Loss is a natural part of life, inherent in the experience of living. That truth, however, doesn’t make grief any easier to go through. While grief is inevitable, everyone manages their grief differently, and coping with loss can look vastly different between people. There is no one way to grieve — or even one “best way” to grieve — but understanding what grief is, the different types of grief, and the seven stages of grief can help us make sense of what’s happening after a loss. Learning more about grief can also help people recognize when grief reactions are veering into harmful territory so they can find the support they need.
What is grief?
The best place to start is to understand what grief is and where it comes from. Grief is an emotional reaction to loss, and is an umbrella emotion that can encompass feelings like intense sadness, shock, loneliness, and more. People who are going through grief might also experience confusing emotions like guilt, fear, anxiety, apathy, or anger.
Some people experience physical or somatic symptoms when they’re grieving, such as fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, weight changes, insomnia, or other symptoms. Other symptoms might include feeling confused, having trouble making clear decisions, having a reduced attention-span, or finding it difficult to remember things.
Most people think that grief is only connected to the loss of life, such as the death of a loved one. However, grief is a common emotional reaction for other types of loss too, including:
- Break-ups or a divorce
- Medical diagnosis, whether your own or a loved one’s
- Change in employment status or financial stability
- Death of a pet
- Loss of a pregnancy or fertility challenges
- Loss of a friendship
- Moving to a new place
- Loss of youth or change in life stage
What types of grief are there?
There is such diversity in the origins of grief as an emotional reaction, and there are also different types of grief. While there is no “right” or “normal” type of grief, each poses unique challenges.
One of the most salient types of grief is anticipatory grief, or grief that happens before the loss occurs. When you know that a loss is upcoming or imminent, you might start the grief process before it happens. Examples include receiving terminal medical diagnoses, watching an older grandparent or parent gradually lose function, or learning that your job at work will be lost in a restructure in the upcoming months. Anticipatory grief can be a complicated experience because many people feel that it is wrong to grieve before the actual loss happens, as though they are “giving up” or “giving in” prematurely. However, because of the nature of anticipatory grief, it might give you the time you need to make sense of the loss before it occurs or to have important conversations with loved ones while they’re still able to have them.
Disenfranchised grief is a type of grief where you feel that other people are judging you for experiencing grief, particularly because of the stigma against the loss that you’ve had. Many people feel that they cannot openly grieve the loss of a pet, as other people don’t see it nearly as serious as the death of a family member (despite the very real emotions of sadness, longing, and loneliness that come with this type of loss). Another example could be the loss of a pregnancy. People who experience disenfranchised grief might find themselves thinking that they don’t have anything to grieve over and that society doesn’t recognize the grief that they’re going through. When you feel that your grief isn’t taken seriously, it can be hard to work through that grief and find a deeper meaning.
Delayed grief happens when, as the name implies, grief reactions occur days, weeks, or months after the loss. Grief may be delayed because of the shock that can occur immediately after a loss. Feelings of shock can reduce a person’s ability to understand or experience other emotions. Delayed grief can also happen when someone has to handle the administrative burdens after the death of a loved one, such as arranging the funeral or managing the estate. When the brain is busy with these tasks, it might be challenging to fully experience the emotions of grief until after things settle down.
Collective grief is not the experience of one person but rather a group of people. It happens when an adverse experience happens to a community. Examples include the grief that happens during or after wars, natural disasters, or political unrest. Communities who experience collective grief may find themselves feeling similar emotions after major loss, which can be an opportunity to gather and process in community.
Cumulative grief occurs when one person, over a short amount of time, experiences multiple losses. When multiple losses happen concurrently, the impact of a grief reaction can magnify. An example of this could be when the loss of a child is followed by the loss of a marriage, or when the loss of a job leads to the loss of friendships in the office. Cumulative grief can make it challenging to process through grief, as it is quite complex in nature due to its multiple origins.
Another type of grief is complicated grief. Complicated grief occurs when someone gets stuck in a grief reaction. It’s normal and appropriate to grieve for a period of time after the loss — particularly the loss of a loved one — but when that grieving interrupts your daily life functioning for more than a few months, it might be complicated grief. Signs of complicated grief might include regularly researching topics around the cause of your loved one’s death, or feeling intense longing for them in a way that it negatively impacts your mental health to the point of feeling hopeless. This is also called unresolved grief.
What are the seven stages of grief?
The seven stages of grief is a model of grief that outlines the different points within a person’s grief experience marked by particular emotions or feelings. A five stage model was developed by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler Ross, which she explains in her book “On Death and Dying” — later two more stages were added to her model.
- Denial. Denial tends to happen immediately after a loss and during a period of shock. People in denial about a loss might not believe what happened or they might find it difficult to accept that the loss occurred.
