What Is Grief?
Grief is the deep sorrow felt after a loss. It is a natural human response, yet it is often one of the most difficult emotional challenges that people go through.
Grief feels different for everyone and not everyone grieves the same way. The patterns, outlets and coping mechanisms of grief vary significantly from one person to the next and are often influenced by the nature of the loss and the relationship between the griever and the deceased.
Usually, grief includes an initial period of shock, including feelings of confusion and denial, followed by a longer period of sadness or even depression. For many, the intensity of sadness diminishes with time, eventually fading. If there was a difficult, or strained relationship between the griever and the deceased, there can also be an added component of guilt to the grieving process.
How Long Does Grief Last?
Because grief is different for everybody, there is no “normal” period of time for someone to grieve. Sometimes, with the proper social support and healthy management, grief goes away on its own with the passage of time. However, some people experience grief that is so intense and persistent, that they feel unable to function normally in daily life, even after a significant amount of time has passed. This severe grief is commonly referred to as complicated grief, and those who suffer from it feel the same emotional pain, months after a loss, as they they did when the loss initially occurred. These individuals often benefit from the help of a mental health professional like a therapist or psychologist who specializes in grief counseling.
What Are the Stages of Grief?
Grief varies from person to person, but there are some common stages. It is important to note that not everyone goes through every stage, and the stages don’t always occur in order, or one at a time. The following list of stages was established by psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and is widely known, but by no means all-encompassing. There are other notable models that include other facets, but the following is a popular example.
Stages of Grief (Kübler-Ross):
- Denial – This often occurs with feelings of shock, and is an innate defense mechanism to help us cope with the overwhelming emotions associated with loss.
- Anger – The helplessness and frustration associated with loss can lead to feelings of anger at oneself, at the world, or even at the deceased.
- Bargaining – After a loss, people can be plagued with thoughts of “could have,” “should have,” and “if only.”
- Depression – There can be a deep sadness associated with the permanence and loneliness of losing a loved one.
- Acceptance – This occurs when the reality of life after the loss sets in, and a new normal is acknowledged.
What Are the Symptoms of Grief?
Grief can have physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual symptoms. These include:
- Digestive problems
- Chest pain
- Muscle soreness
- Sleep changes
- More prone to getting sick
- Difficulty concentrating
- Becoming preoccupied with the loss
- Negative thought cycles
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feeling numb or detached from daily life
- Inability to show or experience joy
- Hyperalertness and intense fear of another loss
- Lack of desire to attend social gatherings
- Feeling abandoned or punished by God
- Questioning your purpose in life
- Feeling angry with the world
- Questioning your religious beliefs
- Seeking forgiveness from a higher power
How Can I Manage Grief in a Healthy Way?
Although it is painful, it is important to experience grief, as it allows people to overcome powerful emotions. When grief is stalled or pushed aside, there can be consequences later on.
There are coping mechanisms recommended by mental health professionals to assist people in managing their grief in a healthy way. These include:
- Letting yourself grieve – Give yourself permission and space to mourn the loss of your loved one. Talk about your feelings, accept your pain, and ignore arbitrary cultural standards for what is considered “acceptable.”
- Practicing self care – Engage in productive activities like seeing a grief therapist, exercising, or taking personal time off.
- Leaning on others – Even if it’s tempting to push others away, it is important to accept help. Friends and family will feel privileged to be trusted by you and will want to be there for you however they can. It can also be helpful to join support groups or reach out to others going through something similar.
How to Help a Loved One Who Is Grieving
Watching a loved one go through the grieving process can be incredibly difficult. Many people feel helpless, as they fear making their loved one feel even worse by saying or doing the wrong thing. Here are some helpful tips:
What to say:
The best thing to do for someone who is grieving is to acknowledge their pain while also keeping the memory of their loved one alive. This can be done by simply listening to your loved one and letting them vent, asking questions about what they’re going through emotionally, and sharing positive memories of the deceased. It is also helpful to check-in with your loved one regularly and let them know that you are there if they want to talk.
What not to say:
Avoid clichés and platitudes, as they can do more harm than good. Some examples of phrases to steer clear of are, “time heals all wounds,” “everything happens for a reason,” “it was meant to be,” “they are in a better place now,” and “God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle.” Refrain from discussing timelines or cultural generalizations associated with the grieving process as well. Everyone grieves differently, and you don’t want your loved one to feel judged.
How Can Therapy Help Me Manage Grief?
Grief is one of the most common reasons that people seek therapy. This is not because grieving is “wrong” or needs to be “fixed,” but because it is something that persists but you can learn to live with and manage.
It can be beneficial for those who are grieving to take time to review their complicated feelings with an objective listener. Counselors can help you to better understand and cope with the fear, guilt, and anxiety associated with losing a loved one. They can also help you create a new positive connection to what was lost, encouraging you to reflect on the good times.
If you are struggling with grief, you are not alone. It is ok to seek help. Our counseling practice, Identity Counseling Psychology PLLC, is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan and specializes in grief counseling. If you are in the Ann Arbor area and are looking for a counselor, contact us today.