As a psychologist and therapist, I work with many people in my clinical practice suffering through grief and loss. In this guide, I’m going to teach you everything I know about what grief is, how it works, and how best to cope with grief and tragic loss.
Here’s what you’ll learn:
- What grief is and the psychology behind it, including its causes, symptoms, and stages.
- 6 practical tips and ideas for coping with and navigating grief in a healthy way.
- Common myths and misconceptions about grief.
- Answers to many frequently asked questions and concerns about grief like how long it should last, how to help someone else who’s grieving, and much more.
- Extra resources on grief and loss
Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Feel free to use the following links to jump to a particular section that interests you:
- Part 1. Understanding Grief
- Part 2. How to Grieve Well: 6 Practical Tips
- Part 3. Common Myths and Misconceptions About Grief
- Part 4. Frequently Asked Questions about Grief
- Extra Resources for Understanding Grief and the Grieving Process
- Summary and Key Takeaways
What is grief?
Grief is the natural response to the loss of a person or things that was valuable or loved.
Grief is often quite intense and long-lasting and occurs on many levels from emotional and physical to social and spiritual. Especially in the early stages, people who are grieving often describe feeling overwhelmingly sad and distraught, although grief may also manifest emotionally as “numbness” or feeling “disconnected.”
What causes grief?
Grief is almost always triggered by the loss of someone or something very valuable or loved.
Traditionally, we associate grief with the death of a loved one. And indeed, this is a common cause for grief. But any significant loss can lead to grief:
- Many people experience grief in response to the loss of a job.
- Grief is also quite common (though not talked about much) after divorce or separation.
- Miscarriage is another common but little-discussed source of grief.
- Sometimes grief is caused by children going away to college.
- People frequently experience grief after the death of a beloved pet.
In short, grief doesn’t have to be about death and it doesn’t have to involve another person. It doesn’t even have to be “big” or what most people would consider significant.
If you lose something that’s valuable to you, it’s natural to experience grief.
What are the symptoms of grief?
There are many possible symptoms of grief that occur on many different levels.
Emotional Symptoms of Grief
- Shock, surprise and confusion are common emotional reactions to loss, especially if it’s sudden or unexpected.
- Sadness is often the most common emotional symptom of grief, and is often accompanied by related emotions like loneliness, despair, nostalgia, or anguish.
- Anger is another common emotional symptom of grief. People who are grieving frequently experience anger at God, themselves, medical providers, or even the person whom they lost. Increased irritability is also frequent.
- Guilt frequently comes along with grief, often over things unsaid and undone or not making amends.
- Finally, fear and anxiety are common symptoms of grief. It’s normal to feel anxious, worried, or helpless. And panic attacks can also occur. It’s not unusual for grief to also trigger fears about oneself and one’s own mortality or frailty.
Mental Symptoms of Grief
- Rumination. Many people find themselves ruminating over perceived mistakes or missteps related to their loss and how they wish they could have changed what they did. This rumination often causes additional emotional distress on top of the normal emotional toll of grief.
- Worry. It’s common during grief to find yourself worrying about what life will be like without the person or thing you’ve lost. It’s also common to worry about the spiritual state of their loved one after death. Significant worry during grief can lead to high levels of anxiety.
- Intrusive memories. During the grieving process, it’s normal to have all sorts of people, places, or things trigger memories of the loved one who’s passed away or other loss. Although it’s understandable, habitually avoiding situations that might trigger painful memories can make those memories even more common and intrusive.
- Fantasizing. Often people in the grief process find themselves fantasizing about what their life would be like if the person or thing hadn’t been lost.
Physical Symptoms of Grief.
- Tiredness and fatigue are extremely common during times of grief.
- Weight gain and weight loss or changes to appetite are all common during the grieving process.
- Increased aches and pains may occur during grief.
Behavioral and Social Symptoms of Grief.
- Insomnia and difficulty sleeping are very common symptoms during grief.
- Isolation and avoidance of usual activities is also common.
- Low motivation and lack of interest in normally enjoyed activities can occur.
Grief and Depression
It’s important to understand that while grief and depression are similar in many ways, and share many overlapping causes and symptoms, they are distinct:
- Typically, people who are grieving experience a wider range of emotional experiences than those who are depressed. While sadness may dominate, for instance, they are often still capable of experiencing joy in other areas of their life even if the effect is somewhat blunted.
