Grief is a reaction to a major loss. It can be triggered by the death of a loved one, but people can also experience grief if they have lost a job, experienced an end to a significant relationship, loss of personal property, an illness for which there is no cure, a chronic condition that affects their quality of life. It is most often an unhappy and painful emotion, but it is a normal process that each person must move through. It is not something you get over or can bypass.
Everyone feels grief in their own way. However, there are common stages to the process of grieving. It starts with recognizing a loss and continues until a person eventually accepts that loss.
Shock, denial, disbelief, numbness. When you learn that you have lost, or may lose, someone you love, you may find the news hard to accept. Common thoughts include, “This can’t be happening” or “There must be some mistake.” The feeling of disbelief gives yourself some emotional breathing room and protects you from the full effect of the news when you are not ready to accept it.
Anger, blaming others. After you have begun to accept a loss, you may feel very angry. You may blame others or the person who died for the situation even if you know, realistically, that they are not responsible for it. Or, you may let out your frustration by becoming irritated easily or unintentionally doing things that hurt others. All of these feelings are normal. Anger can be a way of hiding your pain when you can’t or don’t know how to express your real feelings.
Bargaining and guilt. Even if you know there is little or no hope for a recovery, you may tell yourself you can do something to solve the problem. You may try to make a deal with the doctors, God, or yourself, promising to make changes if the situation will go away. You may have thoughts like, “I’ll never become angry with my partner or child again if only the cancer goes away.” It’s normal to go over past actions and think, “If only I had done this . . .” Many people also feel a sense of guilt or responsibility that fosters the belief that they can still or should have somehow changed things.
Depressed mood, sadness, and crying. At some point, you will feel the full impact of the loss, and begin to understand what it will mean to go through life without someone you love or whatever you may have lost. At this stage, you may feel very sad and perhaps allow yourself to cry for the first time. Feelings like these usually mean that you are closer to the end of the grief process.
Acceptance, coming to terms. At the final stage of grief, you accept your loss even though you still don’t like this fact. You forgive yourself and others and, perhaps for the first time, may feel a sense of peace about the loss. You may still feel sad, but you have stopped trying to fight reality. You may be able to clean out the room of the person who died or participate again in some of the activities you enjoyed together. At this stage, people often think about trying to find an enduring way to pay tribute to the life of someone who has died.
People’s responses to grief will be different, depending on the circumstances of the event that is causing the grief symptoms. Not everyone goes through all of the stages of grief, or experiences them in the same order and you may also go through a stage more than once. At some point you may think you have moved beyond depression, but you may feel sad again on a holiday or an anniversary. Or, you may get angry when you have to handle alone the everyday difficulties that you used share. Experiences like these are normal.
The grief process can’t be rushed and shouldn’t be. It’s important to let yourself feel the pain and most people find that over time the intensity of the pain will decrease. Even if one denies their pain of a loss, the grief still exists. If it does not affect them at this moment, it will eventually erupt in some way, maybe at an inappropriate moment or during another traumatic event. Most professionals suggest that it is always better to admit our strong feelings about a situation, to feel them, and to move through the grieving process in order to move beyond the event.
It is important to know that grieving is an important, normal, and healthy response to loss. If you feel overwhelmed or very sad for much longer than other people in similar situations, or if you continue to have trouble eating, sleeping, or enjoying life, you may want to talk with a therapist, social worker, or chaplain.