Grief

About

Grief

What is grief?

Grief is a human response to the loss of someone or something of value. Most commonly, grief is used to refer to the death of a loved one. The condition can manifest itself in a variety of ways, often causing feelings of sadness or loneliness. It can occur for a variety of reasons, but almost all of these reasons entail some kind of major life change. Some of the main causes of grief are discussed in a later section. The grieving process is a highly individualized undertaking, and healing occurs once you can understand, accept, and properly process your emotions.

Are grief and mourning the same thing?

There are several terms surrounding the grieving process, some of which include mourning and bereavement. It’s important to note that these terms do not denote the same concept. Let’s take a closer look at some of these terms:

  • Grief involves your internal emotions, which arise in response to the loss at hand. Grief can be displayed in many different ways, including mental, emotional, social, and physical reactions. These responses will be explored in more detail when we discuss the symptoms of grief.
  • Mourning is the outward expression of this internal struggle, which can be expressed through crying, conversation, journaling, art, and other techniques. Although the exact processes of mourning vary from person to person and culture to culture, mourning is generally described as the process by which a person learns to adapt to loss.
  • Bereavement is considered the period of time during which grief and mourning occur. This period usually begins immediately following the loss. Its length and intensity depend upon the individual’s attachment to the person or thing lost, as well as the time spent anticipating the loss.

Causes

What are the causes of grief?

Because grief is a highly subjective experience, its causes are also highly varied. Perhaps the most common grief-inducing event is the death of a loved one. However, any of the following may trigger grief:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Breakup/divorce
  • Diagnosis of a serious, terminal, or life-threatening illness
  • Loss of a job
  • Moving homes
  • Any other big life change or event

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Symptoms

What are the symptoms of grief?

Each person’s grieving process is different, but many of them present similar symptoms. These symptoms may include:

  • Guilt
  • Sadness
  • Despair
  • Anxiety
  • Constant thoughts of the loss
  • Fluctuation in normal appetite
  • Change in sleep schedule
  • Physical ailments
  • Social challenges

As you can see, the symptoms of grief may either be mental/emotional or physical in nature. Understanding the source of your pain and how to best manage your grief will gradually help reduce symptoms.

What are the stages of grief?

During the grieving process, you may notice different phases of coping. Each one of these stages guides you in the path to recovery. Progress may not always be direct or linear, however. You may skip certain steps altogether or jump around from phase to phase. Or you may remain at one phase for several months on end. Grief can also return when you experience certain triggers.

There are several models for the grieving process, with the most popular five-step model being developed by psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.”

Although the traditional stages of grief are not considered an ideal way to depict the grieving process anymore, they can be helpful as a general outline of what to expect:

  • Denial is a defense mechanism that allows the individual to temporarily put off what may otherwise be extreme emotion. Denial can manifest as shock or numbness.
  • Anger is experienced when you realize the full impact of your loss. You may begin to feel frustrated before the feelings progress to full anger. These feelings can be directed at anyone or anything, even toward your lost loved one.
  • Bargaining is the process by which you begin to regret your actions toward the situation. You wonder what you could have done to prevent it and may start to torment yourself with “what-ifs.”
  • Depression occurs when you finally understand the full impact of your loss. You may experience sadness as you understand the effect of loss on your life. You may also endure sleep problems, a loss in appetite, loneliness, and similar feelings of depression.
  • Acceptance is the final stage, in which you’ve accepted the reality of your loss. You may still feel sad or be triggered by things like anniversaries, but you are able to move on with your life and accept that your loss cannot be reversed.

Diagnosis

How long does grieving last?

It’s important to understand that grief is a natural, healthy human way of dealing with loss. There is no standard timeline by which you are expected to adhere. In fact, the nature of grief is highly subjective and depends heavily on the person or thing lost, your beliefs, your support network, and several other factors.

When should you seek professional help for grief?

In some cases, however, grief doesn’t improve or become more manageable. This grief is defined as “complicated grief.” Signs of complicated grief include an inability to maintain a normal daily routine, depression, excessive self-blame, and thoughts regarding the imagined worthlessness of yourself and your life. These thoughts may even include thoughts of self-harm or suicide. If you experience any of the symptoms of complicated grief, you should avoid trying to dull these feelings with drugs, alcohol, work, or other distractions. Instead, you should get in contact with a medical professional who can help guide you through your grief and find relief.

Treatment

What treatment options are there for grief?

If you do decide to seek professional help for your grief, your doctor may choose to prescribe you anti-depressants or they may proceed with a talk therapy oriented approach. A therapist can help you explore healthy coping mechanisms so that you can fully accept your circumstances and learn to live with them. They may also encourage you to try other approaches, such as:

  • Giving yourself the necessary time to heal.
  • Learning again to enjoy your favorite hobbies and activities.
  • Taking good care of your physical body and emotional health.
  • Joining a support group.
  • Not isolating yourself. Speaking to those you’re closest to.

Will grief ever go away?

Sometimes grief does dissipate. Other times, grief may never truly go away, but the pain does become more manageable over time. Acceptance of your situation is key to lessening the emotional and physical burden of grief. When you accept your grief and live with it, you can learn the appropriate lessons from your experience and use those lessons to move forward in your own life.

Information

Medically reviewed by:

Dr Roy Kedem, MD

Dr Zenon Andreou studied medicine at University College London, graduating in 2006. His postgraduate training was in hospitals in and around London and he trained for four years in Otolaryngology before completing his training in General practice

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