Understanding Grief

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What is grief?

When someone you love dies, your life changes from the moment you first learn of their death. Grief is characterized by a deep sadness and an intense yearning or longing to be with that person again.

During the first weeks and months, you're likely to experience intense emotional and physical reactions, which at times might seem intolerable. You may question whether your feelings are “normal” and wonder whether you'll ever feel like your old self again.

Even though there is no "right" way to grieve or set of rules to follow, there are a number of things people who are grieving can do to help themselves get through this difficult time. Explore some strategies and tips. 

While grief can feel extremely painful, it's important to remember that it's a normal response to loss that usually eases over time. Most people who have lost a loved one will tell you that eventually they learned to live without their loved one, even though they will never forget them.

Knowing what to expect can help you navigate the first few months more easily.

Common Emotional and Physical Reactions

People report a number of emotional and physical reactions soon after the death of their loved one. Some reactions ease in a few weeks, while others linger for several months or longer. You may experience many of these reactions, or just a few – everyone is different.

Early on, it's also common to feel as though you're on "automatic pilot" just going through the motions. You may not remember who stopped by to visit or called to express their condolences. Organizing a funeral or memorial service and attending to financial matters can be overwhelming. You might feel "on edge" and find that the days tend to blur into one.

Even though these feelings can be difficult to bear, they're all normal responses as your mind and body attempt to take in the reality of your loved one's death. It's important to tell yourself that eventually these reactions will lessen as time goes on.

Physical Reactions

  • Crying/sobbing
  • Muscle tension
  • Panic
  • Fear
  • Restlessness
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty eating
  • Stomach upset

Emotional Reactions

  • Intense sadness
  • Yearning
  • Disbelief
  • Despair
  • Worry
  • Anguish
  • Guilt
  • Remorse
  • Emptiness
  • Anger
  • Relief

What to Expect

One of the first questions people ask is: "How long will I feel this way?"

The answer to this question is that it depends. How you grieve and how long it takes is influenced by your personality, the type of relationship you had with the person who died, the circumstances surrounding their death, and the way you deal with other challenges in your life.

Our society isn't very good at dealing with grief. We live in a fast-paced world with a "fix-it" mentality, and when someone dies, there's often an expectation that the bereaved should "get over it" as quickly as possible.

Grief, however, is not that simple. When someone dies, not only do we lose the person themselves but we lose the many other things they were to us: mentor, confidant, friend, hope for the future, historian, accountant, or the person who organized the social calendar.

If your loved one was sick for some time you may also miss your "job" as caregiver and the relationship you shared with the health professionals who were involved in their treatment.

What to Expect When Your Grief Is New

  • Crying easily
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling a loss of control
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling tired
  • Feeling less tolerant of other people
  • Questioning whether your experience is “normal”
  • Feeling anxious or panicky
  • Yearning for your loved one
  • Having difficulty making decisions
  • Having difficulty focusing on reading
  • Dreaming about your loved one
  • Having thoughts of dying to be with them again
  • Replaying events toward the end of their life

It's helpful to think of grief as following a wave-like pattern, where the strength and frequency of the waves lessens over time. Occasionally, larger waves or "trigger waves," which are usually accompanied by strong emotions, can catch you off guard when you least expect them. These triggers can include anything from hearing a song on the radio to noticing the change in season to acknowledging significant events such as birthdays and anniversaries.

Knowing that your grief will follow a wave-like pattern may help you understand why you have good and bad days. If you expect your grief to follow this pattern, you won't be surprised or think that you're getting worse when you have a "bad" day.

What do grieving people need?

Dealing with the death of a loved one can be a very lonely and isolating experience. Working out what you need to do to help yourself at this difficult time is crucial. People who are grieving need to be able to:

  • Tell their story
  • Give themselves permission to grieve
  • Find ways to regain a sense of control and balance in their life
  • Build a different path without their loved one

Tell Your Story

Everyone has a different story to tell about how your loved one died and the impact that their death has had on your life. Being able to tell your story – whether verbally or through writing – can help you make sense of what has happened and how your life has changed.

Permission to Grieve

One of the hardest things about grieving is that no one else can do it for you. There's no "off" switch or easy way around grief; it's something only you can do for yourself.

How much your life changes following a death relates to the degree of adjustment that you have to make. You may have to move or return to work, or you may have to find ways to fill your days that had been consumed by caregiving and medical appointments.

Regardless of the types of changes you have to make, the more changes you face, the longer it is likely to take.

Even though grieving can be particularly painful, it is, in fact, good, as it gives you the time and space to adjust to life without your loved one and the many changes that follow. Giving yourself permission to grieve doesn't mean "getting over" the death of your loved one, but rather involves acknowledging to yourself that it's normal to feel sad and to express your concerns about your future.

In the beginning, the best advice is to takes things slowly. Set aside some regular time to grieve. Healthy grieving involves getting through all the firsts: holidays, significant dates, birthdays, and the first anniversary of your loved one's death.

Learn more about the Bereavement Support Program at Dana-Farber Brigham Cancer Center.