Grief and Loss

Grief is an emotional reaction that follows the loss of someone or something of great value. It is a spiral of feelings and reactions rather than a line with a beginning and an end. In a sense, grief doesn't know the concept of time. Sometimes it can feel like the loss happened yesterday although it may have happened awhile ago.

Losses that can cause grief

Most people think of grief connected to the death of a loved one, but there are actually many life changes that can lead to feelings of grief and loss. Some examples include:

  • Relationship changes, such as the ending of a friendship, dating relationship, or a break in a family relationship. This can include parents divorcing or separating, as well as changes in a friendship in your life.
  • School or job-related changes, such as graduation, moving to a new place, losing out on a new career opportunity or internship.
  • Health changes, such as an injury or illness that is chronic and not easily resolved, or changes in a family member's health.
  • Life changes that include the death of a friend, partner, or family member.

The stages of grief

Research has identified certain stages of grief reactions that many people experience. It is important to know, however, that these stages occur differently for each person. They may not occur in sequential order, but the emotions that are linked to the stages are common emotions that people experience at some point in the grieving process.

When a loss occurs, it is important to recognize that this loss has happened. However, many people initially experience shock or disbelief which can last for days or weeks. It is almost as if people are in a state of denial about the loss or as if they are acting on "auto pilot" and restricted from feeling the full impact of the loss. People can also feel angry, numb, confused about what happened, or even guilty.

At some point after recognizing that a loss has occurred, a person can begin to feel more intense emotions, including tearfulness and crying; feeling anxious and overwhelmed; preoccupation with the loss or memories of the lost person or situation; feeling restless or having difficulty sleeping; feeling anguish, agony, despair; and physical symptoms including headaches, fatigue, or upset stomach. All of these reactions are common, as the reality of the loss settles in.

Healing from a loss takes time, and it varies for each person. Signs that someone is moving towards the end of the grief process include feeling more energized; experiencing bursts of energy and building an interest in life again; and beginning to make plans for the future.

It is important to know that some of the feelings described above can reoccur during anniversaries of the date of the loss, birthdays or other significant events that can happen annually or throughout a year that remind you of the loss, or other triggering situations or events. Preparing ahead of time before these anniversaries occur can be very helpful. You can make sure to be with someone to talk about the loss before or on an anniversary, or do something significant to honor the loss at that time. Whatever you do, remembering not to deny that these feelings may come up due to memories of the loss is critical.

Ways of coping with grief

Different strategies can be helpful to cope with feelings of grief. These strategies are helpful in accepting the reality of the loss, working through the denial of the loss to the feelings of pain and grief, adjusting to life with an acknowledgment of the loss, and reinvesting in a future after the loss. Here are some things that can be helpful with all of those tasks:

  • Talk about the loss with friends or relatives. Getting their support can be invaluable. Sometimes, meeting with a counselor can be helpful if you cannot identify someone you feel comfortable talking to or if you feel you reaction is interfering too much with your daily living.
  • Create a ritual to honor the loss. This can be a funeral in the case of a death, or it can be creating a photograph memory book. It can also be planting a tree, doing something artistic or creative, or writing a letter to the deceased person or the person with whom you have broken up, without feeling the letter has to be mailed or given to the person.
  • Start a journal and write down your feelings about the loss.
  • Pray or meet with someone important from your spiritual or religious practice.
  • Attend a support group for people who have lost someone to help you feel that you are not alone in this process through which you are going.
  • Take care of yourself, including eating regularly, getting enough sleep each night, exercising if you can, and any other self-soothing activities that you know are helpful to you.

Above all else, remind yourself that loss and feelings of grief are unavoidable and common aspects of living. With time, patience, and support, you can move through the grieving process and come to a place in your life with new understandings about you, others in your life, your spirituality, and life overall.