- Other symptoms of depression that are not typically associated with grief include: suicidal thoughts or actions, feelings of despair and hopelessness, auditory or visual hallucinations, consistently unable to go about daily activities at home or at work, dramatically slowed movement and speech.
If you think you might be depressed in addition to your grief, it’s perfectly okay to make an appointment with your primary care doctor or even schedule a session with a local counselor or therapist to discuss. Often, just a few sessions with a professional can help you clarify what you are experiencing and make a decision about how best to proceed.
Importantly, even if you are not depressed, grief is a perfectly valid reason to see a counselor or therapist. They may be able to help you navigate your grief in as a healthy a way as possible and simply provide support and validation through a difficult time.
Stages of Grief
In 1969, psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross published a book called On Death and Dying in which she introduced her 5 stages of grief model.
Based primarily on her work with terminally ill patients, her model suggests that the grieving process includes 5 distinct stages that people pass through:
- Denial. In this first stage, the individual believes that the loss unreal or a mistake and engages in various forms of denial.
- Anger. Once the individual comes to terms with the reality of the situation, they tend to become frustrated and externalize their grief in the form of anger. Often this manifests as criticism of people close to the loss such as doctors or family members.
- Bargaining. This stage involves holding out hope that a better outcome can be attained. Often it takes the form of a negotiation with God.
- Depression. The fourth stage involves despair, sadness, and isolation at the finality of the loss.
- Acceptance. In the final stage, people embrace the finality of the loss and report a kind of inner calm and peace with the fact of the loss.
While many people have found this model useful over the years to help them or a loved one make sense of their grief, it’s been criticized for its questionable cultural validity and general lack of empirical support. Later in her life, Kubler-Ross herself noted that the stages probably weren’t linear and likely would not apply to everyone.
If you’re interested in this model, I recommend reading the original book as a good place to start.
My own view is that for many people the specific stages and the idea that one must progress through them can be more invalidating than helpful. Many people do not ever go through stages of denial or bargaining, for instance, but can feel like they’re “doing grief wrong” if they’re not.
Instead, I like to suggest that thinking about grief in terms of stages generally is helpful. This means acknowledging that your grief immediately after the loss may look different than a week later, a month later, and a year later. That is, grief is a developmental process—it’s something that’s fluid and dynamic and dependent on all sorts of factors from personality and culture to environmental conditions and physical health.
Remember: there’s no one correct way to experience grief. But you can expect that it will change with time and that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. In fact, it’s likely a good thing and a sign that your grief is unfolding in a healthy way.
Upsides and Benefits of Grief
To be clear, a discussion of the “upsides” or “benefits” of grief is in no way a suggestion that losing someone or something in your life is a good thing. Rather, it’s important to acknowledge that within the sadness and grief of loss, it is possible to find positives.
I often find it helpful to talk with my clients who are grieving about the fact that our grief is proportional to our love and value. In other words, the fact that we feel so strongly our loss is a reflection of how much love and value we had and often still have for the person or thing that was lost. This can be a powerful way of “transforming” grief for many people.
Loss and grief can also mark beginning of new chapters or stages in our lives. And while transitions are often rocky and painful, the very pain of them forces us to change and grow and adapt.
Many people who experience grief after losing a job, for example, are forced to come to terms with the fact that their identity was too tied to one particular thing in their life. As a result, they had to expand and develop their interests and abilities. Similarly, as painful as divorce can be, for many people it forces them to confront the issues that lead to the marriage not working, a process that can lead to positive growth and change in the long-run.
How to Grieve Well: 6 Practical Tips for Coping with Grief and Loss
Grief is a highly individual process, as unique as the people experiencing it. Everything from our personal histories and culture to personality traits and temperament affects how we experience and cope with major loss in our life.
That said, based on my own work as a therapist, it seems to me there are some common themes in the stories of people who manage to grieve well.
What follows are 6 suggestions to help you think about and navigate your own grieving process in a compassionate, constructive, and healthy way.
1. Don’t put time-limits on your grief.
A common question I’m asked from people mourning a significant loss is:
Is it supposed to take this long?
