What is grief?

What Is Grief?

Grief is something which every one of us has to face in life. It is the human response to loss, and there are many losses in our lives.

The most common cause of grief is the death of someone close, but people also experience loss in many other ways such as:

  • the ending of a relationship through separation or divorce
  • the loss of a friendship
  • moving or migrating with the loss of a home, community or homeland
  • losing a job, health, a pet, a role in life
  • giving up something that mattered a lot
  • losing a dream

GriefLink focuses on the grief that occurs as the result of the death of someone close. The loss could be a family member – spouse, parent, child or sibling – a member of our extended family, a close friend or workmate, a public figure who has had a big influence in our life.

Grief Is More Than An Emotion

Grief is primarily an emotional response, but it is more than emotion. It affects our bodies, our thinking, and the way we see the world.

The range of responses is wide, and often quite destabilizing, and it can take time to re-establish some sort of order in our life.

Thoughts And Feelings

People experience a whole range of thoughts and feelings. These can be all mixed up together and even quite opposite to one another, for example, relief, guilt, laughter, anguish. Impatience and anger are common reactions; it’s difficult for a bereaved person to see and listen to people who do not understand the real pain that a grieving person feels.

This storm of emotion comes and goes over time and varies with individual people as they are confronted with reminders of what they have lost and mourn for this.

The Body’s Response

Although each person will grieve in their own way, there are some common responses. Following a loss:

  • the person first may be stunned or distressed with the shock
  • physical reactions may be sleeplessness, difficulty in sitting still or concentrating, loss of appetite, tummy upset, difficulty breathing or even chest pains (which should be checked by a doctor)
  • often people can feel numb or as though they are on “automatic pilot”. They may do normal activities but not feel connected to the real world

Sometimes people feel that they are unable to escape from the whirlwind of feelings and experiences they are caught in, and they feel, and appear to be, “stuck” – unable to engage in normal activities, constantly going over the circumstances of the loved one’s death, and the sense that it is impossible to find a life without them. This is not unusual and requires assistance either from professional helpers or caring family and friends.

Crying

One of the most common physical responses to grief is crying. We find it difficult to watch people cry, and the most common human urge is to comfort a person in tears, and sometimes even to join in their tears. It’s important to allow a person to cry, and to acknowledge the reason that they are crying.

Dealing With Grief

The death of someone close changes our life, things will never be the same afterwards. This is one of the greatest challenges for bereaved people. The future may seem very dark and frightening, and people may wonder how they will survive the pain and confusion they are feeling. We learn from our experiences in life. Often those lessons are very difficult, but each challenge helps us to find ways of making sense of ourselves and to identify our strengths.

Each person brings their own strengths and weaknesses to the task of dealing with grief; some people have great inner strength, while others are overwhelmed by the experience. Loss of self-esteem and confidence may be part of a person’s response.

What lies ahead in adjusting to a life without the person who has died makes heavy demands on each person and the people who surround that person. People often respond to the loss of someone close by withdrawing into their own world, shutting out people and things which might remind them of their loss.

Apart from the loss of someone we have loved and the loss of a planned future, there may be other losses such as loss of income, even loss of the family home. We need to make a number of adjustments to our routines and how we live in the world, and this takes time and support.

A major factor in making our way through grief is having human support around us. Often this comes immediately in the form of families and close friends, but we can also find support through meeting with other people, who have had similar experiences, through reading books, which help us to understand more about a particular cause of death, or to be inspired in our struggle to find meaning:

How Long Does Grief Take?

When people grieve they are coming to terms with what has changed in their lives. At the same time, they are beginning to find new ways of going about their lives to cope with the gaps that the loss has created. This takes varying periods of time. The length of time is affected by things such as the closeness of the person who has died and what other things have happened to the person. It is not unusual for grief to be felt over an extended period of time, even up to several years.

Initially

In the beginning, most people have a sense of disbelief which they usually give up over time. Seeing the body and having a funeral play a part in how this happens. The fact that people often cannot believe that it has really happened can be useful in protecting them from being overwhelmed by such a huge change in the way they have expected their life to go on.

Three To Four Months After The Death

This may be a particularly low time. Society’s expectations are that bereaved people should be over their grief by this time and should be “back to normal”. But this is when the reality of the death is sinking in. The chemicals which support the body after a severe stress are starting to wear off, and the support of friends is dropping away. So bereaved people are often going through a very painful time emotionally when there is least support.

People sometimes feel that they are managing their grief well up to this time and are surprised and distressed when they suddenly feel that they are not coping as well as they and those around them expect them to be coping. This is sometimes known as the “Hitting the Wall” phase of grief.

Later

Most people will find themselves automatically expecting past things to happen again, and may have a need to keep some of these going for a while. But gradually most people begin to face the gaps in their daily lives and struggle to cope with the differences. They start to create a new life for themselves often while the old life and the person who was so much part of that life are mourned. Usually, this whole journey takes a large amount of effort, emotion and energy, but this may not always be seen. Sometimes grieving people do not look after themselves and they may have little energy to reach out for what they need. Interested listening and practical help may be useful.

Over time the confusion and pain should get less. Most people start to recognize they are having more frequent and longer times when they feel more energy and hope. They often recognize they have successfully survived a difficult time in their life and feel stronger. They may notice their memories are not as painful for as long, although this pain may never go away altogether. The length of time it takes to make this adjustment varies a lot, beginning in the early weeks and perhaps lasting up to several years.

Serious Warning Signs

If, over time, these feelings of pain and confusion do not improve, this may signal the need for professional help. Crying uncontrollably, suffering sleep or eating disturbances, feelings of suicide, and turning to alcohol and drugs, are serious warning signs and should not be ignored. If this happens, it is important to seek the help of a GP or a counselor.

Grief is not just an individual’s journey, it is one which includes the people who surround the person who has experienced the death of someone close to them.

It is always important to be aware that people need to find their way through grief, in their own way and in their own time. However, this journey is made easier, when they receive the support they need.

Page last updated: 30 October, 2019