changes. A bereaved person begins to look at life differently and may shift their values and priorities as a result.

Therapy isn’t for everyone

While you might suggest grief counseling or therapy to a loved one deeply affected by loss, this isn’t the solution for everyone grieving. Every person has their tolerance for grief, and they each adjust to the experience on their own terms. While professional grief counseling helps some people work through their loss, the reality is that most people will learn to cope with their grief on their own.

The grief process takes time and patience, and suffering individuals have to go through the motions of grieving to get through their pain. If they feel stuck in the process and unable to move forward, counseling might help them get unstuck. 

How to Describe Grief to a Child

Grief in teens and children is complicated and very different from one age group to the next. Young children express their sorrow by acting out, withdrawing, and in other ways that their parents and caregivers might miss out on the cues. Older children and teens might experience grief in many ways that adults do.

Where most children know and understand how they're feeling, many don't understand why they feel the way they do. Children and teens need help with the grieving process, and may lack the proper support. Adults responsible for them may also be struggling to cope with their grief on top of their own. Here are some ideas to help a grieving child understand what's happening.

Death is a permanent part of life

The death of a loved one or pet can be a child's first experience with grief. Young children usually don't understand that death is permanent, and they may not know why they're feeling out of sorts. Suffering can include a lot of different feelings that may be confusing children and teens even when they recognize death as irreversible.

When you break down grief to a basic understanding of feeling sad when you lose someone or something very special to you, a child may begin associating sadness with suffering. Older children will need a more thorough explanation of what they're going through to understand their emotions and the grieving process. 

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Life isn’t always fair

Death may seem unfair to a child and can create a lot of stress and anxiety. They may be afraid that death happens to people suddenly and unexpectedly, causing them to suffer unnecessarily.

Explain to children that death happens to everyone eventually and is a natural part of life. They need to understand that although everyone eventually dies, this doesn't mean they will be the next ones to die and that death isn't contagious. It's not something they can catch from someone else or the person they know who died. 

This loss isn’t your fault

When a loved one or pet dies, children of any age might feel responsible for their death. They must understand that nothing they did or didn’t do caused their loved one or pet to die. Death is a natural part of life that happens to everyone at some point, regardless of whether they’re young or old.

Children also need to know that death is irreversible and no amount of wishful thinking will bring back their loved ones, but there are ways they can remember them that will keep their memory alive. 

You can’t predict how you feel

Grief has its unique way of showing up in each person. No one will ever feel the same about a loss, even if they’re mourning the same individual or thing. The way one person experiences their sorrow will always be different from anyone else. Children need to understand that they may feel one way today and utterly different tomorrow, and there’s nothing wrong with any of it.

There will be days when it may be challenging for them to concentrate or interact with their friends and family. They may feel angry one day or feel like being left alone on another. However they’re feeling, it’s essential to talk about it with a friend or trusted adult who can help them sort through their grief. 

Grief can be lonely

When a child's feelings and emotions come rushing in after suffering through the death of a loved one, sometimes it feels like their little hearts will explode. It can be challenging for children to talk about these things because they may think no one understands. But although their loss may be a bit confusing for them right now, they'll start to feel better in time.

Grief takes time to get through, and the pain of loss can cause them to feel lonely and alone. Children can find ways to stay connected to their loved ones through art, poetry, or music to get through this tough time. 

The Many Faces of Grief

The grief experience is a unique part of life for each suffering from the death of a loved one or similar trauma. There’s no way to describe to someone what grief feels like because there are so many types of losses in life. While one person may find an experience profoundly painful to survive, another may not be affected the same. Each person must go through their sorrow to know what it feels like to grieve.

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