Most of us understand that grief is normal and inevitable after a major loss. But the duration of grief is not as well understood. Many people think that it should last for a year but no more. Some people think it may last for a while but should feel much easier after the first couple weeks.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s any way to know how long your grief “should” last. It’s important to acknowledge this inherent uncertainty instead of fighting against it by putting artificial deadlines on your grief, which often backfire.
Grief does lessen with time, but how quickly and to what extent is difficult to predict.
If you experience a major loss, you will always feel some sadness and grief when reminded of that loss. And while that can be hard to accept, it makes sense if you think about it: If someone or something was a major part of your life, it’s not realistic to think that just because you’ve gone through a grieving process you will no longer feel sadness or regret when you’re reminded of it.
Grief is about learning to accept and manage our sadness around loss, not to eliminate it.
2. Resist comparing your grief to other people’s.
In the age of Instagram and Dr. Google, it’s all-to-easy to compare our grief and the grieving process to that of other people.
This impulse to compare and contrast our grief with others is natural. We’re social creatures and we crave the knowledge that what we’re experiencing isn’t completely foreign or outside the norm.
Which means it’s not surprising when we find ourselves wishing we could get on with life as quickly as our sister-in-law did. Or wondering why our co-worker was able to so quickly bounce back after being laid off and start applying for new jobs.
But the act of comparing our grief to that of others and then judging it accordingly usually isn’t helpful.
For one thing, everyone’s life and circumstances and the nature of their loss are unique. Which means even if the superficial details look similar, comparing griefs in always an apples to oranges comparison.
Sure, you and you co-worker both got laid off. But maybe your co-worker had lass of his identity wrapped up in his work, which would mean his experience of loss would be far less than yours. Or maybe, unbeknownst to you, he had been itching to switch careers anyway, so this loss was actually an opportunity for him.
The second reason to avoid too much comparison when it comes to grief is that it’s usually invalidating. Baked into most comparisons is a subtle evaluation that our grief should look and feel more like someone else’s. The implication being that there’s something wrong with our grief.
Consequently, in addition to feeling bad about your loss, you’re feeling bad about feeling bad. This second layer of painful emotion will only make processing your grief harder and longer, so it’s best to avoid the comparisons and remind yourself that even though it seems like a simple comparison, it’s never that simple.
Grief is complex. And complexity doesn’t lend itself well to superficial comparisons.
3. Spend time grieving intentionally.
This one sounds strange, but it’s based on a key idea in the mechanics of emotion: What we resist, persists.
When our mind see us fighting with or running away from something (including an emotion like sadness, for example), it learns to see that thing as a threat. Which means the next time something triggers your sadness, your mind is going to go on high alert, increasing your anxiety and overall level of emotionality.
Trying to avoid difficult emotions only makes them stronger in the long-run.
But if you flip this idea on its head, it leads to a counterintuitive but powerful solution: By deliberately approaching difficult emotions like sadness, we can train our brain to become more comfortable with them.
And while the pain of sadness will always be there, it’s a lot easier to work through and bear when it’s not also overburdened with fear, shame, frustration, and all sorts of other difficult feelings that come from training our minds to think of sadness as dangerous.
Practically speaking, one of the best things you can do is make time to grieve and be sad on purpose. Carve out some time on a regular basis to approach your grief and sadness intentionally and willingly.
So, you might make out 10 minutes each evening and write in your journal about the sadness you’re feeling or about the memories that are most painful for you.
When you approach your grief willingly, it signals to your own mind that what you’re experiencing is painful but not bad or dangerous.
This is probably the most powerful but underutilized techniques for managing grief I know of. Every single time I’ve recommended it and a client has followed through with it consistently, they’ve reported surprisingly positive results.
Like a good friend who listens compassionately, grieving intentionally validates your pain and suffering.
4. Seek out the right kind of social support.
The idea that you should seek out social support during grief is one of the most common pieces of advice out there for processing grief. It’s also one of the most misunderstood.
The key mistake people make is that they assume social support means talking to other people specifically about your grief or loss:
- Joining a support group.
- Long, emotionally draining conversations with loved ones.
- Seeing a professional counselor or therapist.
And while deliberately talking about and sharing your grief can be helpful for some people at certain stages, that’s not the only way to get social support while you’re grieving.
