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Understanding and Addressing Grief

Understanding Grief

Grief is the anguish experienced after a significant loss - usually the death of a loved one, but it can be a response to any form of loss.  It is a normal response that everyone experiences differently and causes physical and emotional reactions.  It is not a sign of weakness, nor does it follow a straight path. 


Stages of Grief

Many people are familiar with the Kubler-Ross model of five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  These are not linear stages that everyone will move through; instead, they describe many of the emotions that someone in mourning will experience.   Although it is helpful to understand the emotions in these stages, grief should be thought of as a wave-like process, with ups and downs that often catch a person off guard. 


Types of Grief

Grief has many forms, some of which you may not recognize. Below are several of the more common types.


Anticipatory - experiencing the emotions associated with grief before the expected loss happens. For example, a person may begin grieving when they learn that a loved one has a terminal illness. 

Uncomplicated or Normal- usually lasts six months to two years following a significant loss and eases over time. 

Complicated  - a prolonged grief disorder that is persistent for six months to a year after a loss, affecting the ability to function. Anyone experiencing intense grief and problems functioning that do not improve at least one year after the passing of their loved one should contact their doctor or a mental health professional.

Cumulative - the processing of multiple losses at once, such as grieving the loss of a spouse and the ending of a marriage.  Grieving multiple losses makes the process more complicated and complex.

Absent - a complete absence of grief in response to a significant loss. This is more common when the loss is sudden and includes the presence of denial and shock. 

Inhibited - the lack of outward signs of grieving or the repression of emotions. This can happen when a person does not take time to recognize or process feelings of grief, often leading to physical problems, such as panic attacks or trouble sleeping.

Delayed - experiencing the emotions that accompany grief days, weeks, or even months after the loss instead of immediately.  This can be due to the shock of the loss or being so busy handling the practical matters that accompany loss that the body cannot yet grieve.


Physical and Emotional Symptoms

Grief is expressed uniquely in each individual, with a variety of physical and emotional symptoms that differ from person to person. Below are some of the more common symptoms that a grieving person may experience:



  • Inflammation can increase, worsening existing health problems and causing new ones.

  • The immune system is weakened, leaving the person vulnerable to illness and infection.

  • Increased blood pressure and the risk of blood clots. Broken heart syndrome is a form of heart disease with the same symptoms as a heart attack.

  • Dizziness and shortness of breath

  • Tightness in the throat or chest

  • Extreme restlessness, moving from one activity to another

  • Fatigue

  • Headaches

  • Nausea or upset stomach

  • Heart palpitations

  • Weak muscles or joint pain

  • Having reduced or increased appetite.

  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much

Emotional or Mental 

  • Confusion

  • Irritability

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Inability to concentrate 

  • Difficulty remembering or experiencing gaps in memory

  • “Searching behavior”—looking for the loved one in an almost subconscious way

  • Auditory and/or visual hallucinations of the loved one

  • Odd and frightening dreams

  • Paranoia 

  • Conflicting and competing emotions such as sadness but also relief that they are at peace


Addressing Grief

Give yourself permission to grieve and accept your feelings. You may experience a wide range of emotions, such as sadness, anger, or even exhaustion. All these feelings are normal, and it’s important to recognize when you feel this way. There is no right way to grieve or a time limit, but if you feel overwhelmed by these emotions, it may be helpful to talk with a mental health professional who can help you cope with your feelings.

Talk about the death of your loved one with others to help you understand what happened and to remember your friend or family member. Avoidance can lead to isolation and slow the healing process. Talking and sharing stories with others experiencing the loss can help everyone cope and feel better. 

Take care of yourself and your family. Make sure that you are eating healthy foods, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep. Your body is experiencing physical and emotional strains and is vulnerable.

Remember and celebrate the lives of your loved ones. It’s essential to maintain a connection with your loved one and honor their memory in a way that is meaningful to you.  Some suggestions include compiling photos, videos, or stories of your loved one; making a playlist of their favorite music; supporting a cause that was meaningful to them; or planting a tree or garden in their memory. 

Have a plan to deal with the events, holidays, and special days, especially in the first year.  This can be a difficult time for friends and family, but if you are prepared, you can make it a time for remembrance and honoring your loved one. 

Seek support in the form of a support group or individual counseling to help you cope with your grief and learn how to adapt to living without your loved one.  Every support group is different, and you may need to try more than one to find  one that fits you. At  Mellie, we can help you find a local group or counselor. Your local faith community, hospital, hospice, or social service agency are also good resources.  Other resources include Grief in Common, which offers free and paid support groups and counseling; for online forums; and When Grief is New - A guide for families and friends by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

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