When we lose someone or something that we care about, grief may be waiting afterward. The grieving process is a natural part of life—a reaction to death, divorce, breakups, terminal disease, and more. The things that we turn our heads from eventually find a way back into our lives; but despite the intense emotional pain and psychological dissonance, the odds of successfully processing your grief aren’t insurmountable.
Grief is an immensely personal experience. While no one can speak to another’s loss, we’ve collected our knowledge of the grieving process into one encompassing and empathetic guide. Whether you’re coming to grips with the death of a loved one or mourning the end of a close friendship, we’ve detailed honest, straightforward answers to some of the toughest questions about grief. It’s your process—we’re here to lend a helping hand.
What Is Grief?
The feeling of grief is a visceral response to profound emotional pain—pain that stems from a deep sense of loss. Grief may happen to anyone at any stage of life; that’s why uniquely personal events and circumstances often act as a catalyst for the grieving process. No two people will grieve in the same way.
What Causes Grief?
Grief arises from loss. Though the grieving process is often misidentified as depression by non-professionals, grief only occurs when experiencing a loss of some sort, while depression can occur even when everything around us seems fine. Some events that may cause grief include:
Are Grief and Bereavement the Same Thing?
Grief and bereavement aren’t the same thing, but the two terms are closely related. Bereavement is more specific:
- It refers specifically to grieving over the death of a family member or loved one.
Grief, on the other hand:
- Refers to any kind of loss that triggers a deeply painful emotional response, whether the upsetting event has arisen from death or not.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
When left with no other choice but to accept the loss at hand, grief often takes place in stages as we struggle to wrap our minds around what has happened. Not everyone may follow these stages in order, and some may skip stages. In full, the five stages of grief are:
- Denial: When first faced with the task of processing what has happened, our instinct is often to deny that what’s taken place is real. That’s why denial is the first initial stage of the grieving process. This is a painful, but normal part of experiencing grief. Denial needs to wear off before we feel ready to start moving further into what we’re experiencing. Denial may cause antisocial, erratic behavior that’s based on a desire to avoid the reality that something or someone that we care about is now gone.
- Anger: After we understand that our loss has occurred, we may feel that the circumstances behind the events unfolding are unfair—and we get angry. As the second stage of the grieving process, anger is often demonized as a negative emotion, but that’s not always the case. Anger, if we’re paying attention, can help point out that something is bothering us, and we need to address it. What we do with our anger during the grieving process is also important: Self-destructive behavior or old habits (like drinking, smoking, and other risky behavior) may manifest for some people.
- Bargaining: At the third stage in the grieving process, we start thinking about the “what-ifs”. Perhaps if we go through a divorce or a breakup, we stress over thoughts such as, “Maybe if I’d spent more time with them, they wouldn’t have lost interest.” If we lose a loved one due to a death, maybe we dwell on, “If only I wasn’t so selfish, I could have been there to help.” These statements can run back and forth in our minds, postponing the next stages of the grieving process, and creating a feeling of guilt felt by many.
- Depression: The fourth stage is depression, which is often considered the most difficult. This is a time when the individual’s grief is at its peak. The temptation to turn away from the reality of life without the person, relationship, or thing that we’ve lost may seem overwhelming. Because of its difficulty, those caught in the fourth stage of the grieving process are often best assisted by a mental health professional, who can help prevent their depression from becoming a chronic condition.
- Acceptance: The end of the grieving process occurs at the fifth stage. Acceptance involves coming fully to terms with our denial, our anger, our bargaining, and “what-ifs”. We also transition through depression, seeing that although losing something close to us indeed causes sadness, hope remains. The potential value is seen in what is left remaining (friends, family, career, future plans) after our loss.
Why Is Grief So Hard?
Grief may be so hard to handle because the events that trigger this emotional process are so painful to endure and comprehend. The subjective experience of enduring grief, and the loss that causes this emotional time period can be incredibly burdensome for many people. But aside from the emotional pain, grief triggers chemical changes in the body and brain that can alter the way we receive and respond to stimuli. Grief may be so difficult to endure because it affects not only our emotions but our mind and body’s balance, too.
