The way we grieve
Intellectually, humans know that death is part of life. Even so, losing a friend or family member is still one of the most challenging events we face.
Grief is the natural response to that stress and loss. Everyone handles it differently, but there are some common themes to know.
Grief is personal
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, published her famous book On Death and Dying in 1969. In it she outlined the five stages of grief that many people now know by heart: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
In the years since, other theories emerged. Some added or subtracted stages or changed the lineup of stages people should expect.
Research suggests that grief does not always follow a neat and orderly path. Instead, it can come in waves, washing over people with periods of intense and painful feelings that come and go, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).
How we grieve is also shaped and guided by religion, cultural background, how the loved one died, our relationship with him or her, and many other factors.
In other words, it’s highly personal.
Grief can affect both mind and body. Many people describe an emotional numbness that sets in soon after the death of a friend or relative. Mental Health America (MHA), ASCO and other experts note that grief can also involve:
A variety of feelings. Many people go through periods of shock, denial, anger, guilt, helplessness and, sometimes, relief. One study found that yearning for the loved one—not anger or depression–was one of the most common emotions of people who are newly bereaved.
Mental health trouble. Grieving people may report memory problems, feeling confused and being unable to concentrate.
Physical problems. Grief can cause real, physical symptoms such as nausea, an upset stomach, dizziness, headaches, or a tightness or heaviness in the chest. Deep, overwhelming fatigue is common too.
Behavior changes. A person who is grieving might show anger, irritability, restlessness or listlessness. They might withdraw from social settings, have trouble sleeping or lose interest in eating.
All of these reactions are normal, according to MHA. People who are grieving may be caught off guard by how quickly their mood can change and how deep their emotions go.
It takes time to heal
There’s no set timeline for how long grief takes. Some people sense their symptoms are lessening within a few months. Others need a year or more to move forward.
In general, people know they’re done grieving when they’ve gone through these four steps, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:
- Accepted the loss.
- Worked through the physical and emotional pain of the loss.
- Adjusted to living in a world without the person.
- Moved on with life.
With time and support, people usually work through grief on their own. These coping strategies from the American Psychological Association and other groups can help:
Seek out people who understand your loss. Some people turn to family, friends or a support group.
Tell others how you feel. This can help you understand your loss, work through grief and learn about your new life.
Make your own health a priority. Eating well, exercising and getting plenty of rest can help you get through each day and move forward.
Find ways to remember and celebrate your loved ones. You might donate to a favorite charity, make a memory album or plant a tree in their honor.
Be patient. It can take months or years to absorb a major loss and accept your changed life. Holidays, special events and even songs can trigger emotions you thought were over.
It’s OK to ask for help
Human beings are naturally resilient and can endure a loss. But if grief is complicated or if you feel you’re stuck or struggling, consider talking with a mental health professional. Some have special training to help people adjust to loss. They can help you find the strength to grieve, then move on to live life as fully as possible.