- Anger. Anger is a very natural — and even at times helpful — emotional reaction after loss. When someone is in the anger stage of grief, they might be looking for someone or something to blame for the loss. To cope with the confronting emotions that arise during this time, anger might be a way for someone to process through the reality of the loss.
- Testing. When someone is testing their grief, they’re trying to find ways to “fix” the loss. After a terminal diagnosis, they might research other treatment options as a way to avoid facing their anticipatory grief.
- Bargaining. Bargaining happens when someone tries to find a compromise or reach an agreement with the loss or with their grief, even when that bargain is unrealistic. They might promise never to become angry with their kids again or to go to church every Sunday if their illness goes away.
- Depression. During the depression stage of grief, someone might experience intense feelings of sadness, emotional detachment, and isolation in reaction to their loss.
- Acceptance. When acceptance happens, people feel settled in their loss. They might still feel grief, but they’ve accepted the reality of their loss and they look for ways to move forward.
One does not need to go through each stage to overcome their grief or to make meaning out of their loss. These stages are also not sequential, and they can be experienced concurrently.
How do I cope with grief?
Coping with grief looks like leveraging your already-existing coping strategies and relying on your natural resilience. Those who have already been through grief may have a blueprint for how to start coping with their grief. Regardless of past experience, finding coping strategies that feel natural and helpful is an important step toward processing a loss.
To understand how to cope with grief, ask yourself these questions:
- Has my grief changed since yesterday or last week? What does it look like today?
- What sounds helpful to me in reducing the intensity of my grief right now?
- Do I want to be around people or alone?
- What do I know about grief? How did I learn what I already know about grief?
- What does society tell me about grief? Does that feel true to my experience?
- What difficult experiences have I had in the past? How did I cope with negative emotions during that time? Are those coping strategies applicable in the present?
- What resources can I lean on during this time? What support networks can I lean on?
How do I heal after loss?
Acknowledging that grief is complicated and multi-dimensional can be a good first step to letting yourself grieve and heal after loss. Healing after loss might sound like an impossible task for many, particularly those in the middle of a grief reaction. Grief doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and there are always larger contexts to take into consideration when you’re reflecting on your grief, which means that multiple emotions can come up at the same time. Your grief might bring up emotions you thought were behind you or feelings from past experiences from which you thought you had moved on. Try to avoid comparing other people’s grief journeys to your own, as everyone deals with these emotions in their own way.
Taking care of yourself, including your physical health, is also an important way to heal from grief after loss. Eating nourishing meals, getting movement in your day, and sleeping well at night can give you the energy you need to work through your grief reactions. Getting back into regular routines can also help you integrate back into daily life and provide structure. Some people find it helpful to write in a grief journal or to read books or articles about grief to find a better understanding of what they’re going through.
How can I support a loved one through grief and loss?
To be a good support system for a loved one going through grief after a loss, it’s important to pay close attention to their cues. They might not be able to verbalize what they need from their support system, so giving them options and watching their body language is a good way to make sure you give them space or offer your help appropriately.
If your loved one is ready to talk about how they’re feeling, it can be helpful to ask them open-ended questions and to avoid offering advice. A major goal of processing through grief is to find meaning out of the loss, which will likely take time and introspection. To give them this time and space to reflect, see if you can help them run errands or do chores around the house. However, if they ask you for space, it can make a lot of difference for them if you respect their wishes.
How do I find a grief therapist near me?
You can find a grief therapist near you by using a therapist directory like Zencare. While there are many ways to heal after loss, working with an experienced grief counselor or therapist can help you to process the heavy emotions that come with loss. Grief counselors are trained to help people find meaning out of their grief or work through any of the complex emotions that may arise for them. They can also offer effective strategies for coping with grief, or help clients identify their grief triggers. On Zencare’s therapist directory, you can find a grief therapist or a grief counselor near you by entering your location, then using the Specialty filter and selecting “loss, grief, and bereavement.”
Additional Grief and Loss Resources
Grief Resources for Children
- Grief Creature — Dougy Center
- Video Resources — Children’s Bereavement Center
- Grief Video — Sesame Workshop
Grief Resources for Teens and Adolescents
- Teen Grief Journal — National Alliance for Children’s Grief
- Talking with Children — The Coalition for Grieving Students
- How Can I Help My Grieving Child/Teen? — The Children’s Room
Grief Resources for Adults
- LGBTQ+ Grief: Support & Resources — Eluna Network
- Grief and Mourning Basics — Center for Loss and Life Transition
- We Need Not Walk Alone Online Magazine — The Compassionate Friends
- Great Grief Podcast — NPR