Just because you’re grieving, doesn’t mean you have to talk about your grief all the time!
It’s perfectly okay to want to spend time with people and actually not talk about your grief, your loss, your feelings, etc. In fact, this is a great place to start if you’re not sure how to start the grieving process or if you feel like it’s not going well: just start spending little bits of time with people you enjoy doing activities you enjoy:
- Go to the driving range with a buddy and talk about sports.
- Meet a girlfriend for coffee and talk about politics.
- Get back into that book club you used to enjoy.
Simply being connected is what’s important during grief.
If you’re not feeling up for it, don’t put pressure on yourself to feel like you have to “process” your grief all the time. Just because you don’t feel like “talking about your feelings” doesn’t mean you’re avoiding them.
Unfortunately, many people experiencing grief feel a kind of social pressure or expectation to talk about their grief with friends and family. If you feel like this pressure is leading you to avoid people or activities you would normally enjoy, simply send them an email or text and let them know that you’d love to hang out and need a break from talking about your loss and grief.
Your grief process is your own. Which means how and when you choose to talk about it is up to you.
5. Allow yourself you feel more than just sadness.
A common pattern I see among people who struggle with grief is that they believe it’s somehow wrong or unnatural to feel anything other than sorrow and sadness. But these rigid demands and expectations for their emotional lives often end up magnifying their suffering.
By limiting our grief exclusively to sadness, we end up invalidating the emotionally complex nature of grief.
Remember, grief is a response to significant loss. And while sadness is often a large or even dominant part of our emotional reaction to loss, it’s almost never the only one:
- It’s okay to feel happy and even joyful at time during the grieving process.
- It’s okay to feel angry and disappointed, even if you feel those toward a person you’ve lost.
- It’s okay to feel afraid or anxious about your future as a result of your loss.
In short, it’s okay to feel anything when you’re grieving. And while many of the emotions we feel are difficult or even painful, it’s important to acknowledge and validate all of them as legitimate and natural.
In fact, in my experience, a common factor among people who transition exceptionally well through grief is that they’re remarkably open and accepting of all their emotions and reactions during grief. They take it as it comes, without judgment or expectation.
Healthy grief means embracing the full range of emotions it contains with compassion and understanding.
6. Take self-care seriously.
An underappreciated part of healthy grieving is taking care of yourself, especially your body.
When loss and grief strike, your life is understandably thrown into disarray and disorder. From legal and logistical issues to social and emotional changes, grief can be chaotic.
Unfortunately, amid the chaos and confusion of grief, many people let go of healthy habits and routines they normally engage in. Ironically, this makes it harder to navigate your grief well.
Changes to physical health habits are especially harmful:
- Diet and nutrition. It’s easy to slip into unhelpful eating habits during times of grief. The content and quantity of how much we eat can have a profound effect on our emotional and physical wellbeing. Both over eating and undereating can actually make it harder to navigate the many challenges of grief and the grieving process.
- Exercise and physical activity. It’s natural to experience low levels of energy and motivation during grief. Which, of course, can make getting regular exercise challenging. But the reverse is true too - one of the best ways to gain energy, restore motivation and enthusiasm, and better regulate painful emotions is by staying physically active and exercising regularly. Even committing to a short daily walk can make all the difference.
- Sleep. For many people going through the grieving process, bedtime and sleep can be an especially difficult time. While visitors, activities, and to-dos keep the mind occupied to some extent during the day, at bedtime many people experience a flood of painful memories, thoughts, and emotions. Consequently, they end up avoiding bedtime and disrupting their sleep routines and schedules. But poor sleep makes just about everything in life harder, including managing the many challenges of grief.
It’s natural during times of grief to have our focus dominated by thoughts of the person or things we’ve lost. But try your best not to let your attention and energies be totally dominated by it. If you’re going to grieve well, you need a solid foundation of self-care, especially diet, exercise, and sleep.
You can’t grieve well if you don’t take care of yourself.
Myths and Misconceptions About Grief
As a therapist, I encounter a lot of myths and misconceptions about grief and grieving well. Here are a handful of the most common along with some brief thoughts of my own.
In order to move on with your life, you need to forget about your loss.
It’s unrealistic to expect that you will for get about any significant loss. If you’ve lost someone or something dear to you, you will have memories. And when those memories arise, you will have emotional reactions to them. This is unavoidable.
