What’s Normal Grief? And How Does It Work?

Certified Grief Counselor

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For those who are grieving, there’s only one type of grief—the kind that shakes you to the core and is devastatingly painful to bear. But when it comes to defining grief, there are both different types of grief and different stages of grief experienced as part of the normal grieving process.

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Some people can go through the initial stages of grief quickly and recover from it without added complications. Others will experience a more difficult path in their grief recovery journey.

Here, you’ll read about what’s considered normal grief, as opposed to complicated grief, and how it typically works after suffering a significant loss.

What is Normal Grief?

It bears repeating that grief is a normal, healthy response to loss. Most people will be affected by grief at some point in their lives, especially when they’ve experienced a significant loss.

Sometimes it may seem that a person hasn’t been affected by their loss, but underneath the surface, they may be dealing with feelings and emotions they may not understand. 

Suppressing or hiding grief is also normal for some individuals. This is also typical of men who’ve been conditioned by society to hide their pain. Untreated grief, which can start as normal grief, can become complicated the longer those feelings of grief are ignored or suppressed.

What defines normal grief?

Normal grief is a person’s reaction to loss that involves a person’s feelings, emotions, psychological, and cognitive responses. The onset of grief typically comes upon hearing or learning about the death of a loved one. 

There are certain chemical and biological responses to grief that happen almost immediately. In the first stages of grief, it’s not uncommon for the mind and body to shut down in certain ways. For example, much in the same way the body reacts to stress, it has certain coping mechanisms to help in dealing with grief. You can expect some, or all, of the following typical responses to the normal grief cycle:

Emotional responses

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Guilt 
  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Helplessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Shock
  • Yearning 
  • Relief
  • Numbness

Behavioral responses

  • Social withdrawal
  • Inactivity
  • Avoidance
  • Obsession with the deceased 

Cognitive responses

  • Disbelief
  • Confusion
  • Preoccupation
  • Dreaming of the deceased

Why does it happen?

The above responses to grief are all considered natural manifestations of grief. They are the body’s natural reaction to grief and help protect you from feeling the full effects of your loss.

These reactions are coping mechanisms for the grief that manifests in the first few days or weeks of grieving. 

In time, these reactions will lessen. Normal grief is expected to last anywhere from a few weeks up to a year. Books on grief are available in print and online to help you understand how grief works.

By reading about how grief affects you, you’ll not only learn how to cope with your pain and suffering, but how to console someone who is also grieving.

How Does Normal Grief Compare to Complicated Grief or Other Types of Grief?

Normal grief is the mind and body’s reaction to a significant loss in your life. Most of us who’ve experienced loss have seen grief manifest in either ourselves or others.

You can typically recognize each stage of grief without necessarily knowing that what you’re experiencing can be clinically categorized as an official “stage” of the grieving progress. 

Complicated grief is a bit more difficult to recognize as it tends to creep up on you. What starts as a part of normal grief can silently turn into prolonged and complicated grief without you realizing what’s happening. The five stages of grief are found below, with some examples of how normal grief can turn into complicated grief.

1. Denial

The denial stage is exactly what it sounds like. When you first get the shocking news that your loved one has died, it’s normal to feel disbelief. Your brain might not immediately process the information that you’re receiving. It may be hard to believe that what you’re hearing is true.

This is typically the case when someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly in an automobile or other type of accident, they’ve been a victim of a crime, or have committed suicide. The normal grief reaction can take a turn to complicated grief when denial and disbelief turn into what’s called magical thinking.

An example of this would be your inability to believe that your spouse died suddenly and unexpectedly while at work. Your brain may not be able to process and accept the news because you weren’t there to witness their death. In your mind, you may be thinking that they’ll be walking in the door after their workday is done. This type of continued fantasizing that your loved one is coming back can lead to complicated grief the longer it remains untreated.

2. Anger

Feelings of anger that your loved one has died are normal reactions to grief. You may feel like lashing out at whoever was responsible for the death.

In the case of an accident, you might want to hold the doctors who treated them “accountable,” or even your deceased loved one accountable for their death. After the initial period of shock and disbelief wears off, it’s natural to turn your attention to anger.

Talking through these feelings will help you move past this stage of grief. If you find that they are not easing up with time, consider seeking counseling. When left untreated, prolonged anger can start affecting you in other areas of your life and your relationships.

3. Bargaining

The bargaining stage is also sometimes attributed to magical thinking. You may be well aware that there is nothing that you can do to bring your loved one back. Yet, you start imagining all the things that you can do in exchange for their return. 

For example, you may think that God or another higher power should take you instead so that your loved one can live. You’ll start bargaining for that exchange to happen. Again, this is a normal reaction to grief.  

When you start believing that you have the power to change the outcome and these thoughts start to consume you, your grief transforms from normal to complicated. Overwhelming feelings of guilt may also start creeping in during this time in your grieving. Consider seeking grief counseling to help you process this stage of your grief.  

4. Depression

There is a significant difference in experiencing grief, loss, and sadness and experiencing depression. When the pain and sorrow resulting from your loss don’t diminish with time, and you’re experiencing a constant and prolonged sadness, you may be feeling the effects of depression. 

Grief, sadness, pain, and sorrow are all part of the grieving process. Sadness that is constant and doesn’t waver is a sign of depression and a component of complicated grief. A trained grief counselor or therapist can help you work through your depression and help you process your grief. 

5. Acceptance

The final stage of the normal grieving process is acceptance. Accepting your loss and finding renewed hope to move forward in life signifies that you’ve successfully worked through your grief and are ready to resume your new normal. 

When you feel stuck in your grief and find it impossible to move forward without your loved one, consider grief counseling to help you with accepting your loss. Complications may arise in the grieving process if you are unable to accept that your loved one has died and that your role in life has changed as a result of their death.

Some Examples of Someone Experiencing Normal Grief

Grief manifests in many different ways. The way a person responds to grief will depend on many things that include their cultural and religious/spiritual background, their traditions and grief rituals, and their mental and emotional well-being at the time of their loss. 

The typical initial grief reactions to normal grief are shock and disbelief, followed by bouts of inconsolable crying. The following are all normal grief reactions that most people will suffer when hearing the news that a loved one has died: 

Getting the news that your loved one’s been killed in a car accident. 

You’ll initially feel a wave of shock and disbelief, a loss of orientation and balance, followed by inconsolable crying once the news sinks in. 

Feeling guilty after deciding to take your loved one off life support.

Guilt is a normal reaction to this type of loss, especially if your loved one was hospitalized as a result of an illness or serious accident. In time, you should expect the effects of guilt to diminish.

When guilt consumes you and starts affecting your life in other areas, this is a sign that your normal grief has turned into complicated grief.

A child drowning in the backyard pool.

The death of a child via drowning in your backyard pool can lead to feelings of severe pain and sorrow followed by guilt and magical thinking.

All of these combined emotions are still a normal part of the grief process even though it may appear complicated. This type of normal grief can easily be the basis of a more complicated type of grief and would benefit from the treatment of a trained professional. 

Identifying Normal Grief and Its Causes

No matter what, most losses will cause a person to suffer some level of grief. Many factors come together to determine how a person will react to loss and whether they’ll suffer through normal or more complicated grief. Knowing the signs of each and what causes them helps you better understand how grief is affecting you. 

If you're looking for more grief resources, read our guides on disenfranchised grief, what to do when a celebrity dies, and what happens when you experience dysfunctional grief.

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