The word grief has been defined countless times by many different people, groups, and organizations. Grief may be defined as “the constellation of feelings, behaviors, cognitions and alterations in functioning attendant upon loss of any kind” (Zisook & Kendler, 2007, p. 781). Other definitions place emphasis on the aspect of “change” associated with grief—the idea that some aspect of one’s “normal” ended or changed significantly.
Many definitions will commonly relate grief to the death of a loved one; however, it is much more common to see definitions, today, that associate grief to “a loss of any kind.” While none of these are necessarily wrong or inaccurate, it is incredibly important for people to understand that feelings of grief are not limited to the experience of losing a loved one.
A Deeper Look at Grief
Grief is one of those words some struggle with and do not want to have a connection to. Relating to grief means we know what it feels like to have experienced loss, pain, and many other feelings commonly associated with it. Although grief is something some may hate to relate to, it is an integral part of the human experience. Many in this world have felt some semblance of it. However, several people may not truly understand what grief is, how it affects us, and how we can begin healing.
Grief is a multifaceted response to loss. There are many other kinds of loss and what is particularly surprising is that any change—even positive change—represents a loss as well. For instance, getting married is a change that we think of as positive, but these changes involve elements of loss as well. That may mean a loss of a typical routine, freedom to act or make all decisions without considering another individual, complete privacy, or even merging households could result in the loss of some of your favorite furniture.
Even subtle losses in life can trigger a sense of grief. When we speak of grieving, we may typically associate it with the death of a loved one—which is often the cause of the most intense type of grief—but any life changes and loss can cause grief.
Grief is the suffering you feel when you experience loss. The more significant the loss, the more intense our grief can be. When we speak of the loss, we often think of the emotional response to loss. However, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, cultural, and philosophical dimensions.
Causes of Grief:
Divorce or relationship breakup
Loss of financial stability
Death of a pet
Loss of a cherished dream
A loved one's serious illness
Loss of a friendship
Loss of safety after a trauma
Selling the family home
Bankruptcy and Foreclosure
Chronic Illnesses such as HIV, AIDs, or Cancer
These are several examples of how one may experience grief, unrelated to the loss of a loved one. In these examples, we can make the connection of how any of these areas could alter one’s feelings, behaviors, and thoughts. Furthermore, they can affect one’s identity, aspirations, physical and emotional health, and so much more. These instances show us how people may face various levels of loss and experience many forms of change all relating to grief.
Stages of Grief
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the “five stages of grief.” While loss affects people in different ways, many experience the following symptoms when grieving. The 5 stages of grief and loss are: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance.
Most of us have heard about the stages of grief throughout our lifetime. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross created the commonly referenced 5-stage model of grief in 1969. Her grief classification and categorization has helped countless people understand their grief and attempt their healing process.
Although in her original creation, Elisabeth intended for her model to be linear, meaning you pass through one stage at a time and then move on to the next. However, many researchers now suggest that these stages may overlap, come in a different order, or people who are grieving may not experience all stages.
The 5 stages of grief include the following:
When you first learn of a loss, it’s normal to think, “This isn’t happening.” You may feel shocked or numb. It can feel as though you were experiencing a bad dream, the loss was unreal, and you were waiting to wake up from the bad dream. Additionally, you may be exploring your religious or spiritual beliefs. This is a defense mechanism and a temporary way to deal with overwhelming emotion. This stage is commonly understood as the stage where people do not want to accept whatever loss they have experienced.
As reality sets in, you may be faced with the pain of your loss. You may begin to feel anger surrounding the loss and the unfairness of it. You might direct it toward other people, a higher power, or life in general. Likewise, it is natural for this feeling to sometimes be directed at a particular person or thing that contributed to the loss or change that someone is experiencing. Feelings of abandonment may also occur during this time.
This part in Elisabeth’s stage is exactly what it sounds like: attempting to make a deal. One may pray, beg, or plead that their grief-related experienced is “fixed,” the loss is “returned,” or that their situation just “goes away.”
During this stage, you may dwell on all the things you think you could have done to prevent the loss. Common thoughts are “If only…” “What if…” You may notice you begin to beg your higher power to undo the loss or trade places, saying things along the lines of, "If you bring them back to me, in return I will…”
Once it becomes clear that anger and bargaining are not going to reverse the loss, sadness may begin to set in. You confront the inevitability and reality of the loss and your own helplessness to change it.
This stage is when people may experience depressive-related symptoms due to their grief experience. Signs of depression may include crying spells, sleep difficulties, appetite changes, isolation, and/or withdrawal. This is often the point when one may seek help from a professional.
This stage of grief can be challenging for people to understand, especially if they have, or are currently experiencing a grief-related loss. Acceptance looks different to every person. For some, it may be the point when they have found their “new normal,” but have not necessarily “moved on.” One may find a new way of adjusting while another may identify as having moved on and feels complete with the process.
At this point, you have processed initial grief emotions, are able to accept that the loss has occurred and cannot be undone or changed, and are once again able to plan for the future and re-engage in daily life. You may feel at peace with what occurred. Although you still feel sad, you are able to start moving forward with your life.
What Grieving Looks Like
Grieving is an individual, unique, complex, and personal experience. It is also important to note that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, but there are ways to help the process remain healthy.
Everyone grieves in their own way and in their own time. Many have asked how long to expect to experience grief, though there is no set timetable on grief. The grieving process may take time and healing may happen gradually.
It is necessary to note that many have experienced emotional symptoms when grieving. Individuals may experience the following symptoms when grieving:
Emotional Symptoms of Grieving
Shock and disbelief
We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, which can include the following:
Physical Symptoms of Grieving
Weight loss or weight gain
Aches and pains
How to Cope
Although the pain of grief can often cause people to withdraw, having the face-to-face support of other people is vital to healing from loss. Some may find it uncomfortable to talk about feelings under normal circumstances, but it is important to express them when grieving.
The journey of healing can be easier when you have a healthy support system whether that is family members, friends, and/or a therapist. Comfort can come from just being around others who care.
The key is not to isolate yourself. If your grief-related thoughts, behaviors, or feelings are extremely distressing, making it difficult to function after a loss, talk to a mental health professional.
The following are a few other healthy ways to cope with grief:
Identify and express emotions through journaling, art, etc.
Practice mindfulness, grounding exercises, or body scans