What Grief Really Means And How To Know What's Normal Or Healthy When You're Grieving

Photo: Fizkes / Shutterstock
woman coping with grief

Grief is one of life’s most difficult and, often, inevitable emotions. Anyone who has ever lost a loved one knows that grieving is complicated and difficult to wrap your head around.

Even though no one wants to experience it, grief is an unavoidable part of life that can leave you feeling confused, lonely, or struggling to cope.

Coping with the loss of family members or friends isn’t easy for anyone, but you don’t have to do it alone. Understanding grief and loss, and all that comes with it may help you navigate this difficult life stage.

What is grief?

Whether you lose someone suddenly, to a long-term terminal illness, or experience a heartbreak that's difficult to bear, grief is a normal emotion to experience.

How do you define grief?

The most basic dictionary definition of grief is "deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone's death."

California-based counselor and therapist Jacob Brown offers his own explanation.

“Grief is our natural response to the loss of someone, or something, that we love," Brown told us. "It's that sense of heartbreak that we experience as we realize that an important part of our life has been forever changed and there is nothing we can do to make it better.”

This emotion may leave you feeling numb, angry, confused, upset and/or all of these feelings at once.

RELATED: 60 Uplifting Words Of Comfort To Offer Someone Who Is Grieving

What are the stages of grief?

The grieving process is highly personal. There is no linear reaction to loss or a perfect way to deal with the death of a loved one. However, some label the grief process in stages to help you understand what you're going through.

According to the famous, albeit somewhat controversial theory proposed by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, five stages of grief include the following:

1. Denial

Feeling numb, shocked, or in disbelief after a loss. This is a defense mechanism to avoid a painful reality.

2. Anger

The pain of loss can leave you frustrated or angry at your situation. You may take it out on family and friends around you, or on life in general. You may even feel anger toward the person you’re grieving.

3. Bargaining

You may start analyzing what you could have done differently or how the outcome could have been avoided.

4. Depression

Sadness takes hold and you begin to feel your emotions in their full effect. You may experience crying, sleep issues, loss of appetite, loneliness, or regret.

5. Acceptance

Slowly you accept that reality cannot be altered. You begin to negotiate changes to your daily life and move forward, though some sadness will remain.

RELATED: The 5 Stages Of Grief — Plus 6 We Don't Realize Are Part Of The Grieving Process

What happens to the brain during grief?

Grieving can trigger a fight or flight response or lock your brain in a stress response, particularly if you’re dealing with a traumatic loss. You may experience a rise in anxiety or panic.

The brain may also attempt to disassociate from complicated grief to avoid having to confront the emotions, which may create a fog that impedes your focus or decision-making.

Common Myths and Understandings About Grief

1. It’s OK to not be strong during grief.

“Often people think they have to 'be strong, which is really another way of saying that they are trying not to feel the heartbreak of grief,” Brown says.

“They want to power through it and get to the other side. Unfortunately, when you try to skip the grieving process, all that happens is that you make your grief last even longer.”

2. You don’t have to forget to move on.

Suppressing emotions or memories about the person who died is not a solution to grief.

It’s important to embrace their memory and allow the person to remain part of your life as you move forward.

3. You don’t have to cry to grieve.

Crying is normal but it’s not how everyone expresses grief. If you find yourself exhibiting other emotions, it doesn’t mean you don’t love or miss the person you’ve lost.

4. We don’t all grieve the same way.

“We each grieve in our own way,” Brown says. “The only 'wrong' way to grieve is to not let yourself experience your feelings of sadness and loss.”

5. Grief may reappear over time.

There is no specific timeline for grief. Pain and loss may ease and surge from time to time.

“Recovering from loss doesn’t mean that you stop missing that person, you’ll continue to miss them,” Brown tells us. “Even after years, something will trigger a memory or a thought and you’ll feel the sadness and pain of your loss. That is very normal.”

Tips for Coping With Grief

While you will likely find your own way to grieve that is personal to you, there are things you can do to make coping with a loss slightly easier.

1. Acknowledge your pain.

2. Accept that grief triggers lots of different emotions.

3. Give yourself time.

4. Don’t isolate yourself, talk to others even if it’s difficult.

5. Take care of yourself emotionally and physically by eating, sleeping, exercising, and returning to hobbies.

6. Be aware of when your emotions are becoming too overwhelming or depressive.

RELATED: 65 Best Grief Quotes To Help Someone Cope With Loss

How to Know When Grief Becomes Excessive Or Lasts Too Long

The length of time you grieve for depends on a range of factors like your personality, age, beliefs, and support network.

It can also vary based on the type of grief. For example, you may grieve the loss of a partner for longer than you grieve a distant relative.

Grief may be excessive if there is no easing of the pain for a prolonged period or if you’re struggling to see a future.

“If you lose someone important in your life, like a spouse or a parent, it wouldn’t be unusual if for the next month or so you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, become forgetful, cry at the drop of a hat, go back to bed for a few hours in the middle of the day, and lose interest in activities that used to give you pleasure,” says Brown.

“But, if you’re still at that same point several months later, then you may need help in moving through your grieving process.”

When to Seek Professional Help Dealing With Grief

“It is time to think about seeing a Grief Counselor when it feels as if you are stuck in the grief process and you’re unable to engage in your life,” Brown says.

When grief doesn’t get better, it may be what doctors call, “complicated grief.” Contact a professional if you are dealing with any of the following:

Feelings of depression

— Feeling that life is meaningless

— Thoughts about harming yourself

— An inability to keep your normal routine

— Blaming yourself

— Prolonged denial

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, you are not alone. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional if needed.

Visit SAMHSA's website, or call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

RELATED: 5 Suggestions For Coping With Prolonged Pandemic Grief

Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her Twitter for more.