How Long Does the Grieving Process Last?
As with many mental health conditions, the time duration that the grieving process takes varies. Generally, those who are grieving can expect the entire process to last between two months to as long as four years, depending on the person, their mental health, and circumstances. Those who shift back and forth between the different stages of grieving or who have pre-existing mental health conditions may experience a longer healing process than others.
Can Grief Cause Physical Pain?
Yes—grief can manifest as physical discomfort. Some of the physical side effects of the grieving process include:
- Digestive health issues like IBD or constipation
- Intramuscular neck and back pain
- Chest pain
- Generalized fatigue
The reasons why grief can manifest physically aren’t entirely understood, but the ability of our bodies to respond physically to negative emotions highlights the importance of maintaining self-care and physical health during the grieving process. Those who are grieving may also be less likely to want to take care of themselves, complicating (and possibly worsening) the physical effects of grief.
How Does Grief Affect Mental Health?
Loss of any kind will re-shape our perspective and personal views because something that we once had and valued is now gone. Whether this new vacancy becomes something that we contend with successfully long-term depends on the individual—those with pre-existing mental health conditions like depression, forms of anxiety, or ADHD may struggle more than others to process feelings of grief. But despite the pain, many people successfully manage and move through their grief, arriving at the final stage of the grieving process: acceptance.
Can Grief Cause Anxiety?
Yes, grief can contribute to anxious thoughts and feelings. When someone or something we care about is suddenly gone, this can make us feel anxious. Having to comprehend and cope with the stages of the grieving process also takes time—usually several months. And when we’re forced to confront anxiety-inducing topics brought on by our grief (death, breakups, divorce, regrets) we may feel trapped, helpless, or frustrated by the hand we’ve been dealt.
What Can Grief Teach You?
The lessons learned from grieving may be hard-earned but meaningful. There’s no way to predict what wisdom you or someone else may gain from the grieving process. With this in mind, many people who successfully process their grief find that they’ve gained a:
- A deeper appreciation for daily life
- Closer connection to their loved ones
- Increased sense of empathy and respect for others
- Heightened emotional awareness
How Do You Get Over the Death of a Loved One?
One of the best and easiest ways is to reach out to family, friends, and your community for support. Our social circles are subject to the ripple effects caused by the loss of a loved one, so grief may simultaneously impact groups of people who share various relationships, including:
- Community members
- Club members
- Military veterans or active service members
- And many other groups
During tough times, we may be driven by an impulse to close ourselves off from the world. Though grief can highlight what has been lost by one person or many, tragedy may also shed light on the close relationships that still exist in our lives. And if the people closest to us are unable to assist in the ways we need, grief counseling or therapy can help address any unresolved emotions.
Other ways to get over the death of a loved one include taking time away from work to decompress or perhaps finding relief and shelter by taking part in new hobbies, support groups, or spiritual practices, such as yoga or meditation.
What Is Grief Counseling?
Grief counseling, or bereavement counseling, is designed to help people cope with difficult losses. A grief counselor can help you develop methods and strategies for coping with your loss and grief. Grief counseling provides an outlet through which to discuss one’s feelings and emotions surrounding the grieving process and the effect it has had on their life.
Grief counseling is especially helpful for those whose grief:
- Interrupts the flow of their daily activities and goals
- Creates residual feelings of guilt, anxiety, or depression
- Doesn’t seem to be progressing
- Is preventing the sufferer from successfully forming new relationships
How Does Grief Counseling Work?
When beginning grief counseling, a therapist or counselor will spend the first few sessions forming an empathetic relationship with their client. Grief counseling may involve talk or behavioral therapy methods to help the client process their grief, and view their emotions and the events surrounding their loss from new perspectives. The ultimate goal of grief counseling is to help the person suffering reach the fifth and final stage—acceptance.
Grief counseling can also take place in a group environment—friends, family, and romantic partners can all find solace and support from a grief counselor or therapist when a loss occurs.