Moving on doesn’t mean that you forget your loss and cease to feel anything about it. It means you’ve constructed a new relationship with a part of your life that lives on only in memory now.
Grief is an emotion.
I often have people come to see me in my clinical work who have just experienced a loss and are concerned because they are not “feeling grief.” They think something’s wrong because they’re not experiencing this distinct emotion called grief.
In fact, this is normal because grief isn’t technically an emotion. It’s more of a concept or category that represents a range of different experiences, including emotions like sadness or anger but also thoughts and memories, physical sensations, etc.
If you don’t shed tears or frequently feel sad you’re not processing your grief in a healthy way.
There are many stereotypes when it comes to grief, and one of the strongest is crying. While it’s quite common to cry—often very much—during the grieving process, it’s not required for healthy grieving.
The only time a lack of tears would be significant is if you were deliberately avoiding feeling sadness or experiencing your grief and lack of tears was the result. In this case, your avoidance of grief might be worth examining more closely.
Women grieve more than men.
There is zero evidence for this.
The way grief manifests between men and women is often different, in large part I suspect because of cultural norms and early training. But there’s no reason to believe that, across groups, men simply grief less than women.
The more intense and lasting your grief the better.
It used to be fashionable in some mental health circles to suggest that the harder and longer you grieved the better—as if grief was a kind of purging process and the more intense the sorrow the more effective the healing.
Again, there’s no substantive evidence for this.
Grief is not very amenable to being forced, one way or another. You don’t need to avoid or extend your grief. Simply try to be open to it.
Grief should last for approximately one year.
Not sure where this one came from but it’s a surprisingly common view that healthy grief lasts no longer than a year.
For one thing, there are no clear lines that demarcated when the grieving process is over. And in one sense, grief is a lifelong process. It may be dramatically more intense in the early days, but it’s something you will always feel and experience to some extent if the loss was a significant part of your life.
The best way to minimize the pain of grief is to ignore it.
Chronically avoiding grief is probably not a good idea since it’s easy to teach your brain to teach your brain to fear grief and it’s associated elements (e.g. memories, sadness, etc.) if you’re constantly running away from it.
On the other hand, you don’t need to wallow in it either. It’s perfectly healthy to focus on other aspects of your life during the grieving process. To some extent, this does means “ignoring” your grief. The difference is that it’s situation specific and not an overall strategy aimed at never experiencing grief.
Frequently Asked Questions About Grief
Here are some of the most common questions I get when it comes to grief, loss, and grieving well.
What is Pre-grief or anticipatory grief?
It’s very common for people to experience a kind of grief in anticipation of a major loss. For example, when a loved one is terminally ill, pre-grief or anticipatory grief often occurs and can look and feel much like grief itself—sadness, anger, and fear are all quite common.
Like grief itself, the key to working through anticipatory grief in a healthy way is to acknowledge it and validate it as normal and understandable even if painful. Demanding that you not feel some kind of grief when you know it’s coming actually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
What is prolonged grief? And what about complicated grief?
Some clarification systems use the term complicated grief to describe abnormal patterns of grief and grieving. The most common form of complicated grief is called prolonged grief, which means the intensity of grief persists longer than is expected and causes significant impairment to everyday functioning..
Other characteristics of prolonged grief include:
- Difficulty accepting the death or loss
- Difficulty continuing on with life
- Emotional numbness and persistent avoidance of things associated with the loss
- Feeling as if you’ve lost a part of yourself
- Rumination over how the loss could have been prevented and/or unreasonable guilt
If you think you’re suffering from prolonged or otherwise complicated grief, make an appointment with a qualified mental health professional or counselor.
What is a grief attack?
While grief is often described as a relatively constant experience, or perhaps that it comes “in waves,” some people experience sudden, acute bouts of very intense grief, which are sometimes called grief attacks.
Typically, a grief attack is triggered by a thought or memory associated with your loss. Sometimes this association can be so subtle that you aren’t even fully aware of it and the attack seems to come out of nowhere.
The key to lessening the intensity and frequency of these attacks is to not run away from them. Just like trying to escape or eliminate a panic attack is the very thing that gives them power and makes them more likely to come back in the future, by trying to escape these grief attacks, you train your mind to fear them. Consequently, you will be more sensitive to them in the future and also more reactive.
