Understanding What Grief Is And Ways To Cope

Medically reviewed by Elizabeth Erban, LMFT, IMH-E
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Are you struggling with understanding grief or feeling overwhelmed by a sense of loss? Grief can be a natural response to loss. It may be caused by the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or any other major life change. No matter what has happened, it can be helpful to understand that experiencing grief is often expected, and there may be ways for you to cope with it. 

Has a recent loss been overwhelming for you?

What is grief?

The American Psychological Association defines grief as the "anguish experienced after significant loss." Grief can come in many forms, including shock, sadness, anger, and even relief. You may even, in some cases, feel guilty. However, experiencing a range of emotions when dealing with difficult events can be essential to the healing process.

Grief is categorized into two main types: acute and persistent. The acute phase of grief lasts six to twelve months after a loss and may gradually fade away. Some, however, experience grief that continues beyond a year. This is known as persistent grief. 

Thinking about grief as a defensive process your body uses to cope with the changes surrounding it can help manage the emotions that come with it. Your body is attempting to make sense of what has happened, which may be necessary for your healing journey.

Grief is an emotion that can affect everyone differently, with no two instances typically being the same. Many factors can influence your individual experience, and your grief may manifest in a number of ways. For example, you may feel overwhelmed, numb, or exhausted. You may also experience physical reactions such as changes in appetite or difficulty sleeping. In some cases it's possible to struggle with the use of a substance during this time (which can be referred to as substance use disorder, not “substance abuse.”)  It can be beneficial to remember that it's okay to feel whatever emotions come up during this time, and they do not need to be suppressed but acknowledged.

Kübler-Ross stage theory of grief

In the 1960s, Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross proposed her stage theory of grief. Through interviews with people who had experienced significant loss or terminal illness, she identified five stages of grief:

  1. Denial and isolation: Acknowledging the reality of what has happened can be challenging. You may want to avoid or deny this pain and thus isolate yourself from people who may understand your situation or who may offer support and kindness, choosing instead to entrench yourself in the mindset of disbelief. 
  2. Anger: As the idea of loss begins to sink in, you may become angry at those around you or the world in general for causing this pain. Anger may also be directed at yourself, so practicing self-compassion during these times can be helpful.
  3. Bargaining: As a form of coping, you may attempt to bargain with the world or a higher power to regain control. The bargaining stage may center around any unresolved feelings you have regarding your loss and could manifest as pleading for time or making promises of better behavior if something is returned (in some cases, a person who has died). 
  4. Depression: During this phase, feelings of sadness and regret may arise as you struggle with loneliness or emptiness. Depression can also lead to physical symptoms such as a lack of appetite or fatigue.
  5. Acceptance: The last stage is a time for healing and accepting what has happened. While it does not necessarily mean you are entirely free from grief, it can be the beginning of a new chapter in which you may find a sense of peace within yourself.

The Kubler-Ross model has been used to provide a framework for understanding how people cope with the pain of grief. However, despite popular belief, these stages are not intended to be interpreted as linear. The order in which they occur and how long they last can vary depending on the individual. You may experience some or all of these stages multiple times; the order and duration are not set in stone.

Each person can uniquely cope with grief and loss, and there is no right or wrong approach. But through understanding the stages of grief, it can be beneficial to recognize what you may be feeling and know what could lie ahead.

How grief impacts your body

When you experience loss, it can change everything about you, both mentally and physically. Your brain may perceive grief as emotional trauma. This trauma can trigger your fight or flight response, a defensive mechanism to help you survive difficult situations. When this response is activated, your body increases blood pressure and releases hormones such as cortisol to defend you.

Untreated and unresolved grief may lead to chronic stress. Stress and grief can manifest in physical and emotional issues, including:

  • Inflammation
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Intense feelings of anger or bitterness
  • Anxiety
  • Changes in appetite
  • Headaches or other physical pain
  • Feeling lost

It can be tough to cope with these changes, especially if it seems like there is no way out of the sadness. However, it's important to understand you can’t simply wish you had less grief, and you should not ignore your grief and its effects on your body. Taking steps towards healing and self-care can help you manage the challenging emotions associated with loss.

