What Is Grief? Here’s How Professionals Define It

With so many people afflicted by the COVID pandemic, grief and the grieving process are currently receiving a great deal of attention. What is grief, what are its symptoms, and how long does it last? Here, experts discuss what to expect from the grieving process and offer strategies to help you endure it.

What is grief?

Following a loss, grief follows. “It’s a response; it’s an internal expression of loss,” Kathryn Smerling, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City, tells Health. “Mourning is the external expression of loss.”

Grieving can be an uncomfortable and difficult process, but it is natural and serves an essential function.

Elizabeth G. Loran, Ph.D., assistant professor of medical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells Health, “Grief allows for an emotional processing of the significance of what has been lost and the reintegration of the meaning that the lost loved one has produced.”

Loran argues that grieving shouldn’t be a solitary endeavor because humans require close relationships. She explains that connecting with others through funerals and other ceremonies of remembrance, which typically involve friends, extended family, and the larger community, is part of the grieving process.

Why Does Grief Occur?

The death of a loved one is closely associated with the onset of grief. But people grieve for a variety of reasons. Loran says that any type of loss qualifies, including divorce, the death of a pet, the loss of a job, a medical injury, or a broken relationship.

Grief can also occur during a transition, such as a move to a new residence or a child’s first departure from the nest.

“I believe that many people felt grief during the pandemic,” Sterling says. This may be a result of the unprecedented way the year unfolded, with so many deaths and a sense of lost plans and altered futures.



Grief Signs And Symptoms

Grief can result in a variety of physical and emotional symptoms. “It can manifest as shock, sadness, tearfulness, depression, anger, or restlessness and difficulty concentrating, as well as changes in thoughts and worldviews,” explains Loran. During a period of mourning, it may be more difficult to carry out your usual daily responsibilities. “Thoughts about the loss may arise frequently and unpredictably, causing intense emotions,” she explains.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the physical manifestations of grief include headaches, weight changes, and GI issues. Pathways Home Health and Hospice notes that additional physical symptoms include fatigue, chest pains, and muscle tension.

Experts frequently reference Elizabeth Kübler-seminal Ross’s paradigm on grief, which divides the grieving process into five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. In this framework, the progression from one stage to the next is not necessarily linear.

Keep in mind that there is no “correct” way to grieve, though this model is helpful. “Some people will grieve quietly, while others may be rendered temporarily incapable of functioning,” says Loran. Loran observes that the experience can be transformative, altering your perception of what is significant in life.

How Long Does Grief Last?

Regarding grief, there is no set timeline. “Some people take a long time to recover, while others recover more quickly,” says Smerling.

Grief can sometimes be delayed. Many people experience grief in waves; they feel it but are unable to cope at the moment, so it is pushed into the recesses of their minds, as Smerling explains. She says that after months have passed, well after the shock and denial of the loss, they will begin to experience grief.

Loran states that acute and intense grief can last months or years. She notes that there is not necessarily an end date for experiencing some form of grief. In other words, if a significant person in your life dies, you will grieve for the remainder of your life. However, the intensity of the grieving experience will typically diminish over time.

But take heart: “The experience of this grief will change and become more manageable and a part of the person who is processing this loss,” says Loran.


How to Deal With Grief?

Grief will eventually subside, but a person may continue to struggle with moving forward and managing work, life, and day-to-day tasks. These techniques can facilitate the process:

1. Get help

Grief counseling will assist you in processing your emotions and thoughts. You can also seek assistance from support groups, mental health professionals, religious institutions, and spiritual practices.

2. Communicate with others

“Human beings do not grieve well alone,” Loran notes. Those who are grieving should seek out others with whom they can discuss and process their loss.

3. Participate in grieving rituals

“Funerals and memorials facilitate emotional processing and the release of grief-related feelings,” says Loran. She notes that these events are for the living, not the deceased.

4. Feel your feelings

Your emotions may be intense, but resist the urge to avoid thinking about your lost loved one or what you have lost. Loran says that acknowledging these emotions will help you cope with the loss.

When To Seek Assistance

“Grief is a normal response to a loss,” says Loran. But for some people, grief can linger. Loran observes that they “may continue to feel a sense of disbelief and shock at the loss as if it occurred yesterday.” She says that therapy can help someone make sense of their loss if they are experiencing this kind of complicated or persistent grief.

The American Cancer Society recommends seeking assistance if any of the following occur: substance abuse, suicidal thoughts or conversations, persistent physical symptoms, and lack of regular personal hygiene.

Loran notes that at any stage of the grieving process, professionals can assist with loss processing.


How to Comfort a Bereaved Loved One

Smerling says that the most important thing you can do is to listen and be compassionate. She suggests checking in via text message, inviting the grieving person for walks, and ensuring they have access to support.

According to Loran, you can also start a conversation by asking about the deceased and eliciting reminiscences.

Do not hesitate to offer practical assistance, such as delivering food, assisting with child or pet care, making necessary phone calls, etc. When a person is too upset to cook or is struggling with daily responsibilities, these small acts of kindness can be of great assistance.

“Consider the grieving individual’s characteristics and adapt your response accordingly,” says Smerling.

  • How has your experience with grief shaped your perspective on life and loss?

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