What is grief?

Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. Causes of loss include:

  • death of a loved one
  • a relationship breakup
  • loss of safety after a trauma
  • death of a pet
  • loss of health
  • losing a job
  • loss of financial stability
  • a miscarriage
  • loss of a cherished dream
  • a loved one’s serious illness
  • loss of a friendship

People deal with loss in different ways

Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss. The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually; it can’t be forced or hurried – and there is no ‘normal’ timetable for grieving. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. Whatever your grief experience, it’s important to be patient with yourself and allow the process to unfold naturally.

The five stages of grief

A person doesn’t always have to experience the stages in the order given and can go back and re-experience any of the previous stages. However, the final stage is always acceptance. These stages are:

  1. Denial: ‘This can’t be happening to me.’
    This is considered the first stage because it is almost always the first way that we deal with trauma, especially major trauma. It’s kind of like the mind saying to itself, ‘If I don’t believe it happened then it really didn’t.’ In extreme cases, the mind actually blocks out the memory of the event. Suppression of feelings is always associated with this stage and there can be a sense of feeling numb or somewhat separated from the body.
  2. Bargaining: ‘Make this not happen, and in return, I will ____.’
    Once the shock of the event has worn off the person often looks for some way that the event could have been avoided or avoid being associated with the event. The stage was originally called ‘Bargaining’ because the creator of the theory was working with people who had a terminal illness and would try to bargain with their doctor or God to help them avoid the natural conclusion of their illness. During this stage, there can be an attempt to rationalise or intellectualise the event. Often the person will look for a scapegoat to blame it on.
  3. Anger: ‘Why is this happening? Who is to blame?’
    This stage needs little explanation except to say that the anger is often generalised to friends and family who might have little or nothing to do with the event. This seems to be more so when there is no specific person to blame for the cause of the trauma. Since the anger will come up regardless of whether there is someone to blame or not, a person may seek someone to blame for their angry feelings who may not even be associated with the event. Issues may be blown out of proportion or even fabricated in order to vent feelings that the person might feel have no justification for coming out otherwise.
  4. Depression: ‘I’m too sad to do anything.’
    This can be a dangerous time during the process of grief if the feelings are intense, since a very depressed person may try to hurt themselves. If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself, be sure to let someone know and get the appropriate care as soon as possible. This is the time when the person has given up beliefs that the situation could or would somehow be anything other than what it is.
  5. Acceptance: ‘I’m at peace with what happened.’
    This is the final stage, although a person can go back to any of the other stages. This is when the person is able to acknowledge that the event will happen or did happen, that it isn’t a good or bad thing, and that they are not a good or bad person for experiencing it. It can be a very painful and difficult place to get to but once achieved, is always an acknowledgement of great personal growth. It’s easy to know when you are there because you begin to feel a sense of calm and peace.

Healthy grief responses

  • You have an empty feeling in your stomach and loss (or gain) of appetite
  • You have pain in the stomach, and/or nausea
  • You feel restless and look for activity, but have difficulty concentrating
  • You feel tightness in the throat or heaviness in the chest
  • You feel thumping, erratic beats in the heart and are very aware of heart actions
  • You often feel light-headed and dizzy
  • You sense your lost loved one’s presence (this may include expecting the person to walk in the door at the usual time, or hearing his/her voice, or seeing his/her face)
  • You have frequent headaches
  • You feel in a trance, and want to just sit and stare
  • You feel as though the loss isn’t real, that it didn’t actually happen (this may include trying to find the lost loved one)
  • You wander aimlessly, forget and don’t finish things you’ve started to do around the house
  • You assume the mannerisms or traits of the loved one
  • You have difficulty sleeping, and often have dreams or visions of your lost loved one
  • You feel guilty or angry over things that happened or didn’t happen in the relationship

Complicated grief: when grief doesn’t go away

The sadness of losing someone you love never goes away completely, but it shouldn’t remain at centre stage. If the pain of the loss is so constant and severe that it keeps you from resuming your life, you may be suffering from a condition known as complicated grief. Complicated grief is like being stuck in an intense state of mourning. You may have trouble accepting the death long after it has occurred or be so preoccupied with the person who died that it disrupts your daily routine and undermines your other relationships. Symptoms of complicated grief include:

  • intense longing and yearning for the deceased
  • intrusive thoughts or images of your lost loved one
  • denial of the death or a sense of disbelief
  • imagining that your loved one is alive
  • searching for the person in familiar places
  • avoiding things that remind you of your loved one
  • extreme anger or bitterness over the loss
  • feeling that life is empty or meaningless

Myths and facts about grief

Myth: It’s important to be ‘be strong’ in the face of loss.
Fact: Feeling sad, frightened or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. You don’t need to ‘protect’ your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.

Myth: Grief should last about a year.
Fact: There is no right or wrong time frame for grieving. How long it takes can differ from person to person.

Myth: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.
Fact: Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.

Myth: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss.
Fact: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.


How do I get help for myself or my loved one?

The first step in getting help is finding out whether you have a problem. A trained clinical psychologist can effectively perform a professional assessment, which will identify whether you have any problem areas, and will recommend the treatment most appropriate for you if necessary.

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