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Understanding Grief

A man sitting high up above a busy street with people and cars in view. He sits with his head bowed and his hands clasped between his knees.

“Mourning a major bereavement is a personal process with no set formula or absolute ending. It is not a finite process but a lifelong adjustment to a world without the deceased person.” -Smith, S. C., & Pennells, S. M, 1995

The inevitable and sad truth that we all learn throughout life is that every living thing must one day die. While this is a recognized fact of life, it is not a necessary an accepted fact for many people. The truth is that we will likely face many losses within our lives, some small some significant. Yet where do we learn how to grieve, and when do we acquire the needed tools to face the grieving process in a healthy manner? Most people will not wake up one morning enthralled with the concept of grief and go searching for answers, however, what does frequently occur is a cold and harsh forceful push caused by an unfortunate loss. What do we do next? What’s normal? How do we get through something that feels unbearable and unending?

We can not change what we do not know, so to start let’s try to understand a little more about grief:

Defining Grief

Grief is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement; also: a cause of such suffering” (2003). While this definition of grief may seem direct and clear,  it doesn’t always feel this clear or understandable. Grief can be complicated, confusing, and contradicting. Many people may also try to hide, minimize or mask their grief.


While no grief is alike it is common that individuals may experience some or a combination of the following:

  • Intense sadness
  • Depression
  • Uncontrollable emotional responses
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Memory impairment
  • Impaired concentration
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Excessive sleeping
  • Change in appetite
  • Loss of interest in activities/social isolation
  • Fear of future losses
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional numbness

These are just some of many responses to loss if you are experiencing intensive symptoms it may be helpful to reach out to your doctor or counselor to identify what supports may be helpful to processing your grief and decreasing symptoms.

What Causes Grief

When we think of grief most people think of a death, however grief is a natural process that can occur when we experience an actual loss (death of a loved one, loss of a job, etc) or a perceived loss (change in relationships, loss of respect from others, change in health, change in faith, etc.).

Myths About Grieving: While it is natural and healthy to grieve when we experience lose many individuals attempt to mask, ignore, or speed through the process of grieving. Unfortunately, grief is something you must go through not around. There is no quick fix, magic serum, or fast track to grief, however, there is a healthy way to manage grief. The first step toward grief recovery is understanding grief and what to expect and also to let go of unhelpful myths and societal expectations of grief. Some common myths about grieving (As expressed by James and Friedman’s Grief Recovery Handbook, 2002) are:

  • Don’t feel bad
  • Replace the loss
  • Grieve alone
  • Be strong
  • Keep busy
  • Time heals all wounds

These might be messages you have heard from caregivers, teachers, parents in your life, and while these statements are well meaning they are often unhelpful and untrue. A significant loss cannot be replaced, forgotten, distracted from, or waited out. It takes intentional practice and attending to loss in order to reach a state of grief recovery.

Impacting Factors of Grief

Just as each relationship is unique our grief experiences to loss of that relationship will also be unique. Even shared losses (siblings loss of a parent) may be experienced uniquely and differently by each individual.It is important to remember that it is not helpful to compare or judge our experience of grief, rather attempt to understand and practice patient acceptance of our experience.

Grief can also be complicated. Sometimes we grieve things that we didn’t feel love or appreciation for, this may present as a loss of a job we hated or loss of an unhealthy or abusive relationship. This complicated grief experience can feel confusing and individuals may often feel shame or guilt that inhibits them from reaching out to their support system due to fear of being misunderstood or judged. It is important to remember that grief is natural even if it is confusing or complicated, judging and blaming yourself for your experience will likely not be helpful. Give yourself some grace and acceptance and if it doesn’t feel comfortable to reach out to your support system it may be helpful to reach out to a counselor for support and further exploration of what might be causing some of the conflicting emotional responses to the loss.

Developmental Impacts. Our developmental and cognitive states can also have an impact on grief. For instance, when a child experiences a loss at a young age it is common that they will re-experience/re-process this experience throughout development stages of life. It is also common that significant changes in our life (marriage, children, change in careers, etc.) can also cause us to reprocess or re-examine grief and loss experience in our life. This reprocessing does not usually indicate a regression in grief rather it is your mind’s way of making sense of a difficult situation through a new “lens”.

What to do if I experience a loss or think I am grieving?

Not everyone that experiences loss will need grief counseling in order to process and manage grief in a healthy way. It is important to remember that grief and loss is a normal and natural process of life. When you experience a loss it’s important to remember:

  • Give yourself grace and patience, change won’t happen overnight
  • Take care of yourself, taking extra time for you, and engaging in self-care can be helpful and healing
  • Reach out: Contact friends or family, talk about your experiences, people may not know exactly the right thing to say, but sometimes just asking them to listen without attempting to fix, change, or understand can be incredibly powerful in the grief process
  • Share: Share how you’re feeling, share memories, share stories
  • Try to avoid engaging in the ‘myths’ of grieving (replacing, avoiding, time will heal, grieving alone), these will only prolong and further complicate the grief process.

Remember, grief is hard, if you need help or feel stuck, please reach out, there is support, there is recovery.