What Is Grief?
The word “grief” describes the strong emotions felt when someone experiences a loss. Typically, people associate grief with a loved one’s death. However, there are different types of grief. Sometimes, when a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal disease, their loved ones experience anticipatory grief. People also grieve job losses, the end of relationships, or non-fatal health issues. Along with grieving for people, animal lovers also grieve the death of their pets. Grieving is a normal reaction to any sort of loss. All people grieve at some point in their lives, but at the same, everyone grieves differently. Some people might feel numb; others struggle to carry on with their daily routine; and still others actually handle the immediate aftermath of the loss well, only to experience heavy grief later. Most people, though, find that they learn to live with the loss and the passage of time lessens the pain.
The Five Stages of Grief
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist, introduced the idea of the five stages of grief in 1969 when she published her book On Death and Dying. The five stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s important to remember that people can experience these stages out of order, and it’s also possible to reach acceptance but then cycle back into another stage.
- Denial: During this stage, people struggle with accepting their loss. It’s common for people in denial to refuse to discuss the loss or even believe that the loss is real. Some people throw themselves into work, a project, or even planning the funeral because staying busy helps them ignore the loss. Often, people speak of a dead loved one in the present tense during this stage.
- Anger: It’s perfectly normal to feel angry about a loss. It’s even very common for people to be angry with themselves. Others become angry at their loved ones’ caretakers or at whatever higher power they believe in for allowing the loss to occur. Sometimes, someone experiencing grief will become overly angry at someone not involved with the loss at all. For example, someone who cuts them off in traffic or is rude to them in a store becomes the object of their fury.
- Bargaining: Bargaining often starts before someone dies. People promise, usually to themselves or through prayer, that they’ll be a better person, donate money to a charity, or somehow make a change if their loved one will survive. People also experience the bargaining stage after a death or other loss, wishing to get their loved one back with similar promises.
- Depression: It’s during the stage of depression that people begin to truly feel the loss of their loved ones. All of the preceding stages are, to some extent, about avoiding the reality of the loss. It’s during the stage of depression that people begin coming to terms with the loss. Feelings of intense loss and sadness are completely normal. For many people, it feels like this stage will never end. However, many people do learn to live with their loss and go on to experience happiness.
- Acceptance: Acceptance marks when someone comes to terms with their loss. It doesn’t mean that they don’t continue to miss the person or mourn their loss; it does mean that the bereaved know that while they will always feel the loss, they will feel happiness and joy again. The sadness is no longer the defining aspect of their life. It’s possible to think about their loved one without crying.
Tips to Cope With Grief
Those experiencing the first anguished feelings of grief should remember that this initial stage doesn’t last forever. However, it’s also important to remember that everyone grieves differently and how people process their bereavement and the stages of grief is different from person to person. It’s important for those grieving to practice self-care.
- Accept Your Feelings and Know That They Are Natural and Normal: Ignoring trauma and pain is far more harmful and is going to cause more issues than accepting the loss and the accompanying emotions.
- Sleep: Many people experience insomnia during grieving. That’s normal and shouldn’t be a cause for alarm. At the same time, though, sleep is vital. Prioritize sleep hygiene and resting, even if sleeping is difficult.
- Eat: Sometimes, those in mourning lose their appetite and forget to eat. Other times, they are overwhelmed and resort to eating fast food. Do your best to eat healthy food and stay hydrated.
- Beware of Alcohol and Drugs: Anyone who has experienced grief can understand the urge to make the pain go away, at least for a little bit. Alcohol and drugs will just mask the pain temporarily and lead to even more issues in the future.
- Accept Support: Talk with friends and family members, reach out to a mental health professional, or find a support group. Local hospitals and hospices should have lists of resources for all different types of losses and age groups.
- Allow Yourself to Feel: It’s not a betrayal of a lost loved one to smile or laugh. It’s also OK to cry or be angry. Those who allow themselves to really feel the wide range of emotions that death and grief bring will heal better in the long run.
- Stay Active: Taking a walk, watching a movie, engaging in a hobby, or meeting a friend for coffee are just some activities that can help a grieving person cope.
How to Support Someone Grieving
Many people are unsure how to help someone they care about who is experiencing grief.
- Don’t Center Yourself: Pour in, dump out. This is a simple way of expressing that those closest to the tragedy shouldn’t be responsible for handling other people’s grief. For instance, in the case of an elderly person with grown children, their spouse is the primary griever, and everyone should support them. The adult children are in the next circle: They should pour support on their living parent and dump their grief out on their own spouses and friends. Those spouses and friends should support the adult children and dump their feelings on people even further removed.
- Send Flowers: Sending flowers when someone dies is a longstanding tradition. Those mourning loved ones often see the flowers as a sign of respect and enjoy reading the accompanying cards.
- Say Their Name: People sometimes avoid using the deceased’s name. Often, their loved ones want to hear it and want to talk about them.
- Ask “How Do You Feel Right Now?” People dealing with a fresh loss shouldn’t feel pressured to answer “OK” to a broad question like “How are you?” when they probably aren’t doing well. Asking how they are at the moment allows the questioner to better determine what support they can offer.
- Offer Concrete Support: Instead of saying “Let me know if you need anything,” offer to do specific things. “I’ll bring dinner Sunday, if that’s OK?” or “I can pick your children up from school” are far more helpful; often, mourners don’t want to be a burden but could use help.
Additional Grief Resources
- An Introduction to Grieving
- What Is Grief?
- Grief and Loss
- Coping With Grief and Loss
- Five Things You Should Know About Grief
- Grief: Coping With the Loss of Your Loved One
- Grieving: Facing Illness, Death, and Other Losses
- Patterns of Grieving
- Strategies and Tips for Grieving
- What Is Normal Grieving, and What Are the Stages of Grief?
- Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong
- Positive Emotions and the Grieving Process
- From the Heart: Double Trauma and Delayed Grief
- When Grief Shows Up (Sometimes) Years Later
- How Your Brain Copes With Grief, and Why it Takes Time to Heal
- How Anticipatory Grief Differs From Grief After Death
- Grief: How to Express Sympathy and Support the Bereaved
- Helping a Grieving Friend
- Mourning the Death of a Spouse
- Coping With Miscarriage
- My Mother Died When I Was Seven; I’m Grieving 37 Years Later
- After the Funeral: How Children Grieve, and What Parents Can Do to Support Them
- Understanding Teen Grief: Seven Ways to Help a Grieving Teenager
- Find a GriefShare Group