Grief involves coping with loss. Death, divorce and the loss of a home are all major events that people grieve. While everyone’s experience of grief is different, there are common responses that can be useful to recognize if you’re facing a loss. Whether grieving or supporting a loved one, practice patience as you work through this difficult time.
Grief is the experience of coping with loss. Most of us think of grief as happening in the painful period following the death of a loved one. But grief can accompany any event that disrupts or challenges our sense of normalcy or ourselves. This includes the loss of connections that define us.
You may grieve the loss of:
You may also grieve your own loss of life as you prepare for death. For instance, people diagnosed with terminal illnesses often grieve no longer having the time to experience or achieve things they would’ve liked to.
Elizabeth Kubler-Ross describes the five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying. Although it was published in 1969, it’s still the most well-known resource for understanding the grieving process. For her book, Kubler-Ross interviewed over 200 people with terminal illnesses. Through these conversations, she identified five common stages people experience as they grapple with the realities of impending death.
Although Kubler-Ross’s work focuses on grief responses from people who are dying, many use these stages to understand grief across multiple types of loss. Stages include:
Many people reduce these stages to linear steps everyone must experience to grieve. But the stages aren’t (and were never intended to be) rules. Not everyone who grieves experiences these stages, and they don’t have to happen in any particular order.
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There are multiple ways to experience grief. Different types of grief describe how varied and complex grief can be.
Anticipatory grief involves grieving before the actual loss. For example, you may begin grieving when you learn that you or a loved one has a terminal illness. Processing grief beforehand can prepare you to face the loss when the time comes. Still, it’s important not to allow grieving to distract you from enjoying the precious time you do have.
Sometimes, you’re able to move through the grieving process quickly. This is the case with abbreviated grief. Abbreviated grief may follow anticipatory grief. You can grieve a loss quickly because you’ve already done a lot of emotional labor while anticipating that loss. Grieving for a short time doesn’t mean you never truly cared about what you lost. When it comes to grief, we’re all on different timelines.
Instead of experiencing the emotions that accompany grief immediately after a loss, you feel them days, weeks or even months later. In some instances, the shock of the loss pauses your body’s ability to work through these emotions. Or you may be so busy handling the practical matters that accompany loss (like funerals and wills) that your body can’t grieve until you’ve handled these responsibilities.
Inhibited grief involves repressing emotions. Most of us haven’t been taught how to process — or even how to recognize — the confusing emotions that can arise when we’re grieving. As a result, many people who repress their emotions don’t realize they’re doing so. Unfortunately, when you don’t allow yourself to pause and feel these emotions, grief often shows up as physical symptoms like an upset stomach, insomnia, anxiety or even panic attacks.
With cumulative grief, you’re working through multiple losses at once. For example, you’re not only grieving the loss of a child. You’re grieving the ending of a marriage that followed that loss. Grieving multiple losses simultaneously makes the process difficult and complex in unexpected ways.
Most of us think of grief as personal, but collectives (groups) grieve, too. Major events like wars, natural disasters, school shootings and pandemics create far-reaching losses. They change what counts as “normal” life. As a group, we grieve the shared experiences we’ve lost as we struggle to imagine a changed future.
Grief can affect every aspect of your being — your mind, body and spirit.
People who are grieving often describe emotions as “coming in waves.” It may feel as if emotions wash over you without warning. One minute, life may feel as if it were back to normal, and the next, you may find yourself in tears. Grief causes people to experience the entire spectrum of emotions — from sadness to anger to joy. You may sometimes feel detached from your emotions and operate as if you were on autopilot.
You may experience confusing and conflicting emotions, too, such as:
There are no right or wrong emotions when it comes to grief. It’s essential to acknowledge and feel them to heal.
Grief can make it hard to concentrate or complete tasks. Symptoms include:
In real-time, all grief is complex. In certain circumstances; however, grief can evolve into something even more complex — complicated or prolonged grief. Complicated or prolonged grief often involves especially challenging circumstances or extreme symptoms that interfere with daily life over a long period.
Complicated grief can stem from any of the types of grief. It can be made even more difficult by things like:
Grief can be considered complicated or prolonged when even a year after the loss you:
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines grief as lasting from six months to two years. Symptoms gradually improve as time passes.
It’s important to remember that grief doesn’t fit into neat boxes or timelines. Everyone’s grief and grieving timelines are different. Also, there’s never a time when you’re “done” with grief. Your connection with a loved one who’s passed, a dissolved marriage, an abandoned dream, etc., becomes integrated into your ongoing life story. It’s forever a part of who you are.
Still, if you’re having trouble coping with loss, especially if it’s interfering with your ability to live your life, reach out to a grief counselor or therapist.
Coping with grief takes time and patience. But there are things you can do to make coping easier on yourself and others who may need your support.
Grieving is the process of working through grief. Providers who help people cope with grief use words like “working” or “moving” through grief to highlight the demands grief places on us.
Bereavement is the grieving period that follows death. It often involves grieving the absence of a loved one privately and mourning the loss alongside others.
Mourning describes how we express grief outwardly. You may mourn a loved one by sharing stories about them, planting their favorite flower in your garden or spreading their ashes in their favorite vacation spot. Funerals and celebration of life ceremonies exist so people who are grieving can mourn in the company of others who care.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Everyone’s experience of grief is unique. But recognizing feelings, thoughts and behaviors that may surface during this time can provide assurance that you’re not alone. You — like many others — will get through this. It’s a common (but true) saying that the only way out of grief is through. Working through difficult emotions can give you the strength you need to move forward in your life while continuing to hold a place in your heart for the loved ones and life experiences you’ve lost.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 02/22/2023.
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