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What is grief and loss?

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What is grief and loss?

Grief is something everyone experiences, and each person needs to find a way through the healing process after a loss.
There is no one “right” way to grieve, and there is no way to anticipate exactly how the feelings of sadness, anger, loss, and loneliness will heal and resolve. Some have described the grieving process as a roller coaster, filled with highs and lows. Over time the roller coaster evens out so the highs and lows are more manageable, but the big ups and downs can reappear, especially at important family events, anniversaries, holidays, or other special occasions. People who have suffered grief do say that it will get better with time and the support of friends and loved ones.

Loss of a loved one

The most intense grief experience usually comes from the death of a loved one. Feeling empty and numb is common. Besides deep feelings of sadness and sorrow, physical symptoms may arise—long- or short-term memory loss or the inability to eat or sleep, for example. Sleeping or eating too much is also common. Other emotions in the grieving process can be profound sadness, longing for the loved one, guilt or regret, anxiety, fear, ambivalence or helplessness. Strange or disturbing dreams can arise. Absent-mindedness is common. In fact, grief and sorrow can lead to a sense of “losing one’s mind.” Such feelings and behaviors are normal and will pass.

There is no timetable for the grieving process.

Over time, the intense grief and sorrow subside. As the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization states, the “sweet sadness” that arises when you remember your loved one “is simply the acknowledgment that significant loss has occurred. That the loss, and the person who is gone, matters and affects our lives.”

Stages of grief

Many people are familiar with the five stages of grief introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. These stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The model was based on Kübler-Ross’s work with terminally ill patients. Since her initial research, the stages of grief have been used to describe many types of losses.

Some people have found the stages to be a helpful way to think about grief; others have not. Grief counselors and researchers point out that the stages describe grief as a passive process. In the decades since Kübler-Ross’s work, people who work with the bereaved have learned that grief is an active process. Many people find it empowering to know that they are resilient. They take comfort in actively processing their feelings and memories and creating ways to honor and celebrate their loved one.

Physical reactions

Grief and loss affect more than just a person’s emotions and state of mind. They can affect the body.

Physical reactions to grief can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Inability to sleep
  • Pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Gastrointestinal upset
  • Chest pressure
  • Heart palpitations
  • Backache
  • Panic attack
  • Anxiety

Many of these warning signs, however, also may point to a serious medical condition that must be addressed. If these symptoms are severe, it is important to seek medical assessment from a healthcare provider

Anticipatory grief

Anticipatory grief comes when a loved one is facing the end of life but the death has not yet occurred.

Anticipatory grief is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing comes because you have time to emotionally adjust to the impending loss, resolve regrets, and make amends. Another gift is the opportunity to share your feelings of caring and appreciation with your loved one. From a practical standpoint, you may also be able to discuss end-of-life wishes and other preparations.

The difficulty with anticipatory grief is witnessing the loved one’s struggle.

Seeing someone you love in pain and caring for their needs is extremely stressful. Also, each change for the worse brings a new wave of grief for the caregivers and family members. Depending on the nature of the illness, anticipatory grief can last for months or years. Those who have been through anticipatory grief advise others to avoid feeling guilty about any negative feelings you may have (which are normal) and look for the positive in the time you can spend with your loved one.

Upsurges of grief

The intense feelings of grief can come back, unannounced.

Even when the intense mourning is over and the loss of the loved one is fully accepted, many “firsts” may touch off a new round of intense and possibly unexpected grieving: the first holiday, birthday, anniversary, and other family events. The grief response may lessen on these particular anniversary days as years pass, but it may not go away entirely.

Many unexpected things can touch off a memory.

Grief surfaces, too, at the most unexpected promptings: a sight, sound, or smell that reminds you of your loved one; learning about the death of someone you don’t personally know; songs on the radio, television programs. Emotional responses to unexpected triggers can be distressing. It can help to know that this is a normal part of the grieving process.

Common misconceptions

Grieving should not last longer than six months.
There is no timeline for grief. Again, grief reactions vary in intensity. They can be triggered or worsened by anniversaries and holidays. If someone’s grief is severely interfering with daily functioning, it could be a sign of complicated grief, and a healthcare provider should be consulted.

Only weak individuals grieve.

Everyone grieves. After a loss, feelings are unpredictable. They can range from sadness to fear to loneliness to anger. Hiding emotions during grief is not helpful. Processing feelings is extremely important to heal and recover from grief and loss.

Not crying following a loss means you are not experiencing grief.

Lack of crying or sadness following a death does not mean someone is not grieving. Many people are in a state of shock or numbness following a death and aren’t able to cry. Others may cry privately. Some who come to terms with the death quickly do not appear as affected by the death compared to others who show more outward signs of grief.

We slowly and predictably recover from grief.

Grief is an uneven process, best thought of as a roller coaster with no timeline. It doesn’t have a specific ending point, and recovering does not mean “letting go”; rather, over time most people learn to live with the loss.

People who are grieving need to be left alone.

Social support is extremely important for people who are grieving, for a period long after the loss. People who are grieving need opportunities to share their memories, talk about their loved one and their loss, and receive support from others.

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