Grief is the acute pain that accompanies loss. Because it is a reflection of what we love, it can feel all-encompassing. Grief is not limited to the loss of people, but when it follows the loss of a loved one, it may be compounded by feelings of guilt and confusion, especially if the relationship was a difficult one.
Because grief obeys its own trajectory, there is no timetable for feelings of pain after loss; nor is it possible to avoid suffering altogether. In fact, attempts to suppress or deny grief are just as likely to prolong the process, while also demanding additional emotional effort.
Similarly, the misperception that “more” grief is better or that there is a proper way to grieve can make the process more difficult.
For some people, grief is a short-term phenomenon, also known as acute grief, although the pain may return unexpectedly at a later time. But other individuals may experience prolonged grief, also known as complicated grief, lasting months or years. Without help and support, such grief can lead to isolation and chronic loneliness.
Many people expect to experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, in that order, due to the continuing influence of On Death and Dying, the 1969 book by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. However, it has been demonstrated that many, if not most, people will not progress through these stages. While some people do experience the stages, and eventually reach acceptance after a loss, grief is now understood to be highly individualized and unpredictable.
Many of the symptoms of grief overlap with those of depression. There is sadness, and often the loss of capacity for pleasure; insomnia; and loss of interest in eating or taking care of oneself. But symptoms of grief tend to lessen over time, although they may be temporarily reactivated on anniversaries or when other reminders of a loss arise. While negative thoughts such as “life is unfair” and “I’ll never get over this” are part of the normal grieving process, it is important to prevent them from guiding your actions.
Because grief is experienced in many ways, experts suggest that those who would support a friend or loved one in a time of grieving follow that person’s lead, and resist judging whether they seem to be insufficiently sad or to be dwelling in grief for too long. And it is generally unhelpful to encourage the pursuit of “closure.”
Offering practical help and an acknowledgment of a loss are both positive actions. Many mourners want those around them to listen, ask questions, and share memories, thereby confirming the depth and validity of the griever’s feelings and helping them heal.
It is expected that someone will grieve after the loss of a parent, sibling, partner, child, or best friend. But those are not the only losses that lead to grief. People may grieve the loss of a treasured pet, a job or other important role in life, or a home or other emotionally significant possessions. And it often occurs after a divorce.
Unfortunately, many find that those around them do not acknowledge these forms of grief, which is why they are labeled disenfranchised: The pain is compounded by the feeling that one has not been given “permission” to experience it. But the framework of mourning can help an individual work through such moments of chaos, especially if those around them respond with compassion, and recognize that an individual is entitled to anger, numbness, and nonlinear healing.