Understanding Grief and Loss
Grief is a natural and normal response to loss. It can be helpful to remember that all human beings are created to form attachments to people and things, and when these attachments are broken, we grieve the loss. This means we not only grieve the loss of people we care about, but also can feel sadness and grief when we have lost a job, a pet, our health, our home, etc. It is important to understand that grief is universal and everyone will experience grief encounters throughout their life. The pain associated with grief does not have a timetable and each person’s experience with grief cannot be easily arranged into simple stages.
While we now know that grief does not follow a linear path, many people have learned about or heard of “the five stages of grief” that were introduced by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying.” Most people are familiar with Dr. Kübler-Ross’s grief model, which was based on her research with terminally ill patients and how they dealt with the fact that they were dying. Because stages imply predictability and continued improvement, many people wrongly assumed these stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – also applied to how people cope after the loss of a loved one.
The five stages of grief were groundbreaking when presented by Dr. Kübler-Ross in 1969. It provided an understanding of the needs and emotions of the terminally ill, while helping comprehend the complexity of grief. Though revolutionary for its time, the Kübler-Ross grief model has since evolved. Research now confirms that not everyone experiences grief in defined stages, nor are they expected to. There is no one typical stage or response to grief. Everyone grieves in their own way and it is intimately personal. Even Dr. Kübler-Ross later wrote in the book, “On Grief and Grieving,” that grief is not linear and stages do not follow a predictable pattern. She also later expressed regret that her five stages of grief had been misunderstood. People have far more reactions than the five she identified in her conversations with the dying.
We now know that grief is as unique as the person who has experienced a loss. Additionally, many cultures have their own grieving styles and expectations, as do families. Some have very open conversations about death and loss and readily display their emotions. Others are very private about their grief. Even individuals within each family have their own style of grieving, based on their personality and their relationship to the person who has died. Even though they have all lost the same person, each person in a family had a different relationship with the deceased. Just as Dr. Kubler Ross listened to the dying, pay attention to what someone is saying about the loss – just listen. By doing so, they will feel less alone and less “crazy,” or that something is wrong with how they are grieving, because they will feel heard.
Listed below are some of the common reactions and feelings people have after someone has died:
Shock and disbelief
For some, the initial reaction of discovering the loss of a loved one is disbelief. They might say things like, “This isn’t real” or “This can’t be happening,” in an attempt to escape the harsh reality of their situation.
Shock and disbelief are common defense mechanisms that help people deal with the intensity of the emotional pain brought on by knowledge of the death. Those in shock often feel numb and isolate themselves from others. This phase typically does not last very long and is frequently replaced by other reactions as the individual copes with the reality of the loss.
Physical symptoms such as difficulty eating or sleeping (too much or too little), headaches, stomach upset, are particularly intense early in the grief experience. The mind and the body are connected, so the realization that someone has died typically affects one’s physical well-being in the first few hours, days, and even weeks.
Many people are surprised with how anxious they become after someone they deeply cared about has died. They may be fearful about how much has changed with the absence of their loved one or they may now worry about their own mortality. Often, they must take on new roles they have never done before, resulting in a lot of uncertainty and at times, lower self-esteem or a sense of feeling overwhelmed.
It is not uncommon to feel angry after the loss of a loved one, but many individuals find it difficult to express these feelings. Anger is a powerful emotion that can be draining, but if it is part of your grief process it should not be repressed nor ignored.
Perhaps you find yourself arguing with family members, friends, acquaintances, and even intangibles (such as a vehicle if there was a car accident). Your anger may also be directed at the deceased leaving you alone to deal with the pain and stress.
You may even be upset with yourself for not being able to prevent the situation, however irrational that seems. Rather than suppress your frustration or rage, be patient with yourself and others. Find positive ways to redirect this energy by doing something active or speaking with a close friend or therapist.
Strong feelings of sadness, anguish, and distress can occur. Do not try to hide your emotions or tell yourself to “snap out of it” or “move on.” Just remember, there is no set timeline for grief. Be kind to yourself and look for practical ways to cope with the loss of a loved one by seeking support from family and friends or talking to grief counselors in your area.
People slowly come to terms with the fact that their loved one is gone, and the reality of this loss, for some, may become more intense. When this happens, some people feel overwhelmed with sorrow and do not know how to cope with the pain. Remember that this, too, is a common part of the grief journey, and you are not alone in this experience. Although these feelings are intense at times, you should also be able to experience some moments of joy or meaning to your life. Many wonder “How do I go on?” If, on the other hand, you can find no joy or meaning in your life and wonder “Why go on?” it is important to seek professional help. Your family doctor or mental health professional should be consulted regarding suicidal thoughts and symptoms, which interfere with the ongoing ability to function.
Acknowledgement and Reengagement with Life
In time, people figure out how to adjust to life without their loved one and, as this happens, those same memories that used to bring tears now bring a sense of comfort and connection with that person in an emotional rather than a physical way. This is often accompanied by a sense of peace and calm as they learn to live with a “new normal.” They will most likely still experience ‘grief bursts’ from time to time but they will happen with less frequency and intensity as time goes on.
Misconceptions About Grief
A good way to express sympathy is to say, “I know how you feel.” While we are trying to convey sympathy and let the person know that we, too, have experienced a loss or losses, we can never fully understand what someone else is going through and this remark is seldom helpful.
Friends can help someone grieving by not talking about the loss or the person who died. While we often assume this is a way of not adding to their pain, or we don’t want to upset the grieving person, most people who have lost someone want very much to talk about how they feel and talk about their loved one to keep their memory alive. Even asking “How are you doing this afternoon?” implies you understand there are ups and downs with the grief journey. In initiating the conversation, make sure to use the name of the deceased.
The pain of loss will go away faster if you ignore it. Much like above, acknowledging and talking about what we are feeling is a way to work through these feelings and arrive at a “new normal” and some peace.
Grieving should last about a year. As we have indicated above, there is no timetable for how long someone grieves. In addition, while much of the pain and sadness lessens over time after we have lost someone dear to us, we are always grieving that loss, even if not as often or as painfully.
Grief is a Complicated Thing
There is not a “normal” response to grief. For a small percentage of people, the feelings of loss and sorrow can be traumatic and debilitating and do not seem to improve with time. This is known as complicated grief. If your grief reactions seem to become more intense as time goes on, making it more difficult to function in your day to day life, you may be experiencing what we call ‘complicated mourning’.
Do not assume that this pain will lessen or fade over time. There is no “one size fits all” approach, and anyone showing signs of complicated grief should be encouraged to seek professional treatment or immediate assistance if they are in a crisis situation.
Final Thoughts on Managing Grief
As you cope with mourning a loved one, you may find comfort in soothing words of poetry. Here are five funeral poems that can bring you peace. You may also want to consider attending a grief support group, many of which are offered in person and some online. Most people are surprised to realize, once they have the opportunity to connect with others who are also grieving, that their reactions are more common than they thought they were. They often wonder how they would have coped, had they not decided to reach out and connect with others, because it is so comforting and reassuring.Back to Knowledge Center