When you feel a grief attack coming, remind yourself that it’s okay to feel very strong sudden grief. Everybody grieves in their own way. Also, remind yourself that you’re not alone. While not common, grief attacks are certainly not rare and many, many people experience them. Cultivate self-compassion.
How do I help someone who’s grieving?
Being supportive and helpful to someone who is experiencing grief can be a daunting task for many people. Many people feel awkward or uncomfortable discussing the topic of grief and loss, while others often fear saying the wrong thing or somehow making things worse.
Here area few quick tips for helping someone who is grieving:
- If you’re not sure how to help, just ask. This can seem strange at first blush, but there’s nothing wrong with simply asking someone how you can be most supportive or helpful to them. For example, you could invite them to go grab lunch and in the invite simply say, “I know this is a tough time and I just want to help in whatever way I can. Would it be helpful to talk about your loss at lunch or would you rather not?”
- Don’t give advice unless asked. And even then, be cautious. We’re all trained to be problem solvers. But advice-giving is rarely a good idea when it comes to supporting someone who’s grieving. The reason is, it often comes across as invalidating; that is, even though it’s not your intention, giving advice can make the other person feel like their grief is a problem to be fixed rather than an experience to work through. Instead of giving advice, try to be a good listener; be validating; and just be there with them.
- Support them indirectly. Just because a close friend or loved one is grieving doesn’t mean you have to be their counselor or that talking is the only way you can be helpful. Organize a group of people to make them meals a few nights a week; invite them to activities you think they’d enjoy; offer to help them out around the house one weekend. In other words, you don’t have to talk about their grief directly to support them in their grieving process. You can support them in all sorts of ways and indirectly you will be helping them in their grief.
What is grief therapy or grief counseling?
While grief is a normal and heathy phenomenon, many people find it helpful to work with a therapist or counselor, especially during the early stages of their grief.
A grief counselor (or therapist) is simply a professional who specializes in helping people think about and work through the many difficulties associated with loss and grief. While they may have specific recommendations or resources, they mostly help by providing safe space and compassionate ear for you do discuss and work through your grief.
Grief counseling is especially beneficial is you feel like you don’t have anyone else in your life you can talk to about your loss and how you’re grieving.
Importantly, grief counseling can be a relatively brief process, perhaps just a few sessions or a couple months worth of visits. Of course it could also be longer if you want, but it doesn’t have to be.
Is grief normal after divorce?
Yes, grief following a divorce or separation is quite common. Of course, it doesn’t necessarily look or feel exactly like grief after death would, that doesn’t mean it isn’t grief. Often, grief following a divorce or separation involves a stronger presence of emotions like anger, fear, or guilt in addition to sadness. Still, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s normal and healthy to experience grief after divorce and it’s something that may take time to work through.
How do I know if and when I need to seek professional help?
We discussed above why anyone experiencing grief could benefit from seeing a professional counselor or therapist. However, sometimes grief can morph into depression, complicated grief, or other serious mental health issues, in which case it’s advisable to see a professional.
Some of the following are reasons to strongly consider contacting a professional counselor, therapist, or other trained mental health provider:
- You’re feeling suicidal, hopeless, or seriously wish you had died along with the person you lost.
- You consistently blame yourself for the loss or failing to prevent it when not warranted by the facts.
- You’re unable to perform typical daily activities like cleaning, eating, taking care of children, or going to work.
- You’re abusing alcohol, drugs, or otherwise engaging in dangerous behavior.
More Resources for Understanding Grief and the Grieving Process
A handful of helpful resources for dealing with grief:
- Find a local grief support group.
- The National Helpline. 24/7 telephone line you can call for support or help related to any mental health or emotional difficulty, including grief.
- Find a local therapist or counselor.
- Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief
- Moving Through Grief: Proven Techniques for Finding Your Way After Any Loss
Summary and Key Takeaways
Grief is a process that largely unfolds on its own. Rather than trying to force it into something specific or run away from it, try to approach it with acceptance and gentleness:
Don’t put time-limits on your grief.
Don’t compare your grief to other people’s.
Spend time grieving intentionally.
Seek out the right social support.
There’s more to grief than sadness.
Take your self-care seriously.