A Guide to Understanding Grief
Understanding your grief supports the healing process.
“Grief is sometimes compared to climbing a spiral staircase where things can look and feel like you are just going in circles, yet you are actually making progress.” — Larry J. Michael, “A Necessary Grief: Essential Tools for Leadership in Bereavement Ministry”
Grief is a natural part of coping with loss, and while it’s a universal human experience, no two individuals feel it the same way. Though we cannot control our circumstances or emotions, we can navigate the healing process with a better understanding of what grief is and isn’t.
What does grief feel and look like?
Grief comes with an array of emotional symptoms which may include:
Shock and disbelief.
Sense of unreality.
You may also experience these common physical symptoms:
Changes in body weight.
Aches and pains.
Oversensitivity to noise.
Changes in appetite and thirst.
Changes in activity levels.
Finally, you may experience some of these behaviors:
Avoiding places and things that remind you of your loved one.
Fixating on places and things that remind you of your loved one.
There is no definitive process for grief.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined grief as a five-stage process: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While these emotions do commonly arise when someone is grieving, experiencing all of them in any order is not a rule. Kübler-Ross would later amend her work by stating that these stages were not meant to be set in stone. You may experience all or none of the emotions and symptoms listed above; you may feel all of them at once; or you may go through cyclical stages unique to you.
There is no “right way” to grieve or mourn.
Each individual experiences their emotions (grief) in their own way. They also mourn (express their grief) in unique ways. Allow yourself to feel whatever you need to feel and to express those feelings in a way that feels right to you.
Grief is not something you need to “get over” or avoid.
Processing a loved one’s passing is rarely linear and avoidance prohibits you from accepting your loss. Grief cannot be forced or powered through. If you prefer to grieve privately, do what feels better for you, but don’t avoid your emotions altogether. Acknowledge your pain, or else it won’t heal.
Moving on does not mean forgetting.
It’s not uncommon for guilt to get in the way of acceptance and healing. You deserve to feel joy and live your life. Moving on from a loss does not mean that you are forgetting your loved one — just the opposite! It means that you can cherish your old memories even as you create new ones.
If you have not experienced grief like this before, there are things you should be prepared to face.
Memories of your loved one can hit you without warning, bringing with them intense emotional or physical responses. Allow yourself to work through these feelings when and if they arise.
This disorder may occur when grief becomes persistent and debilitating. Be aware of these symptoms:
Inability to accept your loved one’s death.
Extreme fixation on their death.
Longing for your loved one to return.
Expecting to find them in familiar places.
Feeling that life is empty or meaningless.
Obsessing over places or things that remind you of them.
Some common emotional triggers are holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, and other special occasions. Allow yourself to decline invitations or leave events early if you feel overwhelmed. If it helps you process your emotions, plan a special ceremony or activity to honor their memory on important days.
Finally, remember to take care of yourself!
Be patient and kind with yourself.
Listen to your own needs and prioritize them. Lower your expectations for a time and focus on yourself — it is unreasonable to expect yourself to operate at your normal capacity. Take leave from work if you can, or at least lighten your work load. Let your friends know that your availability may be limited as you process your feelings.
Mind your physical needs.
Set daily tasks on this app to remind you to eat nutritious food, drink water, and bathe every day. It’s common to neglect our most basic needs while we’re grieving.
Share your feelings.
Sometimes talking out your thoughts and feelings can be cathartic. You may consider finding a local support group to share with and develop a sense of solidarity. It might also help to express them in creative ways like writing, crafting, or painting.
Know when to seek professional help.
Sometimes it’s difficult to allow our grief to process and it overwhelms us. Be aware of these signs, and seek professional help from a therapist or grief counselor if you experience:
Wishing you had died instead.
Feeling as though life isn’t worth living.
Blaming yourself for your loved one’s passing.
Feeling numb and disconnected for longer than a few weeks.
Grief can feel insurmountable. Awareness of what might arise with grief, along with a variety of resources and ideas for coping, is your best guide along the way.