When we lose someone or something we love or care deeply about, the pain can, at times, become unbearable. We may experience all kinds of difficult emotions; it may feel like the pain and sadness will never stop. These normal reactions to a significant loss need to be understood to help prevent further mental health complications later. Knowing that there is no right or wrong way to grieve—and using healthy ways to cope with the pain—can help us to move on.
Grief: A Natural Response to Loss
The emotional suffering we feel losing something or someone we love can be devastating: the more intense the grief, the more significant the loss. We generally associate grief with the death of a loved one, but any loss can cause grief. Some other losses that may cause grief include the loss of health, a friendship, a cherished dream, a job, financial stability, and safety after a trauma. A divorce or relationship breakup, selling the family home, a miscarriage, a loved one’s serious illness, the death of a pet, graduating from college and even retirement may cause grief.
The way we grieve depends on many factors, including our personality and coping style, our life experiences, our faith and the nature of the loss. The grieving process takes time and is a personal and individualized experience. It can’t be rushed; there is no timetable for grieving as healing happens gradually. Some of us may start to feel better in weeks or months, while others can take years. The sooner we start the grieving process the better as it may help lessen the emotional pain of the grief experience. It’s important to allow the process to unfold naturally, and to be patient with ourselves.
Five Stages of Grief
These stages of grief were based on studies of the feelings of patients facing terminal illness. In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced what became known as the Five Stages of Grief.
Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?
Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”
In experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it may help to know that our reaction is natural and that we’ll heal in time. However, not everyone who grieves goes through all of these stages—and that’s okay. Instead of a series of stages, we might also think of the grieving process as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Like many roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning; the lows may be deeper and longer. The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss. Even years after a loss—especially at special events such as a family wedding or the birth of a child—we may still experience a strong sense of grief.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Grief
While loss affects people in different ways, many experience the following symptoms when they’re grieving. Almost anything that we experience in the early stages of grief is normal, including feeling like we’re going crazy, feeling like we’re in a bad dream, or questioning our religious beliefs.
Shock and Disbelief
Right after a loss, it can be hard to accept what happened. We may feel numb, have trouble believing that the loss really happened, or even deny the truth. If someone we love has died, we may keep expecting him or her to show up, even though we know he or she is gone.
Profound sadness is probably the most universally experienced symptom of grief. We may have feelings of emptiness, despair, yearning or deep loneliness. We may also cry a lot or feel emotionally unstable.
We may regret or feel guilty about things we did or didn’t say or do. We may also feel guilty about certain feelings, such as feeling relieved when the person died after a long, difficult illness. After a death, we may even feel guilty for not doing something to prevent the death, even if there was nothing more we could have done.
Even if the loss was nobody’s fault, we may feel angry and resentful. If we lose a loved one, we may be angry with ourselves, God, the doctors or even the person who died for abandoning us. We may feel the need to blame someone for the injustice that was done to us.
A significant loss can trigger a host of worries and fears. We may feel anxious, helpless or insecure. We may even have panic attacks. The death of a loved one can trigger fears about our own mortality, of facing life without that person, or the responsibilities we may now face alone.
We often think of grief as a strictly emotional process, but grief often involves physical problems, including fatigue, nausea, lowered immunity, weight loss or weight gain, aches and pains, and insomnia.
The single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of other people. Even if we aren’t comfortable talking about our feelings under normal circumstances, it’s important to express them when we’re grieving. Sharing our loss makes the burden of grief easier to carry.
Talk to a Therapist or Grief Counselor
If your grief feels like too much to bear, call a mental health professional with experience in grief counseling. An experienced therapist can help you work through intense emotions and overcome obstacles to your grieving.
When Grief Doesn’t Go Away
It’s normal to feel sad, numb or angry following a loss. But as time passes, these emotions should become less intense as we accept the loss and start to move forward. If we aren’t feeling better over time—or our grief is getting worse—it may be a sign that our grief has developed into a more serious problem, such as complicated grief or major depression.
The sadness of losing someone we love never goes away completely, but it shouldn’t remain center stage. If the pain of the loss is so constant and severe that it keeps us from resuming our lives, we may be suffering from a condition known as complicated grief. Complicated grief is like being stuck in an intense state of mourning. We may have trouble accepting the death long after it has occurred or be so preoccupied with the person who died that it disrupts our daily routine and undermines our other relationships.
Symptoms of complicated grief include:
intense longing and yearning for the deceased;
searching for the deceased loved one in familiar places;
avoiding things that remind you of your loved one;
extreme anger or bitterness over the loss;
feeling that life is empty or meaningless;
intrusive thoughts or images of our loved one:
denial of the death or sense of disbelief; and imagining that our loved one is alive.
When to Seek Professional Help for Grief
If we recognize any of the above symptoms of complicated grief or clinical depression, we need to talk to a mental health professional right away. Left untreated, complicated grief and depression can lead to significant emotional damage, life-threatening health problems and even suicide. But treatment can help us get better.