What can you do to cope with grief

Grief can be a difficult and complex emotion to manage, but there are steps you can take to help yourself navigate the process. Keep in mind that the healing process is different for many people, and there is no one “normal” or "right" way to grieve.

Here are some ways to cope with grief:

  • Reach out to a support system. Talking about your feelings and experiences may help you process the emotions that come with loss. One good way to do this is through local or national organizations and support groups. Remember that it's okay to cry or express yourself in whatever feels most natural.
  • Move your body. Exercise releases endorphins, hormones that can make us feel better and reduce stress. Taking a walk or doing some yoga can be therapeutic and help to focus your thoughts.
  • Allow yourself time to heal. Remember that healing isn't linear, and it's okay if progress is slow. Giving yourself the space and time to feel your emotions can be a powerful part of the process.
  • Connect with friends and family. It may be helpful to reach out to family members or close friends in your time of grief as a way to get further emotional support. 
  • Take care of yourself. Getting enough rest, eating nutritious meals, and engaging in self-care activities like taking a bath or reading a book can help you cope with grief. Through self-care, you can nourish your mind and body.

Dealing with grief isn't always easy, but it can be manageable with time and a few coping strategies. Our experiences are unique, so take the time to do what works for you and give yourself permission to heal.

Finding the good in grief

Grieving can be a way of connecting with people or loved ones who are no longer here — it can help us remember the good times we had together while appreciating the life they lived. It can also be an opportunity to learn and grow, as it can sometimes help us understand how our emotions work and how we can better care for ourselves in times of hardship, whether we are grieving people who died or grieving life changes.

Healthy grieving can also lead to self-discovery and personal growth. It can be a way of reflecting on our relationships and how we want to live our own lives in the future. It's important to remember that grief is not something to be "fixed" but rather something we can work through over time.

Harnessing grief's potential to transform your life may be difficult, but it can be possible with patience and an understanding of your own needs. With a little effort and some self-reflection, you can use the experience to look within, learn more about yourself, and make positive changes in your life.

If you find it challenging to cope with your emotions and it is becoming worse over time, consider seeking the help of therapy or grief counseling. A trained therapist can provide guidance and answer questions you may have to make the grieving process easier to manage and prevent it from becoming complicated grief. Online therapy has many benefits that can help you cope with your loss in a safe, and secret space.

From the comfort of your home, an online therapist can work with you to find healthy ways to manage your grief and heal from within. Taking this step is an act of self-care that can provide you with valuable tools, help you find support, and set you on the path to healing.

A 2021 study assessed online therapy's effectiveness compared to in-person treatment. Results concluded that online mental health services are a safe and efficient approach to managing symptoms of grief and bereavement. Further, online intervention offers several advantages over other forms of treatment, including greater mental health care.

For those who need more alone time in their healing, online therapy offers a unique opportunity to manage grief personally. With the help of an online therapist, you can take the time to explore and process your emotions. A typical session can take place almost anywhere you consider comfortable and safe (provided the location has reliable internet so you can stay connected.)

Has a recent loss been overwhelming for you?

Takeaway

Grief can involve a vast and complex range of emotions, but it's not something you need to fix or rush through. There is no right or wrong way to work through grief, and taking your time is okay.

Understanding how grief presents itself and how to cope with it can help you find peace and healing. If you're feeling overwhelmed by grief, don't be afraid to reach out for help. The journey of healing is not one that you have to take alone.

With the right support, learning how to cope with loss and find peace within yourself is possible. Online therapy can be a valuable tool to help you in this journey. As an act of self-care, consider reaching out to a mental health professional who can provide you with professional, unbiased guidance and support to make positive changes in your life.

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