Grief is how we respond to loss. By loss, we often mean death, especially the death of a close friend or family member. But death isn’t the only reason we grieve. Losing anything that matters to us — like a relationship, a job, or even a plan for the future — causes grief.
Everyone grieves differently, so there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. Still, learning more about grief, and how grief works, can help us better understand and deal with our emotions. And learning about grief can help us know whether we need help getting through the grieving process.
This article will cover the basics of grief, but it’s not intended to replace a mental health consultation. If you’re stuck in grief and need help, please make an appointment with a mental health care provider as soon as possible.
Grief is our way of re-learning how to live without the person or thing we’ve lost. That’s how the philosopher Thomas Attig defines grief in his book, “How We Grieve: Relearning the World.”
What does this mean? Let’s say, for example, a close friend has died in a car wreck. Before the wreck, you’d grown accustomed to your life as it was with your friend in it. You knew how to live in that world, and you expected to continue living in that world.
Now, after your friend’s death, the world is different. Your brain needs time to get to know this new world, this new life that does not include your friend.
This learning process is often painful and unpredictable. If your friend was a big part of your everyday life, the process of relearning how to live without your friend may feel overwhelming. You may feel like there’s no end to the grief.
The example above dealt with losing a close friend in a car crash, but death isn’t the only reason people grieve. Along with death, other common causes of grief are:
These causes of grief — and many others that aren’t listed — have something in common: In each case, the loss has changed expectations about the future.
Maybe we expected to be married forever, but divorce has changed that. Maybe we expected a parent to attend our significant life events like a wedding, graduation, or the birth of a child. But the parent’s death makes that future impossible.
Maybe we expected to keep living in the same home, to stay in the same career, to keep in touch with our children, to be healthy, to come home to a beloved pet once again.
Loss has changed that future. We need time to learn how to live in this new reality. That’s why grief requires time and patience.
There’s no right or wrong way to grieve because grief looks different for everybody. We all think a little differently, and we all learn a little differently, so we also grieve differently.
But we do have some common experiences in the grieving process. They can be both physical and mental experiences:
We can all experience different mixes of these and other symptoms of grief. The significance and circumstances of the loss play a role in our experience. So does the personality of the person who is grieving. That’s why no one can say whether someone else is grieving properly.
In previous decades, psychologists and other mental health care professionals divided the grieving process into stages. The psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, for example, developed the “five stages of grief” to help her patients understand grief.
Over time the stages of grief became a popular way to understand the grieving process.
The stages of grief can still be useful, but the stages shouldn’t be treated like a to-do list. They’re just a way to categorize common human experiences.
These grief stages are:
It’s tempting to treat these stages like a roadmap to recovery from a painful loss. In real life, we tend to jump around from phase to phase. We may feel like we’ve accepted the loss one day only to feel angry again the next day.
Helping a friend or family member grieve requires patience. Remember that everybody’s journey with grief is unique. The way you successfully navigated grief in the past may not be the right path for your friend or relative.
Feel free to make suggestions, but remember you aren’t the authority on your friend’s grief. If your friend or relative doesn’t like your suggestions, that’s OK. In fact, that’s healthy. It’s not your job to “fix” your friend’s grief, no matter how much you may want to.
The best thing you can be is a safe place where the grieving person can share his or her deep emotional pain without fear or worry. When you can listen without an agenda, you can help.
And, it’s important to know when you’re in too deep. If there’s a chance your grieving friend or relative may be contemplating suicide or hurting someone else, call for backup. Dial 988.
Thanks to modern medicine and healthier lifestyles, people who live in developed societies can live a lot longer than they did in previous centuries. Compared to our ancestors, we’re much less likely to die from an infection or an industrial accident.
21st-century Americans, for example, could live for years, or even decades, without experiencing the death of a close friend or relative. But death can never be removed from the human experience. And, of course, other kinds of significant losses are part of any life.
Because of this potential for loss, grief is common. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, especially if you’re not familiar with the emotions you’re feeling. In fact, sometimes people get stuck or even lost in their grief.
The normal symptoms of grief usually start to fade as the months pass and we accept the reality of our loss and what it means. For some people, this doesn’t happen. In fact, their grief may start getting worse.
The grief may become debilitating, and there’s no end in sight. We call this condition complicated grief.
Along with intense sadness, complicated grief can also include:
People with complicated grief need mental health care. Mental Health Associates of the Triad provides outpatient care for people in High Point, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and the surrounding areas.
Many cities in the United States have in-person, outpatient mental health clinics which you can find on Google or by asking your primary care physician. It’s also possible to schedule online counseling sessions.
If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or someone else, dial 988 to speak with a counselor today.
Grief can begin before the loss actually happens. We call this anticipatory grief. It’s common when someone has been diagnosed with a terminal medical condition. People who are dying, along with their friends and family members, can experience this kind of grief.
Anticipatory grief doesn’t necessarily make the grieving process easier. In fact, it can be harder in some ways. Some people, for example, feel guilty about grieving while their friend or loved one is still alive.
If you’re experiencing anticipatory grief, it’s OK to feel the way you feel. It may be helpful to talk about your feelings with family and close friends or with a mental health care professional.
When you’re immersed in grief, it may seem like there’s no end to it, like you’re swimming across a pond on a foggy morning with no idea when you’ll reach the other shore.
If you feel lost in grief, the best way out is to speak with a mental health care provider. A trained counselor understands how grief works and can help ground you in your journey.
They’re not a substitute for the individualized care plan you could develop with a mental health care provider, but the following tips can help you navigate the grieving process:
Grief is hard. Be patient with yourself. Take care of yourself. Put yourself first.
Everybody’s experience is different. You should seek grief support any time you feel like you need it. A therapist or counselor can help sort through emotions and identify causes and possible solutions at any time — not just when you’re having a crisis.
But deep emotional pain that shows no sign of improving could mean you need help navigating your grief. Counseling can guide you to better strategies than you’ve been using so far.
You should also seek help if you find yourself:
Be honest with yourself about your habits and your feelings. Temporary and unhealthy ways of dealing with complex grief can make grief worse and delay healing.
A good therapist helps people explore their feelings. A counseling session offers a safe place where you can explain how you feel without worrying about how it sounds, without worrying about letting someone down, showing weakness, or monopolizing someone else’s time.
Sometimes simply talking about your feelings in a safe place allows you to better understand your emotions so you can navigate them better.
But other times, that’s not enough. So, once you’ve explained your experience and your feelings, a therapist can help you plan a better path forward. Grief is all about relearning how to live again. You could think of your therapist as a tutor, someone who helps you learn.
When you’re ready to get started, we’ll be here for you. Contact us today.
In the United States, one out of two people will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lifetime. 20% will experience mental illness in a given year. 80% will experience emotional abuse. Today, 1 in 25 Americans lives with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.
For those we serve, we are the essential and often-postponed “first step” toward the goal of mental wellness. Whether the concern is for yourself or a loved one, know that we welcome you with deep compassion and respect. What seems frightening or hopeless today can quickly become a path to a brighter, more positive tomorrow.
Whenever you’re ready to take that first step, we’re ready to help.