Grief is the anguish we feel when we experience a significant loss, like the death of a loved one, a divorce, or a serious medical diagnosis. Grief is a natural and healthy response to loss. During the grieving process, we may experience all kinds of difficult and uncomfortable emotions, from shock and confusion to anxiety and depression. Though working through grief can be messy and complicated, it most often resolves naturally over time and is a necessary part of processing, and ultimately accepting, the loss that we have experienced.
If you or someone you know would like support while experiencing grief, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Different Types of Grief
Depending on the loss you experience, you may feel a different kind of grief. Examples of different kinds of grief include:
Anticipatory grief comes before events that we know will be emotionally challenging, like anticipated loss of a loved one, a challenging move, going through a divorce, or loss of anything else that we value. While experiencing grief leading up to the loss can be difficult, it can also provide time and space to emotionally prepare for the event.
Grief From a Sudden Loss
When loss is sudden and unexpected, such as when a loved one dies suddenly or we get laid off from a valued job, grief is likely to be acute for a while. This experience can feel overwhelming and can affect our ability to respond to practical needs—such as settling an estate after a loved one dies—or to the emotional needs of others. A sudden loss can also be harder to accept because there is no time to prepare for the loss.
Cumulative grief occurs when we experience multiple losses close together, such as losing a loved one and then making a disruptive move. It can also occur when we experience similar types of grief on multiple occasions, especially if the first loss was never healed. A new loss, even if it occurs much later, can bring up unresolved feelings and compound the grief from the first loss. This can lead to what is called “complicated grief”—when feelings of loss are persistent and interfere with life or other relationships. In this case, it can be helpful to process the unresolved feelings with a mental health professional.
Absent grief is the name for when we feel like we’re “not grieving as much as we should.” It can happen for a number of reasons, such as when we’ve already processed our feelings through anticipatory grief. It can also be a sign that we’re delaying or avoiding fully feeling our grief, or we have unrealistic expectations of how we should be grieving. Depending on your situation, feeling less grief than “normal” may actually be normal for you.
The Stages of Grief
After we experience a significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, it’s not unusual to feel intense and perhaps even overwhelming pain, sadness, and confusion. Especially if the loss is unexpected, it can be difficult to make sense of the many associations, memories, and feelings that arise in the wake of the event. One of the most widely recognized ways of understanding the grieving process is the five stages of grief. Research shows that in the wake of a loss, either anticipated or unexpected, it is common to go through multiple stages. While progression through these stages may not be entirely linear, the process often happens in this order:
In order to protect ourselves and cope with the enormity of the loss we anticipate or experience, we may minimize it, numb our feelings, or even pretend it isn’t happening. For example, the anticipated death of a loved one may be avoided or minimized by wishful thinking: “It is not that serious, she’ll pull through.” Or when someone we know is diagnosed with a serious illness, we might think, “The test results are wrong.” Or we may avoid thinking about it at all—a strategy that often reflects resistance to allowing in the truth of the situation.
As we start to process our emotions, anger may arise. Even if anger is not at the core of our grief, it is an easy and common way to express some of our more difficult emotions, like fear, sadness, or bewilderment. It’s not uncommon to get angry at ourselves, at other people who we think are the “cause” of our feelings, or even the universe. For example, if you’ve lost someone to suicide, you may feel angry with your loved one for leaving you, or get angry with yourself for not noticing the signs.
Anticipated loss can bring up feelings of helplessness that unconsciously prompts us to look for ways to regain control. You may find yourself trying to make promises or deals with the universe or with others in exchange for the outcome you want. For example, in anticipation of a loved one’s death, you may ask the universe or whatever you recognize as possessing divine power to spare your loved one in exchange for better behavior from you. Or, after a bad breakup you may think, “If only I’d been a better partner, he would not have left,” and you may promise your ex things will be different if they agree to take you back.
Depression often occurs as the reality of our loss starts to sink in and we finally start to face what’s happening without denial, anger, or bargaining. Depression can make us feel sad, hopeless, and alone. We may isolate ourselves from others or withdraw from activities we used to enjoy. We may start to think things like, “I don’t know how to go on” or “What’s the point?” While it is uncomfortable, feeling deep sadness or depression is a common and understandable part of the grieving process and can offer important insights into the loss.
Accepting loss doesn’t mean that we won’t still occasionally feel pain. Instead, acceptance is about not resisting the reality of the loss, and understanding that our life has changed or will change in challenging ways. Moving into the acceptance stage can pave the way for positive and healthy feelings of gratitude, love, and deepened love and connection. For example, accepting the death of a loved one might look like feeling grateful for the time you got to share together, even if you miss them.
The Stages of Grief Feel Different to Everyone
While these stages give us a way to understand grief, it’s also important to keep in mind that the grieving process is not linear. You may feel each stage with a different level of intensity, or feel many of these emotions at once, in a different order, or cycle through stages multiple times.
It’s also not uncommon to experience grief in waves—for example, after the death of a loved one, you might pick up the phone to call the person who has passed out of habit, remember the loss, and experience grief all over again. All of this is normal.
There is no set length of time for each stage—for some people it takes weeks, and for others it may take months or even years to fully accept a loss. But after a year or so, if your pain remains as intense as it felt right after your loss, you may be experiencing a more severe form of grief.
When Does Grief Become Unhealthy?
While it is normal to experience grief in waves, and everyone’s grieving process looks and feels different, there are cases in which grief can become unhealthy.
If you’re experiencing grief that’s so severe that it interferes with your everyday life or with your personal relationships, you may be experiencing what’s called complicated grief. The symptoms of complicated grief can include:
- Feeling prolonged pain or bitterness over your loss
- Feeling unusually deep sadness, depression, guilt, or blame about your loved one’s death
- Longing for your loved one intensely and persistently, or struggling to accept your loved one’s death
- Having trouble focusing on anything else but your loved one’s death
- Either focusing intensely on—or avoiding—reminders of your loved one
- Having trouble recalling positive memories of your loved one
- Feeling numb or detached from your everyday life, or having trouble going through everyday routines
- Isolating yourself from others and withdrawing from social activities
- Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose, or feeling like life isn’t worth living without your loved one
- Wishing you had died along with your loved one
- Having suicidal thoughts
Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder
If you are experiencing severe and prolonged grief that interferes with your everyday life for a year or more after your loss, you may be struggling with persistent complex bereavement disorder, or prolonged grief disorder. This can occur after experiencing a loss that is sudden and inexplicable, like the sudden death of a loved one who seemed healthy.
People who struggle with persistent complex bereavement disorder feel incapacitated by their grief. They may feel a loss of self-worth or their sense of self, as they tend to focus on their loss to the exclusion of other relationships or interests in their life. Some people feel “stuck” in the grieving process, and some don’t want to move on because they feel that moving on from their loss would mean that they would be betraying their loved one.
It can be difficult to spot complicated grief or persistent complex grief disorder at first, because the symptoms often feel very similar in the first few months after a loss. However, while normal grief symptoms naturally start to lighten over time as people work through their loss, people experiencing complex grief or persistent complex grief disorder will often feel symptoms get worse over time. If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be struggling with a grief disorder, reach out to a mental health professional for support.
How to Cope with Grief and Loss
Grief can feel very isolating. It’s important to stay connected with loved ones and lean on your support network. That can include a mental health professional who can help you process your grief, or a support group for people experiencing loss. Expressing our feelings with people who are supportive of us can be cathartic.
Reaching acceptance is an important part of coping with grief and loss in a healthy way. Acceptance doesn’t always mean happiness—for some, it can mean seeing tragedy as an opportunity to create meaning in their lives or find a renewed sense of purpose. Acceptance can also help us honor and celebrate who or what we’ve lost, and help